What do you know? Not only is there an opera, but there was also a comic book Planet of the Vampires back in the 70s! As if Bava had a whole multimedia empire! Except the comic appears to be more of a Matheson/Boulle rip-off rather than an attempt at adaptation. Like Bava’s film, the comic seems devoid of real vampires (Dracula on the cover notwithstanding), although there is some blood harvesting going on. Some groovy person or persons have shared the first issue online. Look at that last panel… standing off to the side… Is that who I think it is?
I think I first heard the term space opera used in describing Star Wars, and I’m pretty sure it was used in an unflattering sense – as a play on soap opera. Some sci-fi geeks looked down on George Lucas’ film as an adventure story set in outer space, without any real science-y elements. It wasn’t even futuristic really – a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
I was looking to see what people had to say about Bava’s work when it was new. I couldn’t find much. I suppose reviewing B movies in the sixties would be like reviewing direct-to-video releases today. Or Youtube. I did locate a Dec. 1, 1965, Variety review of Planet of the Vampires which basically pans the film but gives props to Bava’s visual sensibility. I didn’t really expect to find anything more, but I did.
There was an article from Opera Quarterly, “Vampires in Carthage,” that referenced Planet of the Vampires. Opera troupe The Wooster Group did some sort of bizarre multimedia mashup of Francesco Cavalli’s 1641 opera La Didone and Bava’s 1965 film, titled Terrore nello spazio in Italian. Now, opera is not my thing. Classic B movies I can devour, but classical classics aren’t really my bag. But this concoction sounds fascinating.
Apparently the stories play out in parallel on the same stage. “Two ships, two sets of captains and crews, two alien lands in which it’s all too easy to get lost.” to quote the NY Times (Lost in Space With Dido and Aeneas). Scenes from the film are shown on monitors, others are re-enacted on one side of the stage, while La Didone is performed on the other. Players shift from one story to the other, sometimes in mid conversation. Both scripts are displayed above the stage. The baroque music is performed more or less faithfully, but some parts are played on modern instruments like accordion and electric guitar. There’s a bit about the opera in Encore magazine as well.
There’s other parallels in the stories besides crashing ships. Bava’s characters are reanimated and possessed by alien life forces, which the English title identifies as vampires. Some of Cavalli’s characters, derived from Virgil’s Aeneid, are possessed by the gods. That coming back from the dead thing, spiritual possession, and general things not being what they appear, are all themes that Bava revisits throughout his films.
Another thing that’s not what it seems is the time frame of the movie. We watch it and assume that these are earth people sometime in the future, but the closing scene indicates otherwise. That temporal confusion is reflected in the Wooster Group’s production, pairing a seemingly futurist film from nearly fifty years ago with an opera that’s three and a half centuries old, performed on modern instruments.
The Times article links to a slide show of stage shots. You can see the Bava influence in the color schemes and the use of light and shadow, and in the styling space suits. There’s also a video online that shows a snippet of the performance.
So I guess space opera has a whole new meaning, or at least a new nuance.
Lucas writes that Bava wanted to follow up Black Sabbath with an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, ideally The Dunwich Horror. AIP had started a Lovecraft series with Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace. AIP presented this as one of Corman’s Poe films, since the title comes from a Poe poem, but the story is Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
I was intrigued by this. I’ve always been interested in Lovecraft, although I don’t think his work translates well to the screen. Corman, like Bava, is under-appreciated as a director, as they both worked in the low budget b-movie realm. So I had to look into it. I found the film on youtube. It has some similarities to Black Sunday. It opens with a scene from more than a century earlier, where the warlock places a curse on the town and its descendants as he is being burned. (Sorry about the ads. I wonder if there’s a way to change to thumbnails so they aren’t all the same.)
Then the great-grandson shows up, identical to his ancestor, and ends up possessed by the spirit of the warlock.
There’s a “waking the dead” scene
and a collection of people with facial deformities
although Bava seemed more interested in facial ruination than deformity.
I think Corman did a good job with what he had – it’s atmospheric and well-paced. But there’s a level of visual artistry that Bava brings to his work that Corman doesn’t reach, as he seems more focused on storytelling functionality than using visuals to achieve emotional impact. Compare the scene where Ward and his spouse are walking through the castle with the scene where the Count and Sdenka are walking through the ruins.
There’s a powerful subtlety in the way Bava uses light and color and contrast and composition. Corman isn’t bad, but the darkness is a little too dark, the contrast a bit lower, the color a little less imaginative, the composition a little more matter of fact. And all the little bits add up.
I wonder what Bava could have done with a Lovecraft story. The psychological dimensions to his stories and the way he hints at things would have played into Bava’s hands.
I heard through Twitter yesterday that Netflix streaming was losing 1800 films as of today. The linked article links to a list of what’s going, and a quick glance found both Black Sabbath and Blood and Black Lace, which had me worried. Were all of Bava’s films getting the axe? I checked this morning, and was relieved to find that was not the case. Hercules in the Haunted World dropped from streaming, and Four Times that Night and Planet of the Vampires are gone altogether, but the others on our schedule are still there, except for Danger: Diabolik, which wasn’t streaming in the first place. Fortunately, the missing movies can be found elsewhere online.
Black Sabbath, more properly titled I tre volti della paura (The three faces of fear), is out of chronological order in our BavaFest, but perhaps that is fitting. The AIP version, which was streaming on Netflix last week, has the segments out of sequence, and severely edited. It is also fitting because it’s now in the middle of the schedule, and in many ways the film is central to understanding what Bava was about. Bava had three obsessions, illustrated through the three stories:
“The Telephone” – sex and death
“The Wurdalak” – destruction of the family from within
“A Drop of Water” – psychological terror
We have seen these strands in other Bava films – psychological terror was the main component of The Girl Who Knew Too Much; sex, death and the family collapse were all part of both Black Sunday and Blood and Black Lace. The coworkers in the fashion house could be seen as a type of family unit, as could the ship’s crew in Planet of the Vampires. There is also an element of voyeurism and a feeling of claustrophobia that Black Sabbath shares with other Bava films. “The Telephone” shows this in particular. The action is all confined to the apartment, and the camera is often positioned in a way that makes us feel like we’re spying.
The film also bridges Bava from stories of the past to contemporary settings. Most of his previous work had been set in the past. Much of what he did following was set in the present.
As both Lucas and Howarth describe “The Telephone,” the story involves two prostitutes who are former lovers, and their pimp who recently escaped police custody and is after revenge on the girl who turned him in. Watching the film, the relationships between the characters and their professions was not so clear. We know Rosy and Mary had some sort of falling out, and that Mary is manipulating Rosy to re-establish their friendship. We know Rosy informed on Frank, but the details are unclear. Maybe I missed something, or maybe key details were edited out of the version I saw. In the US version, Frank was supposed to be dead, and his ghost calls on the phone after Rosy stabs him to his second death. The producers thought the story as Bava presented it was not spooky enough, as well as being a bit too adult for their target audience.
As an interesting side note on the topic of target audience, Lucas says it opened in NYC on the bottom half of a double bill with McHale’s Navy. It’s amazing the way his work was mishandled and mangled when it came over here. The editing on “The Telephone” diluted its impact, the re-ordering of the segments fractured the structure of the film, and changing the film score overwhelmed Bava’s subtle and brilliant use of sound throughout the movie. Speaking of the soundtrack, Remains of the Web supplied a link to Roberto Nicolosi’s original score:
Bava considered this his favorite of all his films. Lucas says Bava shows us this with the crazy ending (Youtube, en espanol) seen on the Italian version, where the camera pulls back from Karloff to show us how the shot is being filmed:
the coda is nothing less than Bava’s unmasking of himself: a man who became a cameraman in order to be unobtrusive as an artist, a man who disliked being photographed, a man whose chosen field of endeavor was the once-invisible field of trick photography. A man of Bava’s character could have conceived such a final for only one reason: he had finally achieved something of which he could be proud, something warranting his full disclosure.
It was suggested in the NoirMOOC forum that we should do a post-mortem examination of the course, as a good group of the participants were there as much to learn about MOOCs as for their interest in the subject matter. I think it’s a good idea, although I’m used to having those discussions happen throughout a course. Unfortunately I missed the hangout session, but I thought I’d post some thoughts anyway.
A question was asked about the levels of participation and persistence. This is a common query, and often brought up as an issue, but I don’t think it’s really a big deal. Everyone keys in on the Massiveness of MOOCs, but the real revolutionary element is the Openness. People can go in and out, and participate as they choose, making of the course what they will. I may be counted as a dropout or a failure in many of the MOOCs I’ve joined because I’m not very interested in many of their assessments. Too often it’s assessment for the sake of assessing – just a hoop for people to jump through. While educators should consider the question in all cases, in an open environment it is especially important: What does the assessment do for the learner? If all I get out of the experience is a score, it’s just busywork to me.
This wasn’t much of a problem with the NoirMOOC, as it was more about activities and discussions than quizzes and tests. But, going back to the Open idea, I think the Canvas environment was unhelpful. The LMS is like a box – confining and limiting, and not entirely open. I prefer MOOCs that work as aggregators to those that function as boxes. They let us work in our own spaces, and give us the freedom to bring more to the course and make more out of it. We could be making timelines and concept maps and videos and any number of other things to help us make sense of the material we’re working through and share our understandings with our fellow participants, but there’s no room for it inside the box. Of course, an LMS provides a comfortably familiar environment, similar to a f2f or online class, with traditional students/teacher roles. There’s something to be said for being comfortable. There’s also something to be said for being challenging.
I don’t mean for all that to sound negative. I thought the course was a good experience. OTTO was great. It would be even better if it was a tool open to anyone to use. Everybody’s contributions to the forums and Twitter were great as well
About a week ago I ran across some interestingways to knot a tie, and I’ve been trying without success to do one of the knots. So it was a fortuitous coincidence that I saw the list of Youtube Film Noir Features in the NoirMOOC. Towards the top of the list is Crime Wave, a brilliant film by Andre de Toth starring Sterling Hayden. At first I thought he was a detective too busy to spend time tying his tie properly, but it soon became apparent that he is a tie artist who never does it the same way twice.
I had this from Netflix a few years ago, and I had been thinking about getting it again ever since I learned how to do animated GIFs. Because if anyone needs to be GIFfed, it’s Timothy Carey. He can steal a scene just by hanging out in the background.
Since Blood and Black Lace wasn’t available through Netflix streaming, I put it in my queue. I found it was on Youtube in the meantime, but neglected to change the queue. So I watched the DVD with commentary by Tim Lucas turned on. Lucas starts his commentary like he starts the chapter on the film, with a quote by director Ernst Lubitsch: “Technicolor is interesting. It’s perfect for [Heaven Can Wait], wonderful for musicals and comedies. But… never shoot a drama or mystery in Technicolor.” Bava proved this wrong on a regular basis in the sixties, but this movie really drives the nail home. Note the use of bright red through the film. It’s in almost every scene. Those red mannequins make for an interesting bit of foreshadowing.
Lucas calls this Bava’s first true giallo, and with its Italian title, Sei donne per l’assassino (Six Women for the Murderer), the first body count movie. Like most of Bava’s work, it had multiple titles in different languages: Blutige Seide (Bloody Silk) in German, and according to Lucas, a Danish title that translates as The Iron Hand in the Night of Horror, in reference to the death claw used in one scene. I especially like the over-the-topness of the pre-release title, The Fashion House of Death.
There’s a nice tracking shot through the fashion house early on. Lucas says Bava couldn’t afford a camera dolly on his budgets, so he mounted his camera on a child’s wagon.
Bava knew that the real money was in the English language markets, so he had the actors memorize their lines in English even if they didn’t understand it. All his films were overdubbed anyway, due to noise on the set, but this way makes for a better illusion. Apparently his scriptwriter didn’t understand English all that well either, so American actress Mary Arden (victim number 3) rewrote a lot of the dialogue during the filming. Most of the male voices were performed by Paul Frees (Burgermeister Meisterburger, Boris Badenov).
Bava taught me that “the essence of cinema is framing. Framing is how you experience life. It’s that thing you see that attracts you to someone, a fault or a special quality, a look in someone’s eye, a certain decor that inspires you. It’s framing that creates emotion.”
Blood and Black Lace was released largely uncut in the US. Instead of working with AIP, who had hacked some of his earlier movies, Bava went with Allied Artists, who came up with the English title. The only significant change they made was the opening credits, which is kind of baffling because Bava’s are brilliant. But the distributors thought they weren’t scary enough, so they had an animated sequenced done as a replacement. One shot that did get cut in many countries was tail end of the bathtub murder. That bloom of blood was too much for some censors.
As you might guess from the title, The Girl Who Knew Too Much was intended to be a Hitchcock parody. American International and Galatea commissioned it as such, and it was originally planned to be a light comedy, although that is not really up Bava’s alley. It has its Hitchcock moments, with the suspense and that whole victim of being the wrong person in the wrong place idea. One Hitchcock moment we don’t see in the Netflix version is Bava’s cameo. He appeared in a photograph on the wall in Nora’s room, with a Dali moustache and a leering look as she walked around in her nightie. This was added in to the US version, titled The Evil Eye.
That missing eye harks back to Black Sunday
The changes made for the US version were significant. Lucas devotes four pages of All the Colors of the Dark to detailing them. Additional footage, mostly done at the time of the original filming, was added to make the movie more light-hearted. Giving it the sinister title and the crazy advertising poster, “Look deep into THE EVIL EYE to the twilight world of the Supernatural! What does it want… what will satisfy its cravings?? …only the dead know … and those they choose to tell!” was probably counter-productive.
It was Bava’s worst film commercially, closing after only a week after release in Italy. While that had more to do with Cold War tensions than the quality of the movie, it might have made the producers feel they needed to make more drastic changes than usual.
Gialli were named after their yellow covers
There were a couple things going on with Bava leading up to this movie. After Black Sunday’s success, he took up reading a lot of pulp fiction (gialli) – horror, mystery, sci-fi – because he wanted to get a handle on the form. Edizione Mondadori had been publishing gialli since 1929, influenced by British yellow jacketed paperbacks of Christie, Cain, Chandler and the like. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered by some to be the first giallo film, although it is probably not the most representative of the form, as they got much more lurid.
Bava was recovering from a nervous breakdown at the time he was making this movie. Basically he had been working too hard, having done a half dozen films under his own name in the previous three years, as well as working on more than a dozen others in some capacity.
This was another great shot. All the nun’s habits, looking like flower petals, opening up as Nora comes to… only a little Freudian
Bava’s sets, as always, are impressive. It’s a nice switch the way he creates a suspenseful scene with stark white instead of darkness.
This was just a little scene without much significance, but it shows how he creates something out of nothing. This is supposed to be a print shop, but it’s all suggested by shadows and sound effects. Otherwise it’s just the corner of a room.