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Baba Yaga

Blue Underground // Unrated // February 28, 2012 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 11, 2012 | E-mail the Author
"Now look -- you meet an old lesbian, huh? And a friend of yours gets a headache. All of a sudden, it's sorcery and witches!"

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
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Deep Red, or Romero's The Crazies -- something completely unexpected will quickly follow. There'll be a run of slashers and gutmunchers for a few months, and out of nowhere comes an artful period drama like My Brilliant Career or something as fiercely challenging as Quiet Days in Clichy. While the major studios are content to play it safe and cautious, Blue Underground doesn't pander and isn't mindlessly cycling through the label's biggest successes to ring a few more bucks out of 'em. They're out to make Blu-ray a more interesting place to be, and the format's definitely a lot better for it too.

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
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porcelain doll in studded leather straps, a parade of topless photo shoots in Valentina's ritzy studio, and heavy lesbian and sadomasochistic undercurrents. Every once in a while, Baba Yaga abruptly cuts to something like a sapphic-tinged boxing match, Nazis dragging a half-naked Valentina around some sort of cave, or a Dick Tracy-style chase where the badnik gangster dissolves into black sand after being pelted with a bucketful of laundry detergent. So much of it's subdued, yet so much of it's insane.

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
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veil of video noise floating above the rest of the image. It's the sort of thing that grated on my nerves for a few months there, but either I've mellowed out about that whole thing or those issues are less pronounced now than they used to be. The noise is immediately noticeable in screenshots and when I'd pause Baba Yaga, but in motion, it's tolerable. There are some moments that still look uncomfortably off to my eyes -- particularly some of the softer shots where the overlaying noise is still crisply defined -- but it's nothing I can't deal with.

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.
  • Deleted and Censored Scenes (10 min.; SD): Although Blue Underground has presented Baba Yaga in its censored theatrical cut rather
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    than The Final Cut that Shameless issued a few years back across the pond, that footage -- and then some -- is still on this Blu-ray disc in some form. This includes a trippy prologue in a graveyard, extended versions of some of Valentina's dreamlike fantasies, and full-frontal nudity from both Carroll Baker and Isabelle De Funès. The quality is very rough and clearly sourced from low-res video.

  • Farina and Valentina (22 min.; SD): Blue Underground's interview with co-writer/director Corrado Farina is startlingly thorough, delving in detail into what fascinated him about the original "Valentina" comic strip, his friendship with its creator Guido Crepax, and how this adaptation came about. The visual approach to an already-cinematic comic, the psychological bent to this story, the unfortunate re-editing and censorship that too-quickly followed, and a lack of financial success thanks to a distributor in decline are among some of the other topics that Farina addresses here. Perhaps of the most interest, though, is a very detailed discussion about the casting behind Baba Yaga, such as how Farina wasn't able to get the actresses he originally wanted in the leads and how one actress who had been cast dropped out just three short days before cameras were set to roll. This is a terrific interview and well-worth setting aside the time to watch.

  • Freud in Color (12 min.; SD): This brief documentary on the work of Guido Crepax begins by charting the popularity of the comic strip as a medium in Italy, then exploring the adult and visually cinematic approach to Crepax' strips that set his comics apart from the rest of the lot at the time. I'm not sure what year "Freud in Color" was made, exactly, but I love its approach, told entirely through vintage comic art as well as a few short clips of Crepax' work with Tinto Brass.

  • Comic Book-to-Film Comparison: This handful of comic book pages mixes in Guido Crepax' artwork with black-and-white stills from Baba Yaga, fumetti-style.

  • Poster and Still Gallery: Baba Yaga's image gallery features several posters, four pieces of box art from various home video releases, and just shy of fifty production and promotional stills.

  • Trailer (4 min.; HD): The last of the extras is a three and a half minute theatrical trailer.

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.
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