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.
Certain newspapers (The sensationalist Daily Mail being the leading culprit) in need of a moral cause over which to express their burning outrage and indignation began a crusade against the potential free-for-all of home video, dubbing the sick and disgusting movies one could acquire for home viewing the “video nasties,” since movies that benefited from the loophole were presumably packed with sex and violence and swarthy Italians stabbing each other in the eye. Having nothing better to do that day, and perhaps looking for something that would take the edge off less important problems, like the IRA putting bombs in garbage bins and mailboxes, the cause was embraced, thereby turning a bunch of films it was likely no one wanted to see in the first place into overnight legends and must-have taboo items.
With a few swift strokes of the quill pen (I assume they still use those in England), a whole stack of awful movies got to plaster their oversized 1980s boxes with the phrase, “Banned in the U.K.” For most of these movies — the bulk of which were horror films from the United States and Italy which were considered so heinous in their content that they would fray the very moral fabric of youth Britannia — there was no better advertising than being placed on the instantly-infamous Video Nasties list. Whatever revenues were lost by having British borders sealed against their intrusion was undoubtedly recouped via the spike in interest the banning caused elsewhere. The Young Ones did a whole episode revolving around efforts to obtain one of the movies on the Nasties list, and The Damned wrote a song about it.
However, listing the Video Nasties as “banned” is slightly misleading. At the time the list was created, film censorship was handled by the courts, and a certain standard had to be met for a film to be eligible for censorship or outright banning. The Video Nasties list was actually a list of films the public prosecutors thought would be worth pursuing in court. So they were not so much banned as they were “potentially banned,” with excessive sex, violence, or more importantly, sex-related violence (and also numchucks) being the primary focus of moral disgust. Just getting on the list was enough to effectively keep a film out of England though, because no company wanted to invest money in releasing a tape that could potentially be confiscated a couple weeks or months later. Anyway, that’s how I understand the history of the list. I may have taken a misstep here and there, so please alert me if I have.
Reading through the list can cause one to take pause and wonder what sort of criteria went into developing the titles that appear on it. Some of them make sense. If you’re going to ban a sick and perverse film, you can’t do much better than have Cannibal Holocaust as your poster child. But other titles seem straight out of left field, with nothing in them that could possibly justify a banning under the guidelines set up by the BBFC for a country where Benny Hill could still conjure up random gusts of wind that would make a buxom lady’s dress blow off, thus causing her to run around in fast motion wearing nothing but her knickers while Benny fluttered his eyelashes. Sure, some of the movies were gory, but really, where was the danger to morality in a movie as ludicrous as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie or Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination? And how did a movie like Dario Argento’s Inferno, easily one of the least gory films he’d made, get on there?
The big problem with the list, it was revealed, was that not only did it make a bunch of crappy, boring films (and some genuinely good ones) instant must-see “classics” of shock cinema, but the titles on the list were often placed there by people who had never seen the actual movie, or had simply run across a picture of the box art, or had gotten the movie confused with some other movie (as was the case with Tobe Hooper’s Funhouse). It was a complete hodge-podge with no real research put into it. And like most attempts to ban or censor horror films, it only increased interest in the movies that made the cut, so to speak.
Fulci’s Zombie, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, and Umberto Lenzi’s Make them Die Slowly benefited hugely from inclusion on the list. I distinctly remember the giant boxes in the video store for both Zombie and Make them Die Slowly celebrating the banning of the films in England. Most of the movies on the list have since been released in the UK uncut on DVD, but having been placed on the Video Nasties list will forever remain a badge of accomplishment for many of the titles. Heck, for some of them, it’s about the only good thing they have going for them. Can you imagine fighting customs agents, smuggling in a video, risking fines and imprisonment, then sitting down to discover all your effort resulted in a movie as silly as Funhouse?
