Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970)

Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970)‘Should we take bets on who dies first? The dead person wins.’

A weekend party on a private island turns deadly when the guests are murdered one by one. The motive would seem to revolve around the secret formula that several of the party want to buy, but it appears that someone will stop at nothing to obtain it, even murder…

Somewhat nonsensical but beautifully crafted Giallo from horror maestro Mario Bava. It was another last-minute call to save a troubled production for the director, who delivers on the assignment thanks to his technical expertise and filmmaking genius. Earlier involvement, however, would undoubtedly have made for an even better result.

Multi-millionaire industrialist George Stark (Teodoro Corrà) is determined to buy the secret formula for a new revolutionary manufacturing resin from scientist Professor Farrell (William Berger). The boffin has just lost his business partner in a lab accident, so some rest and relaxation on Stark’s private island seem to be in order. Berger brings along wife Trudy (Ira von Fürstenberg) but the weekend party isn’t just a foursome with Stark’s marriage partner, artist Jill (Edith Meloni). Also present are Nick and Marie Chaney (Maurice Poli and Edwige Fenech) and Jack and Peggy Davidson (Howard Ross and Helena Ronee). Poli and Ross are also business tycoons interested in Berger’s new process, and the three have arranged to join forces to buy it from him. The list of potential suspects and victims is rounded out by houseboy Jacques (Mauro Bosco) and game warden’s daughter, Isabel (Ely Galleani).

Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970)

The business triumvirate delivers their pitch to Berger, but he proclaims that he has no interest in money and quietly burns his notes. Fenech is busy enjoying the services of the hired help, while Meloni and von Fürstenberg try to keep their hands off each other, with the latter also the target of the amorous Poli. In short, if you’re looking for a murder motive other than financial, it’s probably best to assume that all the eight principals are likely spending quality time with each other in whatever combinations they fancy. And murder is afoot when Bosco turns up dead on the motorboat where he’d arranged another tryst with Fenech and later on, after the vessel disappears, as food for the crabs on the beach. Cut off from the mainland; one killing follows another, and the walk-in freezer starts to fill up with dead bodies.

Ultimately, the film is a triumph of technique over content. Bava’s visual sensibilities combined with the eye-catching sets, location, soundtrack and performances elevate a relatively poor screenplay to a level of entertainment the material does not merit. The director conjures beautiful images in both the studio and on location, the lighting, colours and framing of shots inside the beach house being particularly effective. The sets of Giulia Mafia and the production design of Giuseppe Aldrovandi allow Bava the space to position his actors, props and furniture into beautiful and striking compositions. The look is very much of its era, but it’s tasteful and economical. Less accomplished filmmakers of the period tended to overload their sets with pop art, objet d’art and clashing colours in a self-conscious effort to appear modern and relevant, but Bava and his team knew that less is more.

Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970)

Conversely, Pietro Ulimiani delivers a score that delights in confounding expectations. Rather than supply music to create suspense, the composer favours a bizarre stew of electronic melodies, jaunty tunes and occasional flourishes of rock music to counterpoint the action on the screen. It’s a very bold choice, but it makes sense. These are not characters the audience is supposed to invest in emotionally; they are shallow, greedy and selfish. So an element of gleeful comedy in their imminent departure from the action is entirely appropriate.

The location filming was done on the beach at Tor Calendar, south of Anzio and featured in many of Bava’s films. He uses it brilliantly here, the camera prowling around the rocky shore, shooting through plants to suggest potential victims under surveillance, and showcasing some beautiful shots of the beach house on the cliff and the pier running out into the sea. Neither house nor jetty existed, of course; Bava painted the structures on a sheet of glass, lined it up in front of the camera and shot through it, creating an almost perfect illusion.

Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970)

There are also some terrific set-pieces. Two men fight, knocking over a sculpture constructed from transparent, plastic spheres of different sizes. These balls bounce and tumble down a spiral staircase and across a tiled floor before falling into a bloodstained bubble bath containing a new victim. As the corpses pile up, they are hung up in polythene bags in the walk in-freezer beside sides of beef, apparently one of Bava’s ideas. There’s the almost wordless opening sequence where he introduces the entire cast of characters, not by telling us who they are, but by establishing something far more important: we’re not going to like any of them.

