In our dynamic culture, the thought of looking back from where we came from is often overlooked. It’s humbling to take a second and remember that if it weren’t for the innovators that came before us, then we wouldn’t be in the position where we are right now. The philosophers that spoke up against the norm, the scientists that questioned the accepted reasoning, and the political leaders that stood for change are all cornerstones to the world we live in today. Not only does it humble us, but it teaches us why what we experience today is the way it is. Likewise, in horror films, we can look back at the greats and learn from them — these masters of fear that still influence the industry, and probably will continue to influence it decades from now. Today, we pay our respects to the great Mario Bava, with an analysis of his 1971 film, A Bay of Blood, in this installment of “Fear Needs No Translation.”
Being credited with establishing the Italian giallo genre, it’s no wonder why Bava’s legacy has lived on through the works of those both native to and outside the Italian countryside. This specific subgenre of horror is a hybrid of many, drawing its defining characteristics from mysteries, psychological thrillers, as well as slashers, making it stand out from its other horror conglomerates. Bava started off as a painter by trade, but had a great influence by his father, Eugenio Bava, one of the first Italian film directors. Eventually following in his father’s footsteps, Mario brought along his own artistic prowess, creating films with brilliant coloring and lighting. With many underappreciated works, such as The Whip and the Body (1963) as well as Blood and Black Lace (1964), Bava has branded the giallo subgenre for eternity, perhaps most notably with A Bay of Blood.
With the untimely murders of Countess Federica by the hand of her husband, Filippo Donati, as well as his own murder, the chase for the family fortune is on. The hefty inheritance, which includes a mansion that looks over a secluded bay, isn’t one easily passed. The countess’ daughter, Renata, and husband, Albert, compete for the rights of the bay and its belongings with real estate agent, Frank, and the countess’s bastard child, Simon. Each party’s plans for inheritance lacks simplicity, and the interference of the estate’s neighbors, Paolo and Anna, as well as a group of teenagers who are driven by their lust for sex and drugs in what they believe to be an abandoned property, begins to impede on the racing parties. This gathering of individuals soon turns into a blood bath, as each person is killed one after another by a mysterious murderer. An absolutely stunning piece of art, A Bay of Blood will fill your insides with shock, disgust, and intrigue.
Mario Bava is most notable for his use of shot selection and optical effects, and he lives up to the praise with this film. The first 10 minutes alone are a bombardment of cinematic excellence, and I cannot pass the opportunity to analyze aspects of what I consider to be one of the best openings to a film that I’ve ever seen. The title screen imposes the name of the film in blood imitating letters against the glistening sun through the water of the bay, immediately relaying to the audience that this film is a brutal one. With a quick cut, we find ourselves above the water overlooking the bay, where the shot turns into a pan. This technique is often used to give context to the film — usually a location and time. The thing that Bava does with this choice is quite genius actually; not only does this pan give the audience a location of the film, but it also shows how isolated it is. There’s not a soul out there that will be able to help. This shot has been used in more modern films like The Thing (1982) and The Descent (2005), both being in their own respective remote locations.
A later shot shows the Countess Federica, played by Isa Miranda, looking longingly out the window from her wheelchair. The viewer is then put into a first-person shot looking out over the bay. Rather than cutting back to the countess, Bava does the unexpected by rack-focusing the shot, and having the viewer look into the window from outside the mansion upon refocusing, expertly displaying how trapped she is within her own life. This idea of rearranging the perspective point has been imitated many times, but none more memorable than the infamous mirror scene in the 1997 film, Contact. This unexpected transition breaks reality for just a second, much like how it would during a murder — a break in psyche, followed by a realization of what has occurred.
Immediately after this shot, we cut back into the mansion, where a long shot of the countess’ parlor room is shown. The structural components of the building are all white ivory, but the adorning furniture and decorative pieces are red, simulating the blood that will soon cover the entire estate. It isn’t uncommon to use the long shot to give an idea of what a room looks like. What makes this shot unlike others is the fact that Bava uses it solely to show the contrast of the red and white — there is really no reason for him to show the room at all, but he makes it fit as if it were meant to be there. Today, it’s impossible to watch any film without it including at least one long shot to give context and foreshadowing. And this isn’t me copping out of giving an example of a film that has been influenced by Bava, I promise — just watch any movie.
Slasher films have become one of the highest grossing subgenres of the horror industry. What makes a slasher film? Well there’s always an infamous killing weapon, or the teenagers that are preyed upon, just to name a few iconographies. Though Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger are all leaders in the slasher industry, it would be hard to say that each was born out of a completely original idea; something or someone had to have influenced the conception of each. A Bay of Blood is unique in that it is among the first films to incorporate all of the slasher tropes.
The weapon of destruction in any slasher isn’t one of modern technology. Generally speaking, the killer will have to get confrontational with his victim in order to get the kill. For example, Michael Myers uses a combination of a kitchen knife, his own hands, and whatever is in his environment he may use to impale his victims. Likewise, the weapons used in A Bay of Blood includes the likes of hunting spears, machetes, kitchen knives, and even rope. These weapons aren’t designed to deliver an immediate killing blow, rather, the death is always slow and painful. This may emulate the suffering that the killer had to experience as a child, or simply the fact that the killer believes that this is justice.
In almost every slasher film, there always seems to be a group of teenagers with sinful intentions. A Bay of Blood originates this trope with Brunhilde (Brigitte Skay), Denise (Paola Montenero), Duke (Guido Boccaccini), and Robert (Roberto Bonanni). With ideas of sexuality, drug abuse, and trespassing the estate to essentially make a mockery of the murdered countess, they are picked off one by one. The simple intention in these killings is the fact that the teens are interfering with the inheritance, as well as becoming witnesses to the other murders. This motive evolved over the years within the genre to incorporate the notion of the killer being a judge of sorts, deciding who is of pure heart to live, and who deserves to die.
Most, if not all, horror films include the abject, or the reject of something. On a physical level, this may be blood, sweat, or even a child. This physical object is a representation of a more abstract idea. In A Bay of Blood, blood is abject a plethora of times, but each spewing representative of its own problem. These various abjections will vary dependent on the circumstance of the character, as well as his or her motive in the film. For example, we see Duke and Denise impaled together, where their abjection is the release of sin. On the other hand, the blood abjection of Robert is reminiscent of his anger and jealousy toward Duke and Denise finally being taken away. This theory of abjection has been seen numerous times throughout horror film history, especially in the slasher subgenre. The slasher will often admire the abjection, as the way of serving up justice.
The title, A Bay of Blood, really denotes Bava’s intention behind the film: is blood thicker than water? It’s an old phrase that has been heard over and over as if it’s a broken record player. The fact of the matter is, in certain circumstances, the morality of family relationships is thrown to the wind, and man’s own greed takes over. Let’s take the notorious case of acquitted mother, Casey Anthony. In October 2008, Anthony was indicted for the murder of her daughter, Caylee Anthony. Though many pieces of evidence would have the common person assume that Casey Anthony was guilty for the murder, she was acquitted of the charges since all the evidence the prosecution brought against her merely showed that Anthony was a compulsive liar, but nothing that proved she was a murderer.
This trial was quite the circus, having had reveals of lie after lie, both from members of the Anthony family and Casey herself. The question of morality and family relationships still stays open ended in this circumstance, but it does point to the idea of it being circumstantial, as sick as it may be. Likewise, A Bay of Blood has family members killing each other, as well as covering each other’s tracks. Much like this case, Bava has replicated the age-old question, and leaves it open for discussion.
The following paragraph contains spoilers. If you plan on watching A Bay of Blood, skip this next paragraph.
In World War II Italy, Benito Mussolini and the Fascist party ruled with the basic philosophy that Italy would benefit from ridding the country of outsiders, as well as government control over the economy. By the end of the war, this ideology had been rejected by the majority of Italian citizens through Mussolini’s execution via firing squad. Bava discusses the downfall of the Fascist party in Italy in a very interesting manner.
At the end of the film, Renata and Albert have become the soul inheritors of the estate and other wealth. What would appear to be the end of the killing is just the opposite. Bava makes the audience believe that is the end, when suddenly both Renata and Albert are shot dead… by their own children! The son and daughter were very upset about being left alone, and locked into their trailer overnight. In this situation, we can say the parents are the Fascists and the children are the Italians. The suppression of an authoritarian government became so much that they needed to rid the world of it to be free.
Mario Bava was a revolutionary in the horror industry. His legendary use of optical effects and shot selection became a template for many directors of our time. Though not often associated with the subgenre, A Bay of Blood did enact the use of some tropes that would later be rehashed in many slasher films, and his use of abjection in the film was smart in the sense that it was a direct reflection of each character’s circumstance. Bava does not stop at the boundary of artistic; he goes on further to ask the philosophical as well as takes on the political. Bravo to Bava. Until next time, Fortes signing off.
Editor’s Note: Included below is Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood in full via YouTube.
— Justin Fortes, Film Blogger
Do you have a recommendation for a film you’d like to see on Fear Needs No Translation? Contact Justin at FearNNT@gmail.com