Among the titles on the list was Mario Bava’s 1971 proto-slasher film Bay of Blood, known these days in the United States as Twitch of the Death Nerve. Bava, as you might know, is considered more or less the godfather of the Italian horror film and one of the legendary greats of the genre as a whole. Any list of the best horror films of all time compiled by someone who knows about movies made before 1995 is pretty likely to contain at least one, and possibly several, Mario Bava films: gothic horror films Black Sunday (aka Mask of Satan) starring Barbara Steele, Kill, Baby…Kill!, or The Whip and the Body starring Christopher Lee; or perhaps his more modern horror films like Twitch of the Death Nerve and Blood and Black Lace. Bava’s visual style was defined by his affinity for moody, hallucinatory atmosphere and candy-colored phantasmagoric lighting and remains to this day a major influence on filmmakers. With Blood and Black Lace, he pretty much created the Italian giallo film — murder mysteries and supernatural thrillers that drew from pulp novels and relied heavily on shocking murders and a highly stylized visual approach.
Since Bava was from an older generation of filmmaker, he tended to restrain himself when it came to sex and gore. There was titillation to be sure, and plenty of violence. But nudity was rare, sex scenes were non-existent, and bloody gore almost never made an appearance. He was much more from the Hitchcock school of things. Even as other filmmakers embraced increasingly lax regulations about what they could show on screen, Bava stayed his hand. At least until 1971. Perhaps it was the fact that Bava had been saddled with a string of unsatisfying projects, thus filling the venerable director with frustration he needed to vent. Maybe he just thought the time was right. Or maybe he felt that the script for Bay of Blood was witty and funny enough for people to recognize that the excess was there to create an almost comic book-like sense of the absurd that couldn’t possibly be taken seriously by anyone. Whatever the motivation, Bava decided to pull out the stops for Bay, which has ended up with more titles than I care to list. I’m sticking with Bay because it’s the shortest.
The film opens with serene shots of a wooded lake. As the credits role, it becomes evident that we’re following the flight of an insect. As the credits wrap up, the fly suddenly and without reason drops dead. It’s a foreshadowing of what’s to come — that anyone, and any time, is going to die in this film; that they will, in fact, be dropping like flies. Mimicking this opening is the next scene, which consists of an old woman in a wheelchair puttering about her fancy abode. Her daily routine is rudely interrupted when a man appears and strangles her with a noose, leaving her dead and dangling in a doorway. One would assume that the remainder of the film would revolve around various players attempting to discover the identity of the murderer, but Bava short-circuits that expectation by immediately panning up and revealing the killer’s face — then promptly has the killer murdered by yet another killer. I don’t know if you would call this “playful,” but it is an indicator that Bava is going to infuse this film with a little more humor than might be expected in a film with a title like Bay of Blood.
From there, the story proper kicks in. After the old woman’s death, the home and accompany murky lake are up for grabs by a cast of potential heirs, all of whom descend upon the house ostensibly for the sorting out of the will but mostly so they can plot, connive, and be murdered by the mysterious assailant. Most of the cast is of a nasty disposition. All of them have various things to hide. The twists and turns in gialli are often…oh let’s say either far-fetched or just uninteresting, but Bava keeps viewers guessing and interested in the identity of the killer — or killers, because it seems more than one person is bloodying their axe at this remote paradise. There’s not much point in going through the machinations and revelations of the plot, since listing who stabs who in the back (sometimes literally) doesn’t have the same impact of simply lying back and watching the bloody delerium unfold on the screen. Suffice it to say that no one is especially nice, not even the old woman we saw murdered in the very beginning. It’s possible that the symbolic fly from the credit sequence was a nice enough fellow, but then given the fly’s tendency to vomit its filthy eggs onto the top of your sandwich, it’s likely that the fly was as much a scheming jerk as everyone else.
Bay is a strong film, though not my favorite Bava outing (I prefer Kill, Baby…Kill! and Blood and Black Lace). Still, it’s one of the best giallo films ever made, and it also has the somewhat dubious honor of being considered by many to be the first “slasher” film. For my money, establishing the first slasher film is a tricky proposition — why is this a slasher film and Blood and Black Lace not? Whatever the case, it certainly means the slasher film was boiling long before the previously cited “first” slasher film, John Carpenter’s Halloween. Without a doubt, Halloween was the impetus for the flood o’ blood that spilled during much of the 1980s, but the Friday the 13th films have pretty much become the poster children, however bad most of them may have been, for the whole genre. There’s not much doubt in my mind that the template for the F13 films was lifted wholesale from Mario Bava’s much smarter, cleverer Bay of Blood.
