Part of what I love so much about Blue Underground is how wildly unpredictable their release slate can be. It seems like for every genre classic they issue on Blu-ray -- say, Fulci's Zombie, Argento's
You might not know it by skimming the plot summary on the flipside of the case, but Baba Yaga is very much one of those wildcard releases that Blue Underground pulls out every few months. Stripped down to bare metal, its premise certainly sounds like something aimed squarely at the usual horror crowd: a cadaverous witch named Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker) uses her dark powers to bring a pretty young photographer (Isabelle De Funès) under her thrall. Baba Yaga doesn't allow itself to be defined by those genre elements, though, with little blood, no gore, and nothing resembling a scare along the way. This is a methodically paced film with achingly beautiful photography and the surreal, psychedelic imagery of a fever dream. At the same time, there's also a staggering amount of nudity and more than its fair share of S&M. A head-on collision of '70s arthouse and Cinemax After Dark sleaze, Baba Yaga is a fascinatingly difficult movie to pin down. I don't even know how to put together any sort of coherent plot summary. I mean, there's a camera that's hexed into an unpredictably destructive force, a cursed totem of a
By far the best thing about Baba Yaga is its visual flair. Its compositions are exceptionally artful, and there are so many moments when I felt as if I could pause the movie, wrap a frame around it, and hang it on the wall. The film is adapted from Guido Crepax' erotic comic "Valentina", and Baba Yaga takes care to evoke the look and feel of a comic strip at times. I've seen a bit of fumetti in print, but I've never seen that format translated to film like this before. Baba Yaga's most surreal stretches easily rank as my favorite, especially the way the film toys with what's real and what's a waking dream, with the distinction between the two becoming increasingly blurred as the film marches on.
I just wish there were more of that. The story in Baba Yaga is so threadbare and borderline-incoherent that there's not much of a narrative hook to draw me in. Rather than deftly weaving in its political commentary, the movie seems content to just explictly yap about it at length. As entrancing a creature as Isabelle De Funès is, Valentina comes across more as someone that things happen to rather than a character of any real dimension. The overbearing love interest played by George Eastman is mostly dead air and seems to be more of a distraction than anything else. Carroll Baker makes little of an impression, and though the premise deliberately keeps Yaga at a distance much of the time, she still feels too far removed from everything that's going on. As entranced as I am by its visuals, little else about Baba Yaga leaves that same sort of an impact. I can't honestly say that I like Baba Yaga, and yet there's something so distinctive and different about it that I'm still glad I took the time to watch it. Not easily recommended but still worth a look if you're feeling adventurous. Rent It.
If you're reading a review of a movie as obscure as Baba Yaga, then chances are you already know about the way Blue Underground's releases of Italian films tend to look on Blu-ray. The same as ever, there's a thin
Definition and detail are both reasonably strong throughout Baba Yaga, standing out as particularly dazzling whenever the camera's closed in tightly. The photography somewhat frequently can get soft and diffused, and although that's a deliberate visual choice, it does mean that there's a ceiling as to how crisp a movie like this is going to look in high definition. Its palette is impressively robust, and black levels remain consistently deep and inky. There really isn't anything in the way of wear or damage to speak of either. I don't have Blue Underground's DVD handy to do a direct comparison, but the excerpts in the extras are bogged down by very heavy edge enhancement, and that's not even a little bit of a concern on this Blu-ray disc. I'm sure your reaction will vary depending on how sensitive you are to the appearance of the films that LVR has handled for Blue Underground, but for whatever my vote's worth, I didn't find those issues particularly distracting this time around. I think there's still room for improvement, but overall, I'm happy enough with the way Baba Yaga looks on Blu-ray.
Somewhat strangely, Baba Yaya is windowboxed -- meaning there are black bars on all four sides of the screen -- despite its very conventional aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The bitrate of its AVC encode is fairly modest, although Baba Yaga doesn't seem to suffer for it. The film and its extras all fit comfortably onto a single-layer Blu-ray disc.
Baba Yaga features a pair of two-channel mono soundtracks, both presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. The English and Italian tracks are very comparable in quality, with the mild hiss just a bit more pronounced in the Italian version. Personally, I find the line readings in English to be clunkier than the Italian version, but seeing as how Baba Yaga was shot wild and both languages were ultimately recorded in post-production, neither track is any more valid than the other. The fidelity is passable. Frequency response is very limited, and the recording overall is thin and flat. Even throughout those few moments where things are supposed to be intense, such as Valentina darting out into the road to save a dog from Yaga's speeding car, the audio remains limp and lifeless. The dialogue in both English and Italian comes across as sibilant and dated. It's completely listenable, though, and very likely just the best that could be done with the elements available.
There are two English subtitle streams as well: one captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing and the other translating the Italian track. It's appreciated that it looks to be a proper translation rather than limiting viewers to dubtitles. Also included are subtitles in French and Spanish.
All of the official extras from Blue Underground's DVD release from 2003 have found their way onto this Blu-ray disc. An Easter Egg on that DVD didn't get carried over as far as I can tell, though, so completists may still want to hold onto that earlier release.
The Final Word
Well, I'll give it this: Baba Yaga doesn't play like a movie I've seen a couple hundred times before. It's strange and beautiful, like some sort of waking dream. On the other hand, Baba Yaga plods along at a somewhat sluggish pace, there's no real narrative hook, and I couldn't have cared any less about anything that was going on if I'd clenched my fists and tried really, really hard. Baba Yaga is ultimately a failure, but at least it's an interesting, unique, and visually artful failure. Rent It.