The Best Of Bava: Italian Master Of Horror

GEORGE PACHECO, Movie and Music Journalist for The Examiner

Director Mario Bava with one
of his Black Sabbath stars.


As one of the horror genre’s most revered forefathers, Italy’s Mario Bava almost single-handedly set the bar back in the day when it came to cinema thrills ‘n chills. Although Bava was known for the style and grace with which he approached his sometimes beautifully grotesque scenes of terror, he was also a frontrunner when it came to extremity within the horror genre, arguably setting the slasher template for the 1980s early with his 1971 bloodbath, Twitch of the Death Nerve.

Death Nerve — also known as Carnage, Chain Reaction and Bay of Blood — would end up being only one of many Bava features that changed the scary movie landscape. Before anyone did anything, Bava did everything, so why not — during this very appropriate Halloween season — take a moment to revisit five of the Italian maestro’s most significant cinematic achievements!


1.     BLACK SUNDAY a.k.a. The Mask of Satan (1960) — A masterfully shot and surprisingly suspenseful masterpiece from Bava, this film launched England’s Barbara Steele as one of horror’s classic old school grand dames. She plays a vampiric witch, burned at the stake by her brother, who swears to return from the grave to wreak Satanic vengeance upon her entire bloodline. This movie is rich with atmosphere, and it’s an early example of Bava’s complete control over cinematic dread and suspense.

2.     BLACK SABBATH (1963) — Beyond inspiring heavy metal’s greatest band, this early camp classic was another great example of how Mario Bava set horror’s learning curve quite high.  Hosted by an over-the-hill yet endearingly comic and over-the-top Boris Karloff, Sabbath explored the idea of a horror anthology way before Creepshow or Tales From the Crypt. These three terror tales serve as some of the most evocative and stylish examples of early Bava. From murderous lesbian love triangles to ancient vampires and undead neighbors, Black Sabbath has it all. Make sure you seek out the original Italian version as there are major plot and subtext differences between it and the American release.

3.      TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (1971) — Easily one of Bava’s bloodiest and most gruesome outings, Twitch of the Death Nerve should be mentioned in the same breath as John Carpenter’s Halloween when it comes to relentlessly influential ’70s horror. A family inheritance proves deadly to everyone involved, especially when every character here is gleefully willing to eliminate anything or anyone who stands in their way. The extremely bloody sequence below — especially so for the time period — was a particular inspiration for the Friday the 13th series, and it displays how brutal Bava could be when pushed to the furthest limits of the macabre.

4.     THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH a.k.a. The Evil Eye (1963) — A comparatively light-hearted affair, this film is more of a romp for Bava, despite the fact it spearheaded the giallo genre which Italian directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci perfected in the ’70s and ’80s. It is the suspenseful story of a woman who is obsessed by classic murder mysteries and finds herself embroiled in a bloody whodunnit after witnessing a murder of her own. This one features a complex plot, merciless, brutal kills and numerous red herrings, and it earns special bonus points for featuring the inimitable and stylish John Saxon!

5.     LISA AND THE DEVIL or House of Exorcism (1973) — This film has a strong case of split personality thanks to a butchered American version. The original Lisa and the Devil works as a classier feature of suspense, without the over-the-top, thrown together feel of House of Exorcism, which features a completely different plot, utilizing only a bare minimum of Bava’s original story. For years, however, House Of Exorcism was the only available cut in the U.S., so it developed it’s own, unique cult following. Lisa and the Devil is a surrealistic nightmare vision of a young woman (Elke Summer), separated from her Toledo tour group, who finds herself trapped in a shambled mansion with a merciless killer and an Italian butler named Leandro (played by Kojak‘s Telly Savalas), who may or may not be a devil in the flesh. In House of Exorcism, Savalas actually is The Devil and takes possession of Summer within this alternate cut. With new footage filmed to capitalize on the success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Exorcism features more nudity, profanity and general demonic miscreancy than Bava’s original Lisa and the Devil.

The following clip might not even count as a “traditional” Bava moment, but it deserves mentioning nonetheless. Hardcore Bava devotees are sharply divided on this sequence — the footage below wasn’t even included in Bava’s original script and was shot separately — with many reviling the American version’s totally revamped plotlines. This scene is supremely entertaining, however, and portrays a fairly realistic approximation of demonic possession. That being said, those who wish to stay true to Mario Bava’s original vision had best seek out the original director’s cut, which has now resurfaced in box sets and single DVD.

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