Bay establishes all the essential genre cliches that would be mercilessly flogged some ten years or so later. You have the remote, wooded location and a seemingly complete lack of police force. You have the diverse group of generally unlikable characters. You have most of those characters getting murdered by sometimes outlandish methods, then piled up in some central location for someone else to stumble across. And perhaps most important of all, you have the founding of the “get naked then get killed” pattern that became the lifeblood, so to speak, of the entire slasher genre. Bava flirted with nudity in previous films, but it was generally incidental. With Bay of Blood however, Bava went further with nudity than he had before, though it’s still nothing compared to what we’d be seeing in the coming years from other Italian thrillers. What’s more important is that the film sets up the pattern: a woman gets naked, either for sex or for skinny dipping, and moments later they get skewered.
Much has been made of the psychological implications of this tendency, that it is a manifestation of a repressed and/or oppressive male reaction to female liberation. In many of the later slasher movies, I don’t doubt this one bit. It’s mean-spirited venting, scenes written by frustrated screenwriters who weren’t getting lucky with naked women of their own so they take their frustrations out on female characters, and then in turn provide both titillation and some sort of grim, twisted satisfaction for the portion of the viewing population that shares their sentiments. With Bava, however, the entire premise seems less sinister, but that may just be me. What makes Bay of Blood markedly different from the slasher films it would inspire is the sense of humor that pervades everything. It’s a twisted sense of humor, no doubt, but it’s obvious that Mario Bava is out on a bit of a lark with this film. Bava has always, in my eyes, been a slightly less controlled and more visually daring peer of Alfred Hitchcock, and Bay feels similar in many ways to late-era Hitchcock or a particularly edgy Agatha Christie novel.
There are plenty of other elements that set Bay of Blood apart from the pack it eventually unleashed. For starters, Mario Bava is a much better director than just about everyone else who made a slasher film, many of whom were helming one of their first films when they slid behind the camera to shoot the carnage in the woods, or wherever their film may have been set (it was probably the woods). Bava was a veteran director, cinematographer, and writer by 1971, with some four decades of experience under his belt. His visual flare and stylistic approach shines through. He also has the good sense to populate his movie not just with a bunch of more or less anonymous, pretty throw-away non-actors who do nothing more than serve as fodder for the killer, but also with a cast of seasoned vets who know their way around a movie and lend it an element of maturity that is sorely missing from the teen slasher films of the eighties. James Bond fans will also be pleased to stumble across Thunderball Bond girl Claudine Auger in the film. Me? I’d be happy to stumble across Claudine Auger just about anywhere.
So Bay of Blood is neither your typical giallo or your typical slasher film. It’s something smarter and better composed than the bulk of films it inspired, as is often the case. It was Bava’s last great film, though I might be willing to say second-to-last. Lisa and the Devil is pretty spectacular and by far his weirdest film. Bay is mean but not exactly mean-spirited, clever without being irritating, and really just sort of nastily funny. One gets the feeling that Bava really relished the opportunity, after infusing so many of his films with a humanist compassion toward the lead characters, to simply cut loose and let a bunch of conniving, spoiled schemers really have it.
So why did it make the Video Nasties list? You’d have to ask whoever put it on there, but my guess would be the mix of bare breasts and bloody mayhem caused it to be placed in the crosshairs. It’s just as likely that the box art set someone off, or that one of the people compiling the list was trying to sell some bayfront property and thought a title like this might hurt their chances. Whatever the case, while the Video Nasties list is nothing more than an oddity of eighties entertainment paranoia that has been largely forgotten, Mario Bava and Bava’s Bay of Blood have been rediscovered by a new generation thanks to DVD, and Bava’s influence and importance to filmmaking continues to be explored and exalted.
Release Year: 1971 | Country: Italy | Starring: Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Claudio Camaso, Anna Maria Rosati, Cristea Avram, Leopoldo Trieste, Laura Betti, Brigitte Skay, Isa Miranda, Paola Montenero, Guido Boccaccini, Roberto Bonanni, Giovanni Nuvoletti | Screenplay: Mario Bava | Director: Mario Bava | Cinematography: Mario Bava | Music: Stelvio Cipriani | Producer: Giuseppe Zaccariello | Original Title: Reazione a catena