*. Was Mario Bava really any good? Yes, I think he was. In fact I think he approached greatness at times.
*. But he worked at speed, directing a lot of movies that were cheap, genre efforts. I don’t think this was a burden on him, as my sense is that he worked best under these limitations, but he tended to stick within a comfort zone, meaning he repeats himself (visually) a lot.
*. Watch this movie back-to-back with a title like Blood and Black Lace (his next, released the following year) and you’ll see what I mean. Not just in the fluid camera pans and dollies and signature blobs of bright colour, but the bubbles of light and shadow that suggest a sense of guilt moving like a ghost through the hallways, settling on each of the characters in turn.
*. How can you judge whether a director is any good? There are a number of different tests, but one is to look at how well they work with poor source material. This project comes from the prolific Italian horror screen scribe Ernesto Gastaldi (in his excellent DVD commentary, Bava scholar Tim Lucas calls him the real auteur of the film). I think the screenplay is a joke, a tired reprise of various exploitation motifs stitched together into an almost parodic motley. Much of it doesn’t bear thinking about (example: why does Navenka kill the old count?). And yet out of such stuff, and with no budget, Bava crafts an elaborate and beautiful mystery thriller.
*. We begin in a landscape of pure romance (actually a stretch of coastline familiar to Bava fans, “the heart and home of his filmography” according to Lucas). Where are we? When are we? Somewhere in Europe, but east or west is anybody’s guess. As for the century, I couldn’t place it within a couple of hundred years. 1500 to 1900 shall we say?
*. Just take a look at that funeral service. Christian, yes, but which church? Eastern Orthodox? We might think so, but the hooded pallbearers, looking like figures from the Spanish inquisition, remove us to another reality entirely.
*. According to Lucas the practical reason for all this indeterminacy was to recycle props, and also to suggest the world of “a dark fairytale.” Dark except for those aforementioned spotlights of colour that seem to revolve like the inside of a kaleidoscope, with garish fragments of red, blue, green, and orange.
*. The introduction adds to that sense of romance. A woman stands before a macabre shrine to her dead daughter: a bloody dagger, stuck upright beside a red rose, under a glass case. Apparently this is the dagger that killed the woman’s daughter, and she wants to see it used to avenge that untimely death. This is a plot every bit as lurid as the film’s palette.
*. I find it hard to judge a cast whose voices have all been dubbed. Christopher Lee is the same mostly silent presence he was as Dracula, and even seems to be channeling the count when he looms in to kiss Verenka. Daliah Lavi is suitably glamorous and neurotic, with eyelashes as long as bird wings.
*. According to Lucas early critics were confused about all the family relationships. I can sympathize. Even watching the uncut version I was having trouble working it out. One of the curve balls is the question of why Christian isn’t sleeping with his wife. She says she just wants to be alone. But she’s also scared. This is hard to rationalize, and I wonder if anyone really bothered thinking it through. For the rest of it, there are hints of incest throughout, particularly between Christian and his cousin, and the count and Navenka.
*. That incest angle is more interesting than the sadomasochism, which is pretty tame (though it was enough to get the film in trouble with censors). Lavi actually sells it pretty well, but it doesn’t have much connection finally to the rest of the movie.
*. Since Kurt is interred in a crypt in a family chapel, why would his boots be covered in the mud “as though he had climbed out of the grave”?
*. It was released in the U.S. under the title What (with no question mark). This goes beyond the merely enigmatic. One wonders if whoever was in charge of such things just forgot to write something in.
*. The score by Carlo Rustichelli gets a lot of praise, and it’s very nice but I think way overplayed. Even on a first viewing I got sick of it halfway through.
*. I think this was Bava’s major period — if we can speak of such a thing with such a career — and this is a fairly representative work. Despite being produced on a shoestring budget it was also his biggest box office flop. I can’t explain that. Perhaps audiences didn’t respond to its weird aura. Personally I prefer his giallo films. This movie seems uncomfortably derivative of the work of Roger Corman and Hammer. And yet despite this it is so essentially Bava-esque that it rises above its genre. There were lots of very good low-budget, genre directors. But Bava was one of the very few auteurs of the form.