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Five Dolls for an August Moon

Kino // Unrated // September 3, 2013
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 28, 2013 | E-mail the Author
You know that synthetic resin you've been toying around with but have never gotten around to finishing...? Professor Farrell
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(William Berger) beat you to the punch. Decades ahead of the curve, Farrell's discovery is worth untold millions. In fact, he's been invited to an island getaway by a small army of wealthy industrialists, each with an impossibly gorgeous wife and seven-figure check in tow. They schmooze. They seduce. They do whatever it takes to get their manicured little hands on Farrell's formula. It's a wasted effort. Still reeling from the death of his partner in the final stages of the experiments, Farrell announces that he'll be freely revealing his secrets to the scientific community at a conference in a few short days.

The first of many murders follows within a matter of minutes. The killer is among them, and there's no chance of escape...

This riff on "Ten Little Indians" by screenwriter Mario di Nardo and legendary genre director Mario Bava is all over the place: sometimes in the best possible way and far more often not so much. Bava reportedly considered Five Dolls for an August Moon to be one of his absolute worst films, and it's not altogether difficult to see why this film from the class of 1970 went unreleased on these shores for three full decades. As staggeringly high as the body count is, just about every last kill in this proto-slasher takes place off-screen. There's not even any attempt at suspense. No chases, no stalk and slash, no looming sense of dread: every once in a while, a corpse is discovered with a knife lodged in his chest or with a bullet wound with a tiny dribble of blood on her forehead. The industrialists are just about completely interchangeable, and a couple of them aren't even given names until the final moments of the film. The women around them make a far greater impression -- with such drop-dead gorgeous beauties on the bill as Edwige Fenech and Ira von Fürstenberg, how could they not? -- but don't expect much more in the way of personality than "greedy" or "horny".

Even with a lean runtime of 80 minutes or so, the middle stretch of Five Dolls for an August Moon can be a slog to wade through. The movie's so entrancingly strange at first that it immediately seized a chokehold on my attention, and I couldn't help but cackle at how the money-
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grubbing industrialists for a while there couldn't care less that there's a murderer in their midst. ("Houseboys come and go, but there's always a bottle.") Near the end when the movie lobs out one deliriously insane plot twist after another, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. In between, though...? It's mostly just bland, wholly uninteresting people leisurely walking around, doing bland, wholly uninteresting things and suffering the occasional fatal bout of offscreenmurderitis. Five Dolls for an August Moon has so little logic or narrative coherence sputtering away under the hood that you can't rightly even call this a mystery.

On the upside, this is still a Mario Bava film, and Five Dolls for an August Moon benefits immensely from his unparalleled cinematic eye. The production design is still astonishing despite a meager budget and limited prep time, and the unconventional choices of lenses, striking use of color, and off-kilter camera movements ensure that the film is at least interesting visually. When Five Dolls for an August Moon is at its most deliriously insane, it's a blast to watch the dementia unfold. This is a movie where its characters kind of shrug and fill a meat locker with the corpses of their friends, after all. Its smirkingly dark sense of humor ranks behind only Bava's direction as the best thing about the film.

If nothing else, Five Dolls for an August Moon gave Bava the chance to experiment and further sharpen the gleaming edge of his giallo straight razor; the following year's wildly influential and very aptly-titled A Bay of Blood would later be ripped off wholesale by the Friday the 13th franchise and basically spawn an entire subgenre of horror. This understandably unseen obscurity, though...? Five Dolls for an August Moon is sloppy, strange, and sporadically fun. It's difficult to recommend to a casual viewer sight-unseen, but I can't imagine that Kino is targeting this disc towards anyone but Bava completists anyway. You almost certainly had your mind made up before you ever clicked on this review, so let's just say Recommended and move on.

There is very little I could tell you about this presentation of Five Dolls for an August Moon that this single screenshot couldn't...and faster and more effectively to boot:
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I'm astonished by how crisp and immaculately detailed this remaster is. Contrast remains impressively robust throughout, and its colors are often eye-popping. There isn't much in the way of speckling, and anomalies like the vertical line as Edwige Fenech darts terrified across a beach are easy enough to deal with. I'm very glad to see that a fine, gritty texture has been retained, not suffering from any signs of overzealous noise reduction. There were times when it felt as if the grain was floating over the image rather than an integral part of it, but it wasn't a constant nuisance, and I'm having such a hard time reproducing that effect on my PC that it scarcely warrants a mention. This is a very skillfully authored disc as well, bringing out the best of a very pure presentation. Spectacular work all around.

BD-25. 1.85:1. AVC.

As is usually the case with Italian genre films from this era, there really isn't an original language soundtrack. Part of me's disappointed that the Italian track from the Image DVD didn't find its way on here, but the English recording -- offered here in uncompressed two-channel mono -- is every bit as valid.

By and large, this is a remarkable presentation as well. I can't get over how clean and clear the dialogue is, in that sense easily ranking among the best sounding genre films of this vintage. Some light-to-moderate crackling is audible but generally doesn't intrude too heavily. The weight of that background noise can vary from sequence to sequence, and that variability is generally more distracting than the noise itself. There are a few moments when the audio really struggles, and something clearly went horribly awry a little past the halfway point in Five Dolls for an August Moon, beginning with the investigation of a corpse on the beach and continuing after they return to the house. Some of the music at the very end sounds surprisingly thin and distorted, although that's generally
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not a problem with the sort of overcaffeinated electric organ score that'd make Barry Andrews seethe with jealousy. Imperfect but frequently impressive.

There are no subtitles or alternate language tracks. The isolated score/effects track from the Image DVD didn't find its way onto this Blu-ray disc either.

  • Audio Commentary: The featured extra on this Blu-ray disc is a commentary track by Tim Lucas, the editor of "Video Watchdog" and the author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. It's a scholarly, well-researched, and consistently engaging discussion from someone who admires Five Dolls for an August Moon more than Bava himself did. There are far too many highlights to possibly list here, but suffice it to say that Lucas approaches the film from every conceivable angle: how quickly this 'paycheck' project came together, its technical craftsmanship, such artistic flourishes as Five Dolls...' extensive use of the color blue, earlier films that it draws from and how it would impact Bava's subsequent work, and detailed backgrounds about the talent on both sides of the camera. This is an expectedly terrific commentary and an essential listen for anyone buying or renting this Blu-ray disc.

  • Trailers (14 min.; SD): The only other extras are standard-def trailers for Black Sunday, A Bay of Blood, Baron Blood, Lisa and the Devil, and The House of Exorcism. No trailer for Five Dolls for an August Moon has found its way on here.

The Final Word
Look, this is a Mario Bava proto-slasher loosely adapting "Ten Little Indians" with a generally half-naked Edwige Fenech jiggling her way through it all: you already know what your answer is. Recommended, but only for the sorts of Bava completists dilligent enough to have made it this far in the review.
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