Tagged: Mario Bava

Twitch of the Death Nerve

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Video Nasty #5 of 72

Year of Release: 1971
Directed by: Mario Bava
Run Time: 84 minutes
Alternate Titles:  Originally titled Reazione a catena (Chain Reaction), also released as A Bay of Blood, Blood Bath, Bloodbath Bay of Death, The Antecedent, Ecology of a Crime, Last House on the Left Part II, and New House on the Left. Since this might be the most re-titled film in history, I’ve probably missed quite a few.
UK Censorship Status: Released with 43 secs cut in 1994. Re-released uncut in 2010.

Although he’s a pretty well known figure among hardcore horror movie nerds, Mario Bava isn’t quite as well known with anybody else.  In fact, when I was trying to find a decent download of this movie, I mentioned his name to my wife and she just kind of shrugged her shoulders.  So if you haven’t seen Black Sabbath, or Kill, Baby, Kill or even Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (good lord) then all you really need to know is that Bava was a very stylish director that worked in a variety of “low” genres. Everything from science fiction to sword and sandal flicks.  There was a lot of junky Italian movies that came out in the 70’s and 80’s, it was kind of the heyday for that kind of thing there, but you can always pick Bava’s work out because it’s well, decent. I mean, not usually great story-wise but visually it’s usually pretty boss. Lots of stylized camera work and neat use of color and lighting. The other really interesting thing about Bava is that even though he’s not quite as good as the great Dario Argento, his work might just be more influential.  This film, for instance, pretty much kick started the whole freaking slasher genre!  That’s a pretty tall order for something that was pretty much totally critically dismissed on its original release. But then the critics never seemed to like this type of movie anyways….

Bava’s style is clearly evident in the opening scenes where we get long lingering moody shots of the bay where the entire film is set.  There’s an air of melancholy and loneliness that’s very well established even before we get to the sad old lady in the wheelchair, sadly staring out through the rain soaked window.  It’s kind of beautiful, in a depressing way….and then someone puts a noose around the old lady’s neck and hangs her from the ceiling. Then the man that did that gets brutally stabbed by somebody and left bleeding on the floor.  This opening, with it’s one two punch of brutality that’s also a sick joke, pretty much let’s you know two things: this is going to be quite a bit different from Bava’s other work and he ain’t going to hold anything back so you’d better buckle your seat belts.
Getting into the plot of the movie proper is a bit tricky because it’s an incredibly muddled story. Even reading a synopsis of it after I just watched the movie doesn’t really help much.  The basics of it go as follows, as best as I can sort out: The old bitch that died in the opening owned the bay (of blood?) and was strangled by her husband, who was in turn slaughtered by someone else. A real estate agent and his mistress plot to take the bay from the husband, who they have no idea is dead.
Also involved in this is the old woman’s daughter and her husband, who travel to the bay and are essentially after the same thing. They also have no idea the old man has kicked the bucket.  They met up with a kooky fortune teller and her unpleasant bug collecting husband where from they learn that the old lady had an illegitimate son named Simon that makes a living as a fisherman of sorts.  The couple plans to murder Simon to make sure that the land will be theirs.
Got all that? To make matters even more clear and well structured, there’s a bunch of random teenagers that wander into the movie and a couple of kids that the real estate agent left behind to go gallivanting off in search of ill gotten money.
Now have you got all that? I sure hope so, because I’m still a bit lost….

It’s really the confusing story and the fact that so many characters just kind of wander in and out of the narrative that keeps this movie from really achieving classic status.  That’s kind of sad because otherwise this thing is fucking great.  If you’re looking for brutal onscreen murder, this is one you need to watch.  I’ve seen a lot of nasty movies in my time and even I was shocked by not just the sheer amount of fatalities, but the sheer visceral nature of a lot of them as well. On top of that, most of them are just really creative and cool!  The gore films that came before this one on this list, like Blood Feast and The Ghastly Ones, had grue that was cheap and incredibly fake looking.  This might have been one of the first films to try and make its gore as realistic as possible, which it admirably succeeds at, even by today’s standards! Check out that head chop late in the film or the infamous hatchet to the face! No wonder this thing was so influential!  There’s even a couple of scenes that the Friday the 13th films outright stole, including a  buxom woman skinny dipping and a rather awesome spear thrust through a couple of copulating teenagers.  I guess they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Gore aside, what really sets this film apart is that it’s both a more stylish film than it’s many rip-offs and a smarter one as well.  A lot of critics have dismissed the film as unintelligent but if you’re paying attention, there’s a lot of very clever and subtle things you can catch.  Like a bug pinned to a board that’s strikingly similar to a character’s death later on or a bell tolling before another one bites it (Get it? For whom the bell tolls?)  It’s just so damn cool, even when you’re scratching your head over the impenetrable story.
Death Nerve (or one of its many many other titles) is also a film that actually has an underlying message that gets spelled out in what might seem like a bit of throwaway dialogue early on.  That message is that humans are essentially animals that will do anything to survive and/or get what they want. They’ll think no more of ending another person’s life for their own gains than shoving a bug in a jar of ether.  It sets a remarkably cynical and morbid tone, but in the end it all finishes up with a sick, and quite funny, joke that all of a sudden makes you look at what came before in a different light. Were we supposed to be finding all of this violence and unpleasantness amusing? The director and writers obviously did!  How remarkable…

Death Nerve ends up being a film that has a lot of flaws but it somehow ends up being better than the sum of its parts. Isn’t it weird when that happens?

Watch the trailer here (And get a sample of that groovy score!)

Random Things

  • Oh man, that jazzy score! Italian horror pretty much set the standard for horror movie music for decades to come and it’s in full force here.
  • I liked this one a lot but sometimes it feels like you’re watching a template for future movies rather than an actual movie itself.  Which is kind of an odd feeling…
  • Horror movie legend Sir Christopher Lee, a Bava fan at the time, reportedly walked out of a screening of this film in disgust.  I wonder what he thinks of it now?
  • This film would make a great double feature with 1960’s Peeping Tom, another film that’s hugely influential to the slasher genre, but also a much more coherent experience.
  • I don’t think I’ve seen a film before where every single fucking character is a scumbag out for their own ends and they all get what they deserve! Bava deserves some kind of award for that, for sure.

Next Time: The rather notorious Last House on the Left