*. Like a lot of Europeans films, this one was released under several titles. Indeed, Bava scholar Tim Lucas says that it is “probably known by more titles than any other movie ever released.” Personally, I like Twitch of the Death Nerve the best because it’s so graphic and bizarre and I’m not really sure what it refers to (what is a “death nerve” anyway?). The other titles range from the inspired to the mundane, including The Odor of Flesh (if this was that movie), The Ecology of Murder, Chain Reaction, Carnage, Blood Bath, and Thus Do We Live to Be Evil. But the version I have is called A Bay of Blood (which is a translation of its French and Spanish titles), so.
*. It almost seems like there’s too much plot stuffed in here for such a short running time. And even so, the bloody business with the four “kids” (are they supposed to be teenagers?) is all extraneous as they are just meat, like the campers out on Crystal Lake.
*. I’m glad the Kino DVD includes the Italian version, as it’s worth watching just for its explanatory value. It isn’t fundamentally different but does have a lot of small but somewhat significant variations in the dialogue. Generally it’s clearer and makes more sense.
*. For example: what is that large, run-down barn-like structure? Apparently an abandoned night club, but this is only mentioned in the Italian version.
*. How desirable is this property anyway? It looks like a swamp to me. It’s an interesting change of look for Bava though, whose most famous work was lovingly studio-bound. Here he’s gone commando shooting on location.
*. We have to talk about this script. I absolutely love it. The way it unfolds is like a well-made play, with characters killing each other off in a sort of circular firing squad, leading to Bava’s boast of having “thirteen characters and thirteen murders.” What makes this so impressive is that the different killers are all properly motivated. That’s not easy to arrange! Admittedly the motivation is slight in some cases, but this not just a brainless kill-fest.
*. That’s a point I want to elaborate on a bit. Motivation is a bit of a critical bugbear of mine, as I expect any decent script to give me characters who behave in ways and for reasons I can understand. Even the characters in slasher horror films. The giallo had to come to America before we got the idiot plot and its master of ceremonies the pure psycho killer. In these Italian films, like A Bay of Blood or the giallo prototype Blood and Black Lace, the killers all have practical reasons for killing their victims. Indeed, in Blood and Black Lace the possibility that the killer is just a sexual maniac is only introduced as a red herring. The move to America allowed for the rise to predominance of the psychopath, who would simplify horror plots tremendously. The murderer just became a killing machine.
*. The script also has some great lines. I’m particularly fond of the exchange between Paolo and Simon. Paolo: “But man isn’t an insect, my dear Simon, we have centuries of civilization behind us you know.” Simon: “No I don’t know, I wasn’t there.”
*. That they ended up with something so coherent, even neat, after so many drafts by various writers is even more amazing.
*. The link between humans and insects is made a couple of times in the film, most specifically when we go from the couple transfixed by a spear to the bug with a pin through it in Paolo’s study. Another use of the same motif comes with the fly dying in the opening shot, which I wasn’t even aware of until I heard Lucas’s commentary. A fly dies by falling into the bay like a pebble? That seems weird.
*. I guess the big question here is just how much this movie has to answer for. The liner notes for the DVD call it “one of the most influential horror films of all time . , , the spurting artery from which all future slasher films would flow.” And Tim Lucas on the commentary track works hard to sell this point. One can see the connection to movies like Friday the 13th, but I would want to register a few reservations.
*. (1) The giallo elements of the POV camera and black gloves had their origin, as Lucas notes, in an earlier American film (The Spiral Staircase).
*. (2) Sean Cunningham, the producer-director of Friday the 13th, acknowledged Bava’s importance, but Friday the 13th was a deliberate rip-off of Halloween. The goal, as always, was to make money, and I don’t know how successful Bava’s gialli were. Blood and Black Lace was a bomb, and apparently this movie did poorly in Italy at least. Meanwhile, was Halloween indebted to this film? Only very loosely.
*. (3) Returning to what I said earlier about the psycho-slasher, in Friday the 13th Cunningham wanted the murderer to be a killing machine like the shark in Jaws. That’s a very different approach to motivation than what we have here.
*. Things get off to a great start. Hanging an old lady in a wheelchair! And not just any old lady but the movie’s biggest name star: Isa Miranda. That lets you know that nothing is going to be taboo.
*. Then you see the killer removing his black gloves, and as in Hatchet for the Honeymoon, something registers as wrong. The killer’s identity shouldn’t be revealed to us this early! But no! It doesn’t matter because he’s going to be killed right away too. That’s a nice surprise, and introduces the notion of a chain reaction of murder (to take one of the original titles the film had). One killing just automatically leads to another.
*. What’s with the balloons hanging over the bed in Ventura’s cool pad? I know he’s a stylish guy, and has a lot of . . . interesting . . . decorations both in his place in the city and his cottage by the bay, but those balloons seem a little too much.
*. On the commentary Lucas says he talked to Claudine Auger and she said she had no memory of this movie at all. I call bullshit. And I hate it when actors do this. You got paid for it honey, you oughta own it.
*. I wonder what Bava thought of all of this. Lucas thinks the cut from the double-decker bed murder to the front of the dune buggy’s “smiley face” was his way of telling us not to take things so seriously, that he was just having fun knocking characters off. Possibly. As Lucas points out, there’s no other reason for that shot to be there, though I think Bava might have wanted to let us know that all four of the kids are now dead and remind us that the car has to be somehow still disposed of (providing another red herring).
*. I wouldn’t call it a horror-comedy, but it does have an air of the ridiculous about it. At times the murders seem almost slapstick. And those zany, repetitive zooms in and out seem like something out of Laugh In.
*. But the other stylistic tic that he keeps falling back on, the blurring of focus in transitions, isn’t funny and is just as pervasive. In other words, it might be that Bava was just working quickly and doing a rough job of things. Though interesting visually, I find this to be one of Bava’s least polished works.
*. Those frequent dissolves and zooms are what grate the most on repeated viewings. The first time you see this movie I don’t think you notice them as much. And was Bava thinking anyone was going to watch this movie more than once?
*. It’s a bleak view of humanity (though things would get much bleaker soon). It’s not that the victims are all just meat on the hoof, but the fact that they’re all worthy or deserving of being slaughtered. They’re all morally compromised. Even the gang of kids are a bunch of break-and-enter punks.
*. How classy was Bava, really? Could he have found a longer dress for “the kraut girl” Brunhilda to wear? Skinny dipping is one thing, but he seems to be leering at her underwear a lot, especially in the deliberate low-angle shots of her climbing in the window or running up the steps.
*. When Brunhilda is killed by the billhook she falls in a very awkward position, with her knees up and her ankles crossed. I wonder if Bava directed her to take that pose, and if so why.
*. Most of the score I don’t like, but the skin-slapping bongo beat is nice. So many of these movies have what seem to be overwritten scores (see the use of Goblin in early Argento). Perhaps it was felt that the music had to do more work to make up for the awful dubbing.
*. The ending is justifiably famous, and reminded me of the shocking and absurd ending of The Bad Seed. Was Bava’s point the same, to lay it down as a rubric that crime must not be seen to pay? Originally the little girl was to say “That will teach them to be bad” (another one of the working titles for the film).
*. Or was it a way of providing symmetry? Or just meant as a(nother) joke? Perhaps all of the above.
*. This is a landmark film, and an entertaining one in its own right. I find it very ragged around the edges though, and that’s not just a reference to the violence. As so often, Bava was working on a limited budget and making a movie that looks ten times better than you’d expect it to, but it’s still a diamond in the rough.