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Italian director Mario Bava's attempt to join the 1970s wave of nihilistic crime thrillers should have been a surprise success, if legal problems hadn't left Cani arrabiati (Rabid Dogs) locked away by court order for over twenty years. The tale of ruthless criminals seems inspired by the sadistic excesses of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left and for some viewers will play as an exercise in gratuitous cruelty. Adopting an entirely new style, Bava beats the competition at its own game, with an ultra-cynical shocker that hides a perversely satisfying narrative stinger in its tail.
The movie takes place in broad daylight, in real time. Four vicious criminals rob the payroll of a pharmaceutical company, ruthlessly slaying employees and a hostage to insure their getaway. They then hijack a station wagon and force its occupants to drive them to safety. Hostage Riccardo (Riccardo Cucciola) complies because he's desperate to get his tiny son to a hospital -- the child is unconscious and feverish. Poor Maria (Lea Lander) attracts the crude advances and provocations of fugitives Trentadue (George Eastman) and Bisturi (Don Backy). Maria is taunted, mauled and humiliated, and gang leader Dottore (Maurice Poli) won't let Riccardo intervene. The crooks don't even promise to free their hostages, leaving Riccardo and Maria all too aware of their poor chances for survival.
Relaxed film censorship in Europe and America cued the rise of more explicit thrillers of all genres. By the time of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre stylish vampires were Out and homicidal maniacs were In. Perhaps wanting to distinguish himself from Italian disciples like Dario Argento, Mario Bava took two frustrating career turns. His creepy essay in necrophilia Lisa and the Devil tried to go the erotic-poetic route and could find no distributor. Producer Alfredo Leone eventually reworked it as the execrable House of Exorcism. Bava's next effort Cani arrabiati was a bold move into crime thriller territory. It was almost complete when creditors closed it down and a court seized all film elements. The legal obstacles were still in place when Mario Bava passed away in 1980. Only in 1997 did Bava's lost movie manage to make it to a belated video release.
Since that time the recovered film has been finished in several versions. It premiered on DVD as Rabid Dogs, a version that was essentially Bava's work print with a shot of a mysterious silhouetted woman added at the beginning. For another disc release, that opening was been replaced with a new graphic sequence bearing the title Semaforo rosso (Red Light Signal). Producer Alfredo Leone and Lamberto Bava subsequently filmed new connective scenes, added a terrible music score and re-edited another version with the generic title Kidnapped.
Despite the passage of thirty years of escalating screen violence, Rabid Dogs still maintains a disturbing edge. It unfolds in real time and (in its initial version) never cuts away from the getaway car full of unpredictably crude and violent thugs. The claustrophobic pressure of the situation -- five adults and one child crammed into a small Fiat on a hot day -- makes the killers even more combustible and erratic. In the back seat are dueling psychos. The giant Trentadue gleefully pursues his sexual appetites with Maria, and the murderous Bisturi has a horrible habit of stabbing people without warning. The terrorized hostages have little choice but to yield to their captors' twisted demands, especially with Riccardo's helpless, sleeping little boy along for the ride.
Writers Cesare Frugoni and Alessandro Parenzo place roadblocks and a fender-bender accident in the path of the fleeing car, but the real tension develops in the cramped back seat. Although never as disgustingly literal as The Last House on the Left, Bava's film isn't for viewers seeking light entertainment. The foul-mouthed Trentadue gropes poor Maria while Bisturi pokes her with his knife. After a useless escape attempt, the killers amuse themselves by forcing Maria to urinate in front of them; she spends most of the trip reduced to a quivering, sobbing mess. Throughout the ordeal, the helpless Riccardo must drive the car and try to stay calm. Just when we think the terror will end, Rabid Dogs kicks into a higher level of jeopardy, and forces us to reevaluate what we've seen from a new perspective.
Bava keeps this torture from becoming monotonous by constantly varying the camera angles in the speeding car. Taking up a new kind of technical challenge, the director mounted a car body on a speeding flatbed truck to get full filming flexibility. We soon forget about the presence of the camera. Perhaps Bava was inspired to better the advanced automobile camera mounts seen in Steven Spielberg's thriller The Sugarland Express? He certainly succeeds in making the car scenes (90% of the picture) completely convincing.
Rabid Dogs must be the most unlucky Italian movie of the 1970s, on par with Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man. Its most complete version was also lost, twice, and the shorter Kidnapped has been pushed at us as a 'preferred director's cut'. The original negative is lost as well.
Until now the best version available was a 2007 dual-version DVD from Anchor Bay. Kino Lorber's 2013 Blu-ray has a much-improved image, but carries only the disliked Kidnapped re-cut done under the aegis of Alfredo "House of Exorcism" Leone.
Arrow Video's Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD gives us Kidnapped but also the much-desired reconstruction of Rabid Dogs, the cut closest to the work print left by Mario Bava. With no negative trims to work from, the image quality frequently shifts in quality. The disc producers profoundly apologize for the film's patchwork appearance, an unnecessary gesture. Most of it is in fine shape and all of it looks good. We're just happy to have Rabid Dogs returned closer to its original form. We're also told that the subtitle translation is new as well.
Comparing the two versions of the movie, we finally understand why Kidnapped dropped the final car trunk shot that nails us with the uncompromised O'Henry twist ending - the 'clean' negative of the shot had been discarded after a video composite was made with superimposed titles. And Stelvio Cipriani's replacement score for the Kidnapped version couldn't be worse -- it sounds like elevator music. Bava may have scripted the newly filmed scenes away from the getaway car, but their inclusion nullifies the tension built up when we've been trapped in the car with Roberto and Maria. >/P>
Arrow's extras are quite good, a mix of new items and older features from the Anchor Bay DVDs. Tim Lucas' commentary is back, and although his delivery has improved since it was recorded it's still a very good listen. About five minutes in, he identifies Riccardo Cucciola as one of the stars of Giuliano Montaldo's Sacco and Vanzetti -- I know I'd seen that inoffensive, perpetually worried face before.
Alfredo Leone and Lamberto Bava are on hand for a making-of featurette End of the Road, with star and eventual film rescuer Lea Lander joining in. Leone comes off as thoughtful and dedicated to Bava's legacy. He and Lamberto Bava insist that the work print left when the film was impounded wasn't cut or paced as quickly as the director would have wanted. One almost wishes that the people involved would have left Rabid Dogs lie until there was enough money and expertise around to take proper care of it. What with Robert A. Harris already known throughout the world, restoration awareness in the middle '90s should have been strong enough to at least have saved the original negative from being lost.
Director Umberto Lenzi appears in a second interview documentary in which he describes the huge wave of '70s Italian crime films. He accounts for the busy genre boom with real crime events and the rise of mob violence -- imported from France, of course. Only mentioned in passing is the enormous success of Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, about a cop who breaks the law as he sees fit; I'd think that Harry Callahan's example was the impetus for the Italo genre surge. Rabid Dogs actually hasn't much to do with those police & mob mayhem pictures -- its gritty psychological terrors go in a different direction.
As a final extra we see the alternate video title sequence for Semaforo rosso. New writings on the film in Arrow's colorful souvenir book are by Stephen Thrower and also Peter Blumenstock, who describes how his company revived the moribund feature for Lea Lander. The original short story source Man and Boy by Peter Carroll is included as well. It's a great little miniature with a sting in its tail.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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