Howard Paul Burgess
In my mis-spent youth, one of the genres of horror movies I enjoyed most was Italian horror. The earliest one I remember was the classic Black Sunday starring Barbara Steele. I was too young to pay attention to such things then, but I now appreciate the contribution of that film's director, Mario Bava.
Bava did more than his share to develop the art of giallo films. This genre, named for the yellow paper on which cheap thriller novels was printed, mixed the two most classic themes of the world's literature: sex and death. Mario Bava had been a cinematographer since 1939. His early training had been as a painter, and many critics feel that his art training helped give his films their distinctive look. He became a director almost by accident. The director of a gothic thriller called The Devil's Commandment had a dispute with the film's producers and walked off the set, leaving substantial parts of the film unfinished. Bava took over as director and finished the film on time and within the budget, and went on to direct a total of thirty-four films in numerous genres: westerns, horror, science fiction, comedies, sword and sandal epics, and crime melodramas.
And Bava's masterpiece in the horror genre is his 1971 film Bay of Blood. I've only seen it in the American version, dubbed and seeming rather short at about an hour and twenty-some minutes. But even in this form it still packs a wallop. Bay of Blood has had as many titles as some royal families. For no logical reason it was at one time called Last House on the Left Part Two, although it has no connection at all to that classic tale of retribution. More accurate was the title it carried when it was a staple of midnight showings: Twitch of the Death Nerve.
The plot is simplicity itself. Lots of people come to a resort area which is being developed on a bay. Some people have sex, some get naked in full view of the camera, and loads and loads of people are murdered, also in full view of the camera. Gore flows like champagne at a wedding reception.
There, that's easy enough.
Bay of Blood has been recognized as being a huge influence on the American genre of slasher films. As stated earlier, its profound influence on the Friday the Thirteenth film, especially the second one (directed by Steve Miner) is obvious to even the most casual viewer.
But there's a huge difference between this film and its American cousins. Many of the American slasher films remind you of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the old MGM musicals. Hey, kids, let's put on a show! We can use your grand-dad's barn!
And some look like something made over the weekend at someone's grandparents' farm. Crude lighting, unknown actors, and a rough look to the production.
Bay of Blood is the most elegantly produced of bloodbaths. Bava had a forty-one year career as a cinematographer and usually photographed the films he directed, as does the American director Peter Hyams. And the actors, while not megastars, are solid professionals with strong resumes. Leading actress Claudine Auger, a former Miss France, had been an international sensation playing Domino in the James Bond film Thunderball just a few years earlier: I remember pictures of her in her two-piece swim suit in Life Magazine which made quite an impression on my nineteen year old mind.
Bay of Blood would more properly be classified as a mystery than a horror film because there are no fantastic or supernatural elements to the story. Indeed, the whole string of events is motivated by plain old greed. Compare this to the original Friday the 13th, in which the carnage is motivated by a mother's twisted desire to avenge the death of her son many years ago. What we have in this film is based more upon Rod Steiger's classic observation from In the Heat of the Night that we have body which is dead and a motive which is money.
What we have here, though, is bodies. Plural. They just keep stacking up. And by the time the last corpses hit the ground there's, well, more about that later.
Bay of Blood opens with abstract patterns of light on water under the opening titles, followed by images of nature. The story gets under way, appropriately enough, on a dark and stormy night. Rain is pouring, and lightning flashes are seen through the curtained windows. An elegant older woman in a wheelchair pushes herself through a huge mansion. She looks out the window for a minute, then pauses to glance at her reflection in a mirror and turn out a table lamp. Seconds later she looks up in horror as an unseen figure throws a noose over her head and she strangles to death, her body suspended from the rope, her eyes wide open.
A man comes into the room- we later learn he is her husband. He's a well dressed 'lounge lizard' type and looks at his late wife's corpse with evident satisfaction and takes a piece of paper- a 'suicide note'- out of his pocket and places it on a table. He hears a noise outside and is briefly distracted, but soon prepares to dispose of her body. We see light reflecting on a blade and suddenly he is stabbed to death and his body dragged away.
So far, so good. Two characters have been introduced, and both have been quickly and efficiently killed off. It seems like this wouldn't be much work for the actors, but they get to do flashbacks so we'll see them again.
Cut to a couple chatting after an amorous encounter. The man, Frank Ventura, tells his secretary, Laura, that he's preparing to leave on a business trip to the Bay. Frank explains to her (and, more importantly, to us- this is known as exposition) that there have been no more clues in the death of the Countess, the woman from the first scene. More amazingly, because her husband has gone missing the police no longer consider him to be a suspect and have declared the woman's death a suicide.
Which does not speak at all well for the police in whatever town this is all happening in. A very wealthy woman is found dead and there's no sign of her husband. Okey dokey. No sign of the dude, not to worry. If this wasn't all legit, he wouldn't have run off. Call it suicide.
This story takes place in a rural setting and the police are only mentioned at a couple of points and never seen. Based upon what we've found out about them thus far, they aren't too much on the ball.
