*. Great title. The Italian, Operazione Paura (Operation Fear), doesn’t have the same pizzazz (and was apparently only used to cash in on Erika Blanc having starred in a spy film with a similar title). Plus it has an exclamation mark. An exclamation mark isn’t a sure-fire sign of sleaze or exploitation (think of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! or the musicals Oliver!, Hello, Dolly!, Moulin Rouge!, and Mama Mia!), but I think most of the time it gives a pretty good indication of what you’re in for. As in movies like Them!, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Die, Monster, Die!, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Stop Me Before I Kill!, and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!
*. If the exclamation mark helps to temper expectations I think that’s a good thing. Kill, Baby . . . Kill! had a low budget even by Mario Bava’s usual standards and the production still ran out of money part-way through filming. The screenplay wasn’t even finished when they started shooting and some of it had to be improvised. The score was just taken from a library.
*. If any director was capable of making something out of such straitened circumstances, however, it was Mario Bava. From such inauspicious beginnings Kill, Baby . . . Kill! has gone on to gain quite a reputation as one of Bava’s best films, and one that has had a wide influence. In particular, the ghost of Melissa Graps with her ball has become a horror icon. That ball would continue to bounce its way through many a movie in the years to come.
*. I can only get on board for part of this. I wouldn’t rate this among my favourite Bava horror films, putting Blood and Black Lace, A Bay of Blood, and even the obscure and somewhat dotty Five Dolls for an August Moon ahead of it. At least I enjoy those movies a lot more. What I will say for Kill, Baby . . . Kill! is that it may be Bava’s scariest movie. It does have a suspenseful creepiness and nightmare quality to it that really works. Some of the jumpy zooms, and the slow pans around from frightened faces, are very effective. And Melissa does have a pale dangerousness that black-gloved slashers don’t.
*. That said, I also find this to be one of Bava’s dullest outings. He tries, but the story just isn’t that compelling. The weird gives way to the perfunctory. The hero Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is a pin-up, often shot from below, which makes his rugged face topped by remarkable coiffure have even more the effect of a monument. Not only is the gore dialed way back (we only see victims after they’re dead), but the way Melissa wreaks her vengeance, by getting her victims to kill themselves, is disappointing.
*. Exteriors were shot in Calcata, the disputed home of the Holy Prepuce (really, people) and a place that seems to have always been close to falling apart. The studio interiors don’t always make for smooth transitions. But even filming outside Bava manages to conjure up his usual weird lighting, with stenciled blobs of green or red being cast on ruined walls.
*. As I’ve said, no matter what the conditions of filming or material, Bava could almost always make something interesting. That’s the case again here. There are a number of great moments, like Dr. Eswai chasing after himself running in and out of the same room in a loop, or any of Melissa’s spooky appearances (I especially like the way she grabs Monica’s hand). But in this film the parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole, with the ending in particular feeling like something they just came up with on the last day of shooting, and not quite deserving of an exclamation mark.