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.
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 desire, Valentina.
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: