My latest article for The Cultural Gutter is now up. In keeping with the season, it’s science fiction with the heart of a horror film. Gothic Galactic takes a look at Mario Bava’s brief forays into the cosmos, specifically the influential Planet of the Vampires, with special guest appearances by Caltiki and Hercules int he Haunted World.
I’m going to have to cram a bunch of history up front in this review, so if you already know most of it, please forgive me. I feel it sets the stage properly for those among you who aren’t nerdy enough to have a vast and swelling knowledge of the ins and outs of British censorship efforts, Italian slasher-thriller movies, and the joyous day those two tastes were plunged together into a scrummy treat known as the “Video Nasties” list. Let me first take back to a time when Samantha Fox was still a fox (maybe she still is; I haven’t seen her in years) and the world was just beginning to discover the pleasure of home video systems. England has always had a somewhat contentious relationship with cinema censorship, and certain types who like to get upset over idiotic things were worried about the fact that the rules governing the rating, licensing, and editing of films for release to British theaters had not been written in a language that would allow them to be applied equally to films distributed on video. This little lapse in the foresight of censorship laws to anticipate the invention and subsequent wildfire-like spread of VCRs meant that films previously cut or banned could be legally (more or less) distributed in uncut format on videotape. It seems like they could have solved this dilemma by simply adding “and videos, too” in biro at the end of the book of law, but that’s not how England does things.
Several years ago, I got a Netflix account. I did it for a variety of reasons, though the two biggest were the fact that the selection of movies at the average video rental store was abysmal and the price of a rental at the un-average video store was outrageous. Netflix — not to sound like a commercial for the service — offered an astounding number of titles, and because one of their main distribution centers is in Queens, the turn-around time for receiving new movies was lightning fast, provided the lightning is that ball lightning or swamp gas stuff that drifts slowly from Queens to Brooklyn over the course of a day and is often mistaken for a UFO or gnome. Let it be said right now that on my list of things to do before I die is see swamp gas or ball lightning, or at least photograph a weather balloon that could be mistaken for a UFO. But that is neither here nor there.
This lavishly colorful and thoroughly enjoyable comic book romp features what is without a doubt one of the most wonderful moments in all of cinema, if not the most wonderful. Having just completed a major heist, our cool-as-liquid-nitrogen anti-hero, Diabolik, returns to his sprawling, space-age underground lair full of cool pop art furnishings, where he and his staggeringly beautiful girlfriend, Eva, proceed to make love on a gigantic rotating bed covered in piles upon piles of the money he’s just stolen. When I was young, and even not so very long ago, I always looked at this moment as the goal to which all people should aspire. Our lives should be like this, lived with ferocity and daring, panache and style, sexiness and suaveness. I swore, on that day, that I would work tirelessly toward such a destiny, never resting until I too could collapse into my rotating bed covered in cash and roll about with the woman of my dreams.
As it stands right now, rather than going out drinking with socialites, rubbing elbows with countesses, and dancing the night away in a fancy club before stepping out to steal priceless emeralds and sapphires (I always preferred those stones to diamonds), I spent the evening sitting at home drinking bourbon, watching Secrets of New York, and cutting out little color cover printouts for all the VHS tapes I’m finally converting to DVD-R in the name of conserving precious space in my ever-shrinking Brooklyn apartment. And while I could, if nothing else, cover a bed with money, the denomination would be pennies, and making love on a pile of pennies may be someone’s bag — but not mine. Diabolik would weep for me. Or rather, he would ignore me and laugh heartily before bounding off to live his dreamlike, lusty life of adventure and romance. Make no mistake about it. Though I may try to dress well and stay in slightly acceptable physical condition (though tonight’s dinner of bourbon and cake could put an end to that), I’m still pathetic in my own special, lonely way. Diabolik would look at the whole thing I call a life and shake his head in amused disbelief as he hopped in his Jag and drove off to go punch a criminal kingpin then make sweet love to his woman all night long. Rather than let this get down however, I simply double down on my efforts and try harder.
The 1960s were defined by different things to different people, and while some saw the paramount of the decade as a bunch of scruffy hippies wallowing in the mud for a few days in upstate New York, I always looked at the defining moments of the decade as the films Barbarella and Danger! Diabolik. That or the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Or, um, the start of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Or the Bay of Pigs. Or maybe the assassination of the Kennedy Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Or the arrival of The Beatles. No, it was Barbarella and Diabolik, if for no other reason than they were the exclamation points at the end of an era of which I am particularly fond, that being the carefree Swingin’ Sixties that brought the world pop art, slim cut mod suits, mini-skirts, go-go boots, lots of spy films, and that cute pixie haircut sported by Twiggy. Not since the 1920s and the era of the flapper and the dandy has an era appealed to me so deeply.
