Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
European horror pretty much disappeared from American screens in the early seventies, as their
content became more adult. Horror in the U.S. was kiddie matinee fare, and A.I.P. had to routinely
censor nudity from the newer Hammer films. When Continental fare turned even more erotic, most
couldn't find American distributors, or screened in ridiculously bowdlerized versions. The DVD
revolution of six years ago launched a number of small companies that specialized in rounding
up un-aligned product. This created a horror boom as clever importers tracked down uncut
original versions of a genre wave unseen in the States.
Now, almost the entire filmographies of Mario Bava and Dario Argento are represented on DVD, and,
although there are plenty of bonafide classic Eurohorrors still awaiting the nod
(The Horrible Dr. Hichcock,
Mill of the Stone Women, Eyes Without a Face), many arcane titles are
surfacing in definitive versions. An Italian oddity from 1973, Baba Yaga is a new addition.
Valentina Rossilli (Isabelle De Funès) is a Milan fashion photographer who
sleeps with Arno Treves (George Eastman), a hip commercial director. One night, she's contacted
in the street by a mysterious blonde aristocrat in a black limosine who calls herself Baba Yaga
(Carroll Baker). The self-avowed sorceress borrows a piece of Valentina's clothing and uses it
to make the photographer experience a number of bizarre erotic dreams. Then, a camera
Valentina uses appears to kill the subjects it photographs. And a little blonde doll dressed in
sadomasochistic leather appears to transform into a life-sized woman, to whip Valentina for
Baba Yaga's pleasure. Eventually Arno comes to rescue Valentina from Baba Yaga's haunted house.
Blue Underground's annotated presentation of Baba Yaga does more than justice to a so-so
film limited by its maker's own stylistic ideas. In an excellent interview, director Corrado Farina
explains his obsession with the erotic comic strips of Guido Crepax, and his attempt to meld them
into the film medium. Baba Yaga is taken from one of Crepax's works, and very literally
copies compositions and graphics from the printed page.
Essentially, it's nothing different than what English directors had done in the middle 60s, with
the fractured editing of films like
The Knack. Dynamic comics like those of
Crepax freeze action into little chosen panels, and vary the size and position of the panels
to approximate a movie experience. In the Crepax-Farina view, a series of small images in a
comic represents a series of short cuts in a film. This is okay but rather academic when put into
action on film: Farina's erotic sequences quick-cut static overexposed images, but don't remind
us of the comics as much as they do the cutting of 'mod' television commercials, which
were already obsolete in 1973.
Farina discounts previous attempts at a comic strip sensibility, namely Barbarella and
Diabolik. The Bava film is
actually much more successful than Baba Yaga because it moves. The graphic
posturing in Baba Yaga tends to be static. The film hasn't much story, and
even that is broken up by visual sequences that tend toward various kinds of erotic and
sadistic clichés - Nazis stripping a passive heroine, the heroine leading a firing
squad against another female, etc. The special sequences are never more than decorative,
generic SM material, even when they relate to events in the film's 'reality.'
Baba Yaga has some very strong aspects. The photography is beautiful, and the main actress
De Funès has stunningly interesting eyes (she's the daughter of a famous French comedian).
The settings and set dressings are well-judged, even if the glossy comic-strip world of sleek
apartments doesn't hang together.
Hardy's The Encyclopedia of Horror, once a reference bible, is slowly becoming outdated as
we finally get to see the films first read about in its pages. The entry on Baba Yaga is
fairly accurate, but the photo of one of Valentina's erotic fashion shoots (they go by very quickly
in the film) mistakenly misidentifies the nude model as Carroll Baker. This is one of Baker's hot
continental films, and both she and De Funès shot full frontal nudity that was trimmed from
release prints (but dutifully presented here as an extra for the genre horn-dogs). Baker's presence is
okay, but nothing overwhelming.
The overall impression of Baba Yaga is an emphasis on pictorialism over the erotic, and a
lack of attention to story detail. Valentina's associates
are promiscuous, trendy, affluent counterculture types who pay lip service to revolution in
empty speeches about the worthlessness of commercial assignments, etc. But they're all resolutely
hetero, including the white female model who propositions the black male model after a particularly
dull photo session. The original mythic Baba Yaga is a Russian witch character, an evil old
crone. This Baba Yaga is just a phantom lesbian necromancer who weaves spells around her object of
Evil=witchcraft=lesbianism. In this context, the evil witchery is firmly associated with lesbianism, and condemned out of hand.
Baba Yaga has her day but is dispatched back to hell (literally falling through the floor). It's
probably unconscious, but the filmmakers endorse a very conservative agenda - Farina seems a
fairly serious artist, but he's not very liberated. His attempt at showing a supposedly trendy
TV commercial - where a white hero turns a black villain into powder to represent the potency of a
new detergent - is just lame.
As mentioned before, Isabelle De Funès is riveting to watch. George
Eastman (Cani arrabiati) is just okay, and Carroll Baker is borderline miscast -
her sorceress doesn't have much to offer in the way of menace or gravity - she's just too obvious.
The enchanted bondage doll-turned-human (Daniela Balzaretti?) strikes a nice note of artificiality -
she reminds of Hugh Hefner's masturbatory fantasy from Playboy, the Femlin.
Blue Underground's disc of Baba Yaga is attractive and loaded with appropriate extras
that make an obscure film more understandable. Packaging, menus, design and layout are all first-rate.
The enhanced transfer must be from prime elements, as it looks brand-new. The lounge-jazz score
by Piero Umilani is well served on the track. Besides the deleted scenes
mentioned above, there is a poster and still gallery, a DVD-Rom comic to film comparison, and a
trailer in perfect condition.
The movie is presented only in English, but the actor's lips often match the
dialogue perfectly, so it's difficult to decide if it was premiered this way. There are two docus.
Farina and Valentina is a thorough interview with the director, and Freud in Color is
a dated but interesting piece on Guido Crepax that goes to great lengths to equate the
ex-architect's comics with filmmaking.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Baba Yaga rates:
Supplements: Two docus, deleted scenes, film-comic comparisons, trailer, stills and posters
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 29, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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