A Gulf of Gore

by Arthur B

Mario Bava's A Bay of Blood finds him in a giallo arms race with Dario Argento.
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Dario Argento might have the more widely-known name, but Mario Bava is arguably the director who laid the foundations of Italian horror cinema. As well as collaborating with Riccardo Freda on I Vampiri - the first Italian horror film to be produced after the Mussolini-era ban was finally lifted - his early 1960s efforts The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace set the mould for the “giallo” genre - a peculiar blend of murder mystery and horror film, frequently involving overt or sublimated erotic themes, that was itself a predecessor of the slasher movie.

Still, by the early 1970s the young upstart Argento managed to seize the momentum with works like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, whose unflinching depictions of violence made earlier works seem positively tame. A Bay of Blood - also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve, Blood Bath, and a host of other alternate titles - seems to have been Bava’s attempt to catch up, with special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi at hand to depict the murders with such gruesome realism that even old hands like Christopher Lee were revolted by the end result.

The action kicks off when the wheelchair-bound Countess Federica (Isa Miranda) is murdered by her husband Filippo Donati (Giovanni Nuvoletti), Filippo cleverly arranging it to look like suicide. Before he can gloat for too long, Filippo is himself slain by an unseen assailant, who manages to hide the body so that Filippo is merely regarded as a missing person. This puts out Frank Ventura (Chris Avram), a real estate agent who had plotted the murder with Filippo after the Countess had refused to sell Frank her luxurious bayside mansion and other properties (for the Countess owned most of the land of any value around the bay) Frank wanted the real estate, Filippo wanted the money - but Frank can’t see to the transfer of property without Filippo’s signature.

As Frank tries to track down Filippo, teenagers break into Frank’s bayside cottage to party, the Countess’s daughter Renata (Claudine Auger) arrives with her husband Albert (Luigi Pistilli) their two children to investigate matters, and a range of colourful local characters develop their own ideas about what happened to Filippo and what should happen to the bay. Anna Fosatti (Laura Betti) - the witchy wife of obsessive insect collector Paolo (Leopoldo Trieste) - makes prophecies of doom, and soon enough people are being murdered left, right and centre as various parties try to stake their claim to the mansion and its associated riches through bloody violence.

As far as cheap movies about a bunch of people being killed in gruesome detail, there’s a primal simplicity to A Bay of Blood. The slaying of the sex-crazed teens - which in other slasher movies would be the entire point - is just one early incident in the film, the rest of which is dedicated to various kill-crazies with some stake in the inheritance competing to see who can survive the longest. As such, it doesn’t pretend to any moral high ground; there isn’t really any character you can get behind and root for, due to the combination of everyone being a suspect and everyone being sufficiently unpleasant in their own way to repulse the viewer. Anyone who does manage to convince you that they’re a likable, relatable human being proves to be either complicit in murder or gets killed within a few scenes.

The final, abrupt plot twist means that ultimately nobody benefits from the Countess’s riches, and on one hand this is necessary to stop the film effectively saying “crime pays and if you’re smart enough you can profit from murder”. At the same time, thanks to this conclusion A Bay of Blood ends up chillingly nihilistic in a different way, with the final killers apparently having no appreciation of what destruction they have wrought, so the moral ends up being “more or less anything you try to accomplish can be destroyed at a moment’s notice by someone with enough hatred, enough callousness, or enough carelessness to do the job”.

On the whole, the film doesn’t really set a high priority on script, story, or acting though. To a certain extent, the plot exists to justify a string of murder scenes - a typical characteristic of both giallo and the slasher movies Bay would influence - and there’s an extent to which the movie is an enormous exercise in showcasing Carlo Rambaldi’s artistry when it comes to special effects. Big ol’ blade in the face? Decapitation? Hanging? Impalement? Carlo can deliver them all. Rambaldi’s special effects on another giallo from the same year - Fulci’s A Lizard In a Woman’s Skin - were sufficiently ahead of their time that Rambaldi had to demonstrate to the police how they were accomplished to save Fulci from an animal cruelty charge, and it’s doubtless the realistic gore here which earned A Bay of Blood its place on the video nasty list - in fact, it was denied approval for cinematic release when it first came out too, an accolade that not many of the video nasties could boast.

At the same time, some of the killings set up unusual shots which suggest a somewhat more thoughtfully-constructed film than Bay appears to be at first. For instance, when two of the teenagers killed in the middle of sex by having a spear driven right through them, after their initial yelp of pain they keep writing and moaning, as though trying to make the best of it and finish up what they started in the few seconds of consciousness left to them, and there’s a shot of one character who’s been pinned to a wall by a spear where he’s looking upwards in ecstasy like a saint depicted dying in Renaissance art.

Perhaps the key scene for me is the part where one of the contenders for the inheritance is being attacked by another, and you have the classic bit where she’s trying to hold a door shut and the killer is trying to get it open, when suddenly Bava flips the script on you by having the character under attack turn the tables on the attacker, plunging a blade through the glass panel in the door and stabbing him. This is what distinguishes A Bay of Blood from many of its imitators, for me - rather than dividing its world neatly into victims and killers, almost every character presented is credited with the ability to both kill and be killed.
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