Although born a shade too late to enjoy the proceedings, it’s the time with which I most closely identify and still attempt to recreate in my own impoverished and pathetically un-daring way. With the escalation of the war in Vietnam and ensuing civil unrest and violence, not to mention the whole hippie movement destroying any vestige of standards in the realm of courtesy, manners, social grace, and dress (I say that assuming it will be taken by hippies as a compliment; if not, I apologize — I have nothing but affection in my later years for the flower people), there was really no way the swingin’ era could survive. Being care-free was taboo, even though hippies tended to spend a large amount of time smoking pot, dropping acid, and staring at their hands. Likewise, adhering to a uniform anti-code of dress became the standard. I won’t argue that increased social awareness is a boon to an individual, though I would argue against anyone who claims those who defined the latter portion of the 1960s were any more politically aware than those who came before them who were seen as shallow because they enjoyed go-go dancing more than that weird wavy-hand dance.
I know many of you enjoy the ultra-casual, anything-goes world in which we live thanks in part to our hippie forefathers, but I can’t count myself among you. I don’t wear a shirt and tie because I have to; I wear one because I want to. I like it. It’s comfortable to me. Granted, I didn’t always hold this sentiment, and there was a time when I could deliver a wild-eyed sermon against the chains of suit and tie oppression as well as any other young punk rocker. But as you get older and start having more important things about which to worry, such as how you’re going to get that rotating bed covered in money and a delicious European partner in crime to accessorize it, you realize that punk, casual, mod, hippie — everything is as much a fashion uniform as anything else, and there really is no sin in putting a little effort into things. The only sin, really, is in wearing pleated, relaxed-fit Dockers. In this, there can be no leniency.
By the release of Danger: Diabolik!, the mod era was well on its way out, and what better way to send it off than with a duo of eye-popping, self-indulgent cinematic flings? In 1968, director Roger Vadim gave the world a zero-G striptease by his then-wife Jane Fonda, who was without a doubt in her prime as far as bombshell status is concerned (and she looked damn good defiantly power saluting the police mug shot photographer, too). Dino De Laurentiis, famous for throwing big budgets at low-budget genre ideas, produced this phantasmagoric Technicolor acid trip adapted from a French comic strip about a sexy space agent plying the galaxy in search of missing scientists and lustful encounters. It was such a hoot that De Laurentiis decided more of the same would be in order. Again he turned to European comic strips for his source material, this time setting his sights on Diabolik, the ongoing saga of a master criminal who confounds both the police and the established criminal underworld.
On paper it was supposed to be a spiritual if not narrative follow-up to Barbarella. De Laurentiis snagged Mario Bava to direct, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. Since his first film in color, Bava had been a master at playing with light and creating surreal atmospheres even on the tiniest of budgets. Films like Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966) continue to influence films to this day thanks to their bold, convention-bucking use of color and lighting (not to mention violence). With Diabolik, Bava would be allowed to indulge his sweet tooth for candy-colored psychedelia equipped with a budget that dwarfed anything with which he’d previously been supplied. Not that the bigger budget mattered to him. In fact, though De Laurentiis granted Bava some $3 million for the film, Bava brought it in right around $400,000. You’d never know it. The film looks like he spent the full budget, and one can only imagine how out-of-this-world it would have been had Bava not been so conditioned to make the most of every single cent — or lira, or whatever currency applied.
French star Jean Sorel (Short Night of Glass Dolls, Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other) was slated to portray the suave super-villain/anti-hero Diabolik, while the beautiful Catherine Deneuve (Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) was to star as his partner and lover, Eva. Mere days into the production however, Bava determined that Sorel simply wasn’t right for the part. He was replaced by John Phillip Law, who had starred as the blind angel Pygar in Barbarella and would go on to appear as Sinbad in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Law was a jaw-dropping hunk with near inhuman good looks, but he was never the greatest actor on the block. Still, since the idea behind Diabolik was not style over substance but rather, as with Barbarella, style as substance, he fit the bill perfectly and certainly looks the part. His reserved – some would say wooden – acting style clicks nicely with the character, a man so far removed from traditional human morality that he seems at times almost unable to act human, sort of like how the Sidhe are described in fantasy literature.
