This entry is part of the 2nd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon hosted by my brother Kevin at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. It’s a repost from last years Top 100 Horror Movies project, but one that highlights a film that doesn’t get talked about often enough (the same goes for tomorrow’s subject as well). On Monday I’ll be back with a brand new contribution.
Mario Bava's Kill, Baby Kill (I always lose track of where to put that comma) begins with a nightmarish scene which sets the stage for what is to come. A woman runs distressingly from an unseen assailant before leaping from a bell tower and impaling herself upon a sharp metal fence below (the likes of which are certain hazards whenever they show up in a horror film). From that image we immediately see that what caused her to jump was in fact a little girl, whom we are introduced to by a musical cue that is a mix of childish giggling and vibrating strings, both seeming to arise from a music box (this eerily resonant theme by Carlo Rustichelli will come to punctuate these moments of distress and disorientation throughout the film).
Soon after, we are introduced to, Dr. Paul Eswai (a wooden Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), who is called to the town to investigate this death, the latest among several. We later find out that the giggling girl is Melissa, the ghostly daughter of the demented Baroness Graps, proprietor of the ominous castle, Villa Graps, which overshadows the city. The town is in constant fear of Melissa, as her presence tends to drive her victims to their deaths. Paul, with the help of his tepid love interest, Monica Schuftan (Erika Blanc), and the town's raven-haired sorceress, Ruth (Fabienne Dali, an earthier version of Barbara Steele), soon begin to unravel this mystery and find out who is at the root of the deaths. Conflict arises when the scientific reasoning of Paul meets up with the superstitions of the townspeople. Ruth, acting as Paul's witch doctor-esque double, eventually forces him to see that there may not be a rational answer to who Melissa is and what is taking place.
Even with a decent mystery at the center of the film, the story is mostly irrelevant. There are some thematic flourishes that stand out, such as Ruth's progression to becoming the sacrificial heroine of the story and Melissa's unveiling as a sympathetic monster, both providing more characterization than is typical with Bava's female characters. As Bava guru Tim Lucas points out, Bava flips the standard archetypes, placing the dark haired witch on the side of good and making the blond haired girl the harbinger of evil.
Particularly interesting is the impact of the character of Melissa, which can likely be seen as a visual influence on Fellini (Toby Dammit), Kubrick (The Shining), and Scorsese (Last Temptation of Christ). The most hypnotic and eerie aspects of the movie all seem to revolve around her. Whether it's the first time we see her face and hands pressed against the window, her hand suddenly grabbing for Monica's, the surreal nature of a ball bouncing down a corridor in a manner not beholden to the laws of physics, or the jarring nature of the zoom-in/out while we see her moving back and forth on a swing, her presence is always imbued with a sense of dread. Part of this is due to her off-putting appearance, with gaunt skin and features that look as if they were frozen in time at the moment she died (part of the jarring nature stems from the person playing the role actually being a young boy with a wig on).
It surely speaks to Bava's inclination toward images that Melissa's story is nearly forgotten by me while her haunting visage remains in my memory. That's because this is foremost a showcase of Bava's mastery of the visual aspects of the Gothic horror film and it soon becomes obvious that Bava is more interested in creating hallucinatory moments like those I've mentioned than dealing with things like plot and dialogue.
With Kill, Baby Kill, Bava takes the mood and atmospherics of Black Sunday and splashes them with color, providing a series of striking images and set pieces. My favorite aspect of any Bava movie is his command of his mise-en-scene. His compositions have a painterly quality to them, not only with the way he places props and people in each shot, but particularly in his use of color. Like a painter with his palette, Bava uses several hues of oversaturated gel lights to create an uncanny quality to the surroundings. This technique allow for shades of green in one corner of the set, blue tones covering an actors face, all while shadows permeate the remainder of the screen. Each scene and setting allows Bava to use a different mix of shadows and colors, all arranged in an otherworldly manner (there's a reason that Tim Lucas entitled his Bava book "All The Colors of the Dark," as it provides the perfect representation of Bava's palette). Bava also uses many of his trademark camera tricks and effects to build up the expressive atmosphere -- the distorting ripple in the camera lens which hints to the ethereal nature of the events and various pans across the deteriorating landscape showing the ruins of the city. It's all enough to make you ignore the sometimes comical overuse of the zoom by Bava (surely part of which is due to the necessities brought upon by the low budget and short shooting schedule).
Bava saved his best moments for the final minutes of the film, with two sequences that work showcase the visual power of the film.
While inside a room at Villa Graps, Paul begins chasing someone, following him through a door. This door leads Paul right back into the same room he was just in, with the object of his chase somewhat closer. Paul continuously does this, closing in on the other man until he catches up to him and suddenly realizes that he has been chasing himself in a Mobius strip. Before he can figure out what is going on, he finds himself abruptly transported to the outside of the house.
The other scene befalls Monica, who is suddenly being chased by the ghostly Melissa. As she makes her way down a spiral staircase, Bava begins having his camera circle the staircase in the opposite direction, creating a vertiginous effect. Then, as if stuck in the same Mobius strip as Paul was in the aforementioned scene, she seems to run around and around the staircase endlessly, before suddenly being ejected from the castle entirely, as Bava's fades from the swirls of the spinning staircase to a pull back from her prone body (and thus getting in two Hitchcock homages in one scene).
The two scenes comprise a bravura set of shots, which thanks to Bava's editing and camera movement is at once capable of grounding and disorienting the viewer. Even though you may consciously realize the trick Bava is playing, you are still swept up by the illogical sensation that is afoot.