Unfortunately, Mario di Nardo’s slapdash script and the hurried production undermine a lot of Bava’s excellent work. The director turned the project down initially as he hated the screenplay, mainly because it was a thinly-disguised rehash of Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Indians.’ Ironically, Christie was one of the authors published in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s in the wave of popular, cheap paperbacks that gave rise to the term ‘Giallo’ in the first place, so, in a way, she was an appropriate choice for adaptation. But Bava was not interested, and only agreed to consider the project if he was paid upfront. The producers went elsewhere, but their eventual choice pulled out at the eleventh hour, and they went back to Bava with a cheque. He accepted, even though the film was already cast and ready to begin shooting the following Monday morning; just two days away. As a result, Bava had no opportunity to rewrite the script or make any other significant changes.

Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970)

At least that’s the way that Bava told it. Whether his account is entirely accurate is open to debate. He was known to exaggerate somewhat in interviews and always claimed that this was his worst picture. It’s clear that the production did come together very quickly, but not so fast that he couldn’t get previous collaborators Aldrovandi and cameraman Antonio Rinaldi on board. He was also able to achieve some remarkable optical effects with his matte paintings. Perhaps he could have got all this in place over a weekend, or even during production; the man was undoubtedly a genius, so anything is possible. One change he was able to make was to the end of the picture. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know the details of di Nardo’s original conclusion, but Bava’s coda is unsatisfying at best.

So, what is wrong with the script? Simply put, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. For a start, there’s the setup. Industrialist Corrà invites Berger to the island getaway so he can get his hands on the secret formula. The businessman’s relationships with Poli and Ross are never clearly established, but the trio makes an initial combined offer of $1 million each. Poli attempts to double-cross his partners almost immediately by offering $6 million for the exclusive rights in secret, and Ross also wants the formula for himself. It’s clear that the three men know each other well, and, later on, Corrà is unsurprised by their treachery. Which begs a very obvious question: why invite them along in the first place?!

Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970)

Sadly, that’s just the beginning of the script’s unsuccessful struggle with logic and clarity. Without delving too much into spoiler territory, we do seem to have more than one killer on our hands, but, if we do, then they seem to be acting independently of each other, which is amazingly convenient. Also, commentators reviewing the film have fingered different characters as the killer, or killers! It’s not because the film is deliberately ambiguous or clever, it just not well-written. The first killing is a complete mystery; whoever might be responsible. The only explanation provided is that everyone has to die to eliminate all potential witness, but it’s a pretty weak justification.

The most plausible explanation is that Bava was not interested in the plot’s mechanics but was more focused on the visual presentation. He had rewritten scripts during filming before, so it’s possible that he did the same here and the story just got away from him. But he can’t have disliked di Nardo’s work too much; he was the sole credited screenwriter on Bava’s next film; the comedy-western ‘Roy Colt and Winchester Jack’ (1970). Of course, too much time has passed to allow definitive answers to these kinds of questions, but it’s fun to speculate. Another interesting point is that very few characters die on-screen, and then almost bloodlessly. The discovery of each corpse is memorable, though; be they crab food washed up on the shore, tied to a tree in their underwear or shot in the forehead mid-conversation on a balcony.

Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970)

What helps to keep the audience on board with the story and its contradictions is the cast’s performances. There are no real stand-outs but a solid ensemble, even if the characters are little more than roughly-sketched stereotypes. Von Fürstenberg was a real-life Italian princess who had married into Spanish royalty at just 15 years of age, divorced five years later and began her acting career in 1967. She starred in unusual Eurospy ‘Matchless’ (1967), caper movie ‘The Vatican Affair/A qualsiasi Prezzo’ (1968) with Walter Pigeon and Klaus Kinski, and was under-used in notable Giallo ‘The Fifth Cord’ (1971). Galleani was also born to the purple; the daughter of an Italian Count, she acted under several different names, most notably in Lucio Fulci’s trippy Giallo ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin’ (1971).

Sit back, relax and prepare to enjoy an example of a director displaying his creativity, invention and skill. Just don’t try and work out exactly what’s going on. You might hurt yourself.

Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

‘I’m a wild man with turbo hormones!’Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

A handsome young man about town picks up a beautiful girl in the park. Together, they go out on a first date, but she comes home afterwards with her dress torn. She relates her version of the night’s events to her mother, while the man tells a very different story to his friends. His apartment building’s doorman also has his own take on what happened…

Dated Italian romantic comedy which serves as a time capsule of an era, and perhaps a nation, by showcasing some very different attitudes towards women, sexual politics and relationships to those that we hold today. It also proved a rather odd, and unprofitable, diversion in the career of horror director and visual stylist Mario Bava.

Good looking playboy Gianni (Brett Halsey) is out for some action, cruising the daytime streets and trying to pick up women. After several rebuffs, he targets the beautiful, dark-haired Tina (Daniela Giordano) who is walking a dog. She flees into the park, but he chases after her, and they eventually meet when he trips over her pet. She returns home in the early hours after their first date with a torn dress and relates her version of events to her straight-laced mother. After getting her back to his place on a pretext, he tried to rape her. When she resisted, he hit her a few times before she escaped. Yes, my friends, it’s just your typical romantic comedy.

Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

Meanwhile, Halsey is in a bar with friends, explaining how he got scratched on the forehead. In his story, he’s a shy, awkward man pursued by women, particularly the voracious Giordano. She’s an aggressive, sexual predator who almost forced him into sex after their date, wounding him in her violent passion. A third version of the evening’s event is provided by doorman Beppe (Dick Randall), who enlivens the long hours looking after the building where Halsey lives by moonlighting as a part-time peeping tom. According to him, as soon as the couple get back, Halsey invites neighbours Giorgio (Robert H Oliver) and Esmeralda (Pascale Petit) to join them. Halsey and Oliver disappear behind closed doors because they’re gay, while Petit attempts to seduce Giordano by drugging her drink, so she passes out. Yes, my friends, it’s still just your typical romantic comedy.

The fourth version of events comes from lab-coated scientist Calisto Calisti, who explains the flexibility of the truth by citing the differing viewpoints of some of the animals on Noah’s Ark! His version of the evening’s events with Halsey and Giordano is far more grounded and less dramatic. She tears her dress by accident, and Halsey is injured at the same time. When she wonders how she will explain the damage to her mother, it’s Halsey who suggests a story of attempted rape. They both laugh because it’s so hilarious. Obviously. Don’t forget; it’s a romantic comedy!
Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

This last segment has led some commentators to theorise that Bava was using this scenario to examine notions of objectivity and the impossibility of arriving at absolute truth, much in the manner of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ (1950). The figure of the scientist does appear to be providing an accurate record of events. However, he’s revealed at the climax as just another unreliable narrator; just a metaphor for the art of storytelling itself. That’s as may be. It could have also have been that Bava was simply trying to have a little fun with the lightweight material.

Fans of the maestro will spot a few of his signature touches here. There’s a 360-degree camera pan around Halsey and Giordano as they share a shower, and some foregrounding of objects in the nightclub scene to create the illusion of size and depth. There’s also a brief sequence where Giordano gazes at Halsey through a vase of red glass, but it’s slim pickings for fans of his more visually stylish work.
Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

The film is more interesting today for some of the attitudes laid out on casual display. Violence towards women is no big deal, rape is a source for humour, and our leading man is introduced kerb-crawling and trying to pick up women as if they were prostitutes. Giordano also gets some very unfortunate dialogue about homosexuality. Times have sure changed. Of course, it’s probable that this was also a reflection of the famous Italian ‘machismo’ as much as anything else. It’s interesting to note that Halsey is easily the most effective as the swaggering playboy and looks rather uncomfortable in the segment where he plays a homosexual. On the other hand, Giordano sails through the picture, convincing in all the various iterations of her character.

It was also a very troubled production. Money ran out early on, and the picture had to be re-financed. Additionally, despite being filmed in 1969, it wasn’t released in Italy until three years later, despite hitting cinemas in Canada in 1971. The delay was caused by director Riccardo Freda, who was working as head of the Italian censorship board at the time. He blocked the film’s release; in later years, claiming that he did it as a favour to his old friend Bava, because of the low quality of the finished work.
Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

Halsey was an American actor whose career began with small, unfeatured roles in big studio films before he transitioned to more notable work on US Network television, including appearances in ‘Gunsmoke’, ‘Perry Mason