Casting woes continued however, as Deneuve refused to do the nudity required for the aforementioned “making love on a pile of money” scene. Bava had always thought more of concealing than revealing. While there is certainly plenty of flesh both male and female on display in the scene, there is no actual nudity per se, as in no one sees the earth-shatteringly taboo bare bottom or nipple. All the areas proscribed by or moral watchdogs as naughty were suitably and strategically covered by piles of money. But the scene had to be shot with both actors in the buff and Deneuve balked. She was quickly and, for us viewers, blessedly replaced by European starlet Marisa Mell. Nothing against Ms. Deneuve — we do love her — but like John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell was practically born to play the part.
Mell is every bit Law’s physical match. A beauty so great as to cause folk to drop to their knees and weep. As the sophisticated and liberated sidekick to the devil-may-care Diabolik, I can imagine no one else better than Marisa Mell. A serious auto accident in 1963 had left her partially disfigured, and after years of rehabilitation and reconstructive surgery, she emerged looking like some incredible kind of goddess, with the only lingering side effect of her accident being a quirky upturn at the side of her mouth which, just about everyone agrees, amplifies her beauty tenfold. Nothing is more boring and predictable than perfection, after all. It is most unfortunate that her life would take a drastic downturn not too long after this film. She was relegated to B and C-movie status then more or less forgotten, making ends meet by posing in a nudie mags and reading poetry to try and supplement what was, by most accounts, rather a wild lifestyle. In the end, she died from cancer in 1992, relatively penniless. A melancholy note, but still she exists on screen in this movie as one of the great and timeless images of grace and beauty. It is that way that I think she is best remembered, as a stunning woman with an impish and playful curl to her lip.
For the roll of Diabolik’s foils on both sides of the law, Bava had experienced French actor Michel Piccoli as the dogged Inspector Ginco, and the robust Adolfo Celi, still relatively fresh off his memorable turn as the vastly enjoyable villain Emilio Largo in the James Bond film, Thunderball (1965), as the flamboyant Mafia boss Valmont. It was as solid a cast of character actors as Bava had ever had. He plucks them down into a world that isn’t quite real. One of Bava’s great strengths, and the element that perhaps made his horror films so successfully eerie, is his ability to warp the familiar, to twist the mundane into something foreign and menacing. Here, he’s pulling the same stunt, but purely for laughs. The world of Diabolik is not the world in which we live, though it bears a striking resemblance. It is instead a campy pop-art extraction. Money is transported in bags marked with huge dollar signs on the front, for example. Stylistically it has the most in common with Bava’s previous Blood and Black Lace and forthcoming Five Dolls for an August Moon and Four Times that Night, both of which revel in trippy modernist fashion and psychedelic over-indulgence. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the characters from any one of those movies show up in the other, though Diabolik is in my opinion the most realized artistically and conceptually. It is also Bava at his most impish and playful, with only a slight hint of the blackness that would inform the humor of his later Bay of Blood.
The story, as stated earlier, was adapted from a long-running European comic strip, or fumetti. Although I’ll admit to being a comic book reader in my youth, with intellectual fare like G.I. Joe and the ten thousand or so Spider Man titles that littered the 1980s being at the top of the list, I don’t really count myself among the legion of comic book fans. I have little interest in them now other than academically, and even the ones that people insist I’ll like because they’re intelligent and mature, leave me cold and a bit disappointed. Even the ones where people tell me, “no, this one is different,” still fall flat. It’s not that I deny their power or their artistic merit, even if I find some of the obtuse attempts to appear more “adult” by adding more violence, sex, and cussing, to be monumentally tedious.This is not an absolute statement, mind you. every now and then I do run across one I love– Brian Wood’s DMZ, for example — but I am by no means someone to whom one should turn for authoritative opinions on the medium.
That said, these European comic strips from the 1960s seem like they would have been a lot of fun. Considering they birthed such chain-smoking, sexy anti-heroes as Diabolik, Barbarella, and Modesty Blaise, all clad in skintight fetish gear, I guess I would have been a fan. Having never read any of the original Diabolik comic strips, but having at least glanced over some English-language plot summaries, I don’t think the storyline for the movie is lifted from any single episode, though bits and pieces may have come from all over the comics. The main characters certainly come from the comic strip, and here we get to watch them as Diabolik goes through a series of heists that get him on the bad side of both the police and the old crime syndicates – the establishment, basically. Chief of police Ginco sets a number of traps for Diabolik, but each time Diabolik outsmarts the inspector and makes his getaway with the loot. When one of his heists angers crime lord Valmont, Ginco hatches an unholy alliance with the mob to finally catch this thorn in both their sides.