Back at the Bay, we meet some local characters. Simon is a fisherman/watchman who has a Big Secret. He's kind of hunky and wears knitted sweaters and jeans and would be nice looking if he ever smiled. But the first time we see him he's biting a live squid (we never find out why- quality control?) and he's very intense. Simon meets up with Paolo, who collects insects. They have a debate about the way that Paolo kills insects. Paolo counters that Simon kills the squid he catches. Yes, Simon concedes, but they are meant to be eaten.
Paolo and his wife are the hardest working characters in the whole narrative. First, they are comic relief with their constant bickering. But they are most valuable as providers of exposition. They catch us up on a wealth of information about events that had taken place before the story proper begins. Indeed, there's a scene in their living room that is structured as if it came from an Agatha Christie play. They are valuable mouthpieces for the authors to advance the plot and clarify relationships between characters and events. Finally, they serve as both potential suspects (at some point almost everyone comes under suspicion) and, later, as potential victims. These actors earned their paychecks, fer sure.
It turns out that Paolo has opinions about the development of the Bay as a tourist attraction. Very negative ones. Of Frank Ventura, he says "...he wants to transform the Bay into a sea of concrete, but I won't let him. If I..."He becomes passionate enough for us to think that, hmmmm, he could be doing the killing. He's already eccentric, and it's a short trip from that to psychotic. Hold that thought.
There's much talk about developing the Bay as a tourist attraction. Of course, we may question the wisdom of all this because it's an important plot point that earlier attempts to do so had failed. We see an abandoned gas station, an abandoned nightclub, and a swimming pool choked with algae.
So there's the question: if this didn't work as a tourist attraction before, why should it now?
But, of course, human behavior and logic aren't such close friends. The powers that be in Houston are trying to get an NFL team in town, despite the fact that the last one they had could empty the Astrodome faster than a fire alarm. People in coastal areas can't wait to rebuild in the same cursed spot after mudslides wipe out their whole neighborhood. And Tri-Star keeps threatening us with a sequel to last summer's appalling Godzilla. So maybe Bava is telling us something profound about the human condition, and didn't even know he was doing this.
What is important to a lot of characters, thought, is the effect that this development will have on the Bay. As we would say today, its environmental impact. One of the numerous titles this film has had was Ecology of a Murder. The early seventies were big for ecological themes. They mark these films in time the way that condom jokes did movies from a couple of years ago. The ultimate ecological statement was in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, which had Japanese hippies dancing on Mount Fuji in a show of support for clean air and water. Faced with competition like that, Bava wisely introduces the ecological concept and briskly moves on to something more interesting: nekkid people.
Very soon we see a yellow convertible with two young couples. We know that very soon these people will follow the cardinal rule of movies like this: Get Nekkid, Get Dead. In that order.
The couples drive up to the old resort- apparently
since abandoned- and discover that there's a nightclub with a dance
floor, a swimming pool with algae a foot thick, and rooms with nice
comfy beds. One of the girls is a very pretty blonde named Brunhilde.
A little heavy, but that's kind of touching. She's wearing a dark
green minidress in a fabric that looks like velvet, and has a black
ribbon in her hair. She wants to go swimming in the pool but is
reminded of the algae, so she risks pn
She pulls off her clothes and goes swimming. She comes back to the pier and finds the body of the Countess's husband. Worse yet, someone knows about her discovery. She barely gets her dress back on when she's running for her life.
However frightened she may be, she remembers the Primary Axiom for People Being Chased in Movies Like This: Run As Fast As You Can, but Every Few Yards Either Slow Down or Stop Completely to Look Over Your Shoulder.
Maybe if she'd been a virgin she could have gotten away from the killer and made it into the sequel, had there been one. Sometimes there's compensation for stupid virgins. But that skinny-dipping business just ties it.
Darn. She almost makes it back to the house, not that it would have done her much good to get there, when she's caught up with and a huge scythe takes a chunk out of her neck.
Inside, there's a knock at the door. One of the young men opens it, and his face is split by a huge scythe. He falls to the ground, and a hand pulls the scythe out of his skull.
Oblivious to all this, the couple in the bedroom is, uh, enjoying each other's company. Greatly. On top of the covers. The mysterious figure approaches them and, wham, pins them to the bed with a spear. There's a very graphic close up of the spear entering bare skin. This scene was reproduced, intentionally or un-, in Steve Miner's sequel to Friday the 13th.
Ah ha! Doesn't that remind you of the way that Paolo pins insects to his specimen boards?
The footage with the four doomed tourists is both the centerpiece of the film and its weakest element. The tagline of the Gorgon Video box is: They came to play, they stayed to die...
This is the most exploitable part of the film. It has nudity, sex, and gory violence, all resolved in a remarkably short period of time. And both photographs on the back of the box come from these scenes. The special effects makeup, especially considering that the film was made twenty-eight years ago, is little short of amazing. But it almost seems to come from a different movie. If it weren't for the re-appearance of the four corpses at a crucial point later in the film, you might suspect that it was edited in from another flick.
There's a crucial element to this whole story. Remember Brunhilde, the blonde in the dark green dress? She's the most sympathetic character in the whole story. There's something sweet and unaffected about her: shes cute, she's bubbly, she's silly, and especially while watching Bay of Blood the second time I sure wished her a better fate.
And fate is what obsesses Anna, Paolo's wife. She's a self-styled psychic. She lays out her Tarot Cards and reads messages of doom. "The clouds are swirling. The sickle of death is about to strike." This nicely foreshadows her eventual fate but it also raises a good question: why is her next line not "...and my taxi will be here in five minutes; I'm going to my mother's. Pack your things or stay here, your choice."
That comment about "the sickle of death" could mean that she's the killer, of course. These people aren't being shot or drowned or run down by large trucks, they're being stabbed and slashed. Could be.
Time for another axiom. Given a Range of Choices, People Will Probably Chose the Stupidest One.
I especially remember in Alien that Ripley tried and tried to get the group to stay together, but people kept wandering off by themselves. The scarier things got, the stronger the impulse do wander down shadowy corridors grew.
Renata (Claudine Auger, as fine as ever) and her husband, Albert, have come to the Bay to investigate the disappearance of her father, the unlamented husband of the late Countess. They've brought their two children with them. The kids come into the story later. For the meantime, they're tucked in bed in the travel trailer.
They visit with Paolo and Anna, and it's from Anna that Renata finds out one of the Countess's secrets. Simon is the Countess's son, the offspring of a youthful indiscretion. Rather than recognize him as her own and raise him in her own household (and Lord knows there was enough room in that huge mansion), when he was sixteen she had him build the shack he lives in and treated him like a servant. And you felt bad in the opening scene because somebody killed a nice old lady in a wheelchair.
Renata and Albert go to Simon's shack. While there, Renata discovers her father's corpse under a bunch of squid. There's a nicely gross scene where a squid covers the corpse's face and Simon pulls it off with a really gross squishy sound.
Sickened by the discovery, Renata and Albert go to Frank's house. Renata goes through a door and finds the corpses of the four tourists. She looks up and sees Frank advancing toward her, an axe in his hand. She runs and, after a struggle, stabs Frank.
And now things really get weird. Renata knows that the property won't go to her father and then to her; it will go to Simon. So she decides to eliminate Simon. Anna walks in at an inconvenient moment and sees corpses strewn like confetti, so her head is chopped off. Now Paolo has to be eliminated. And Albert announces that he's the man for the job.
Paolo is desperately searching for the number to call the police. He makes one call, a wrong number, and is searching the phone book for the right one when Albert catches up with him and strangles Paolo. It's nice to see Albert snap to and help Renata. It's refreshing to see a couple do stuff together. It's also nice to see that Bava is borrowing from a venerable source here: Shakespeare's Macbeth. Remember from your junior year of high school how Lady Macbeth determines her husband's course of action and uses her wiles to goad him on into bloodier and bloodier courses of action. This is what Renata does here with Albert, who she earlier seems to regard as- at best- a doofus. As the number of people dispatched into the hereafter by Albert rises, so does her opinion of him and she treats him with more respect as his hands get bloodier.
And now Laura arrives, little expecting that she'll
come upon such a scene of carnage. She arrives at Frank's house
and finds him still alive but badly wounded from his struggle with
Renata. He tells her to go get Simon, which she immediately does.
Knowing that Simon is angry enough to kill her, Laura grabs up a pot of boiling water and throws it in his face. Instead, this only makes him angrier. He grabs Laura by the throat and strangles her.
Albert thanks Simon for all of his hard work and gets
him to sign an agreement passing on his share of the estate. Albert
says he will help Simon get a new start in life. Then, in a demonstration
of gratitude, Albert runs Simon through with a spear.
SPOILER AHEAD. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK.
The children think this is as funny as can be. Their daughter announces, "Mommy and Daddy sure are good at playing dead, aren't they? Let's go down to the Bay." They run off to play, accompanied by gosh-awful SHA-LA-LA-LA music as warm sunlight passes down through the trees and we watch the children running with artfully out of focus foliage in the foreground. Bay of Blood came out just a couple of years after Ken Russel's Women In Love and out of focus leaves and flowers were big. The final image is the children arriving at the water's edge where, presumably, they will drown each other.
And so ends this saga of greed and corruption. Final
tally: one beheading, two fatal gunshot wounds, three strangulations,
and seven stabbings or impalements. What was it that Norman Mailer
said about there being some love left if you use a knife?
And what's fascinating is that everything fits together so nicely. In a bizarre way, justice has been served. Renata had long since given up any interest in avenging the death of her father; indeed, nothing in the story indicates that they had ever been close. So her final undoing comes at the hands of her own children. As Alanis would say, isn't it ironic?
On a five scale, Pops gives Bay of Blood five machetes with suspicious red stains on them.
Parents' note: The R rating is earned, big time. Nudity, sex, and very graphic violence. This could be disturbing to pre-teens and up; high school and above can probably handle everything here ok.
C'mon. Visit your roots.
- May 23, 1999