Each heist is more or less a little self-contained episode building toward Ginco’s plan to melt down the whole of France’s gold reserve in order to lure Diabolik into a trap. The heists are exciting and outlandish, this again being a fantasy world in which the standard laws of common sense and logic do not apply. In his quest to steal a priceless jeweled necklace, Diabolik defeats the inspector’s trap by pulling the ol’ “stick a photo in front of the security camera” gag. He later smuggles the jewels to safety by fashioning them into bullets, using them to kill an opponent, then posing as said opponent’s relative to collect the jewels after cremation. Obviously, there are some logistical problems with this plan, not the least of which would be fitting jewels into a revolver, but this is a comic book world.
We’re not meant to take anything seriously or worry about realism. This is part of the reason it’s also easy to accept Diabolik as the hero of the story even though he is, without a doubt, a villain. He kills cops. Not corrupt cops, but regular guys just doing their job. He has no concern for anyone but himself and his one true love, Eva. When he dynamites the nation’s tax records, he doesn’t do it out of any sense of Robin Hood-esque duty to the poor and oppressed masses. He simply wants to screw with The Man — which leads to one of the film’s funnier moments, in which the Minister of Finances (a cameo by British film staple Terry-Thomas) makes a public plea to all the outstanding citizens to come forward and voluntarily pay the taxes they owe. Comedic touches like this, along with the purposeful disregard for realism, keep the movie light-hearted and chipper even when our main character is committing acts of a most heinous nature.
It’s not that Diabolik is immoral, however. If anything, he is adamantly amoral, completely rejecting the standards by which society judges the concepts of good and evil. He’s not an evil person. In fact, he’s quite likeable, almost childlike, even when he’s clad in a skintight white leather outfit and scaling a castle wall to rip someone off. At his heart, he is 1968. He is the social upheaval, the youthful rebellion that was engulfing countries across the globe. It’s no coincidence that the two forces most opposed to him are established law and established crime – two sides of a coin in which Diabolik sees no difference. They are the old guards; the outdated, out-of-touch generation whose lack of modern sophistication and intelligence is best exemplified by the fact that Valmont’s gangsters dress anachronistically, looking like something out of a 1930s mob movie.
They don’t understand Diabolik’s approach to crime, his use of modern technology and embracing of modern ideals. Likewise, on the other side of the coin is Inspector Ginco, a man who seems to respect Diabolik in a way, just as Diabolik respects him. In fact, it’s possible that Ginco could catch Diabolik, best him, if only the inspector could break away from the established way of thinking. Unfortunately, he is a man too mired in the old ways, and thus destined to be one step behind Diabolik. If only he could escape the constant supervision and micro managing of the bureaucrats, Ginco could make real progress. In a way, Ginco must envy Diabolik his freedom of thought.
It is in this way, more than through the story itself, that Diabolik achieves the depth so many people seem to claim it lacks. It is a tale of a super criminal versus the cops on one level, but on a deeper level it is a tale of the generation gap, of the culture conflict between young and old that characterized the late 1960s. Diabolik and Eva are the new way, feared and misunderstood by their elders. They are the iconoclasts, perhaps more symbols than actual people, as is Valmont. Ginco is the man in the middle, who knows things and times must change but not by the methods employed by the amoral and self-serving Diabolik. He is, despite being the supporting character and foil to Diabolik, the most sympathetic and human of all the characters. He is, in effect, most of us, dissatisfied with the establishment but still committed to some sense of orderly progression and society.
The relationship between Eva and Diabolik is further example of the film’s hidden but most definitely present depth. They are in love, deeply and passionately. Ginco seems to forego romance in favor of duty, and Valmont can see women as nothing more than playthings to be insulted. But Eva and Diabolik are liberated and modern. They are sexually attractive and have an insatiable appetite for one another, but they are also in love. Diabolik steals for Eva, but Eva does not stay with him because he steals; she stays because she loves him. Stealing is simply what they do, a game, and an amusement. Another way for them to thumb their noses at the generation that does not understand them. Their relationship is strong, and they are willing to sacrifice for one another. In the face of a world that wants to rub them out, they always have each other. Sometimes, they have each other on a rotating bed covered in money. So Diabolik is not an example of style over substance as much as it is, as I mentioned earlier, an example of style as substance. The liberated pop-art lifestyle of Eva and Diabolik is a stark contrast to the buttoned-up, confining world inhabited by Ginco and Valmont.
Not that the style lets itself be overshadowed by the substance. They walk arm in arm, and even if you disregard anything Diabolik might have to say, there’s no denying its look. That Mario Bava pulled this off on a self-imposed minuscule budget is staggering. With the possible exception of Barbarella and some of the wilder Bond adventures from the 1960s, few films look as sleek and sophisticated as Diabolik. The fashion is impeccable, and for a man like me who has endless admiration for the mod styles of the 1950s and 1960s, it’s like some crazy kind of dream come true. Every outfit donned by Marisa Mell is gorgeous enough to make you cry, especially when it’s draped upon someone as beautiful as she was. Likewise, Diabolik’s fetishistic head-to-toe leather outfits are beautiful, leaving as they do only John Phillip Law’s intense and deep eyes visible.
Their underground lair is a sight to behold, as are the old Jags they both drive. I love me a good Aston-Martin, but if I had to chose, I’d go for a ’67 Jag. They’re just about the coolest cars ever manufactured. Ahh, I hope they come in automatic. Diabolik is, indeed, a mod-futurist fan’s dream, even more so than the more outlandish Barbarella. After all, someone out on the town dressed as Barbarella would turn heads but ultimately look just kind of silly; someone out dressed in the mod fashions displayed by Marisa Mell would simply look breathtaking. Someone dressed in Diabolik’s leather catsuit is probably on his way somewhere special.
This isn’t the type of film where you fret over the details, and if you do you’re just going to miss the point. Like I said, it exists in a fictitious comic book world. It’s not meant to be any more realistic than any other superhero/villain movie or comic book. What does count is the pace of the story, and Bava keeps things moving along at a fair clip. It’s not an action-packed movie, not by today’s standards where something big must explode every five minutes in between a sequence involving bikini girls freak dancing. But it is expertly and briskly paced, with a light-hearted tone that keeps you from worrying too much about the fact that the man we’re supposed to love is a murderer and a thief. Ultimately, of course, Diabolik is a criminal and must pay for his crimes. The film’s ending is vague in its resolution but absolutely fitting. Ginco must prevail, after all. The exuberance and reckless abandon of youth must be tamed. And so we are left with Diabolik encased in a coffin forged out of his own indulgence, a gold plating from which he cannot escape…
…or can he? We’ll never really know. De Laurentiis was so pleased with the fact that Bava brought the movie in $2.6 million under its $3 million budget that he practically begged for a sequel. Unfortunately, the reportedly mild-mannered Bava could not bear the oppressive and often dictatorial producer so no sequel ever came about. We are left then with the final shot of Diabolik imprisoned by his own greed, laughing either slyly or maniacally, protected by his special suit from the molten gold but unable, as far as we can tell, to escape. His rebellion, after all, was not perfect. And while the establishment is able, at least for the time being, to contain Diabolik and his socially challenging threat, while they may suppress it, it’s unclear as to how long that will be the case. It could always resurface. It is a beautiful tongue-in-cheek ending, one that even works quite cleverly in conjunction with the fate of Valmont, who finds himself on the more fatal and literal end of greed.
Although it would seem, at first, to be a major departure from Bava’s greater body of work, most of which up to the point had been gothic horror and giallo, Diabolik still manages to cover most of the director’s pet themes and thus fits quite perfectly into his oeuvre. Diabolik is an outsider who rejects what those around him see as established common sense. Appearances are, as always, deceiving at their very best. Diabolik’s use of disguises and his foiling of Ginco’s trap by using a photograph of an empty, peaceful room are the most obvious examples. And like most of Bava’s anti-heroes, Diabolik eventually gets his comeuppance.
For my money, Diabolik is an unabashed success on all levels. The art design is without parallel. The script is crisp, witty, and fast-paced. The universe Bava creates is wild and enjoyable. And the performances – yes, even John Phillip Law’s – are wonderful. It is the ultimate super-villain movie, with a villain so charismatic that you forget he isn’t the hero. Campy, clever, and never taking itself as seriously as some dim-witted critics seem to think it does, Diabolik is one of the best, if not the best, European comic book/fantasy/sci-fi films, not to mention of the most breathlessly beautiful and fun films of the 1960s.
Release Year: 1968 | Country: Italy | Starring: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi, Claudio Gora, Mario Donen, Renzo Palmer, Caterina Boratto, Lucia Modugno, Annie Gorassini, Carlo Croccolo, Lidia Biondi, Andrea Bosic, Federico Boido, Tiberio Mitri | Screenplay: Arduino Maiuri, Mario Bava | Director: Mario Bava | Cinematographer: Antonio Rinaldi | Music: Ennio Morricone | Producer: Dino De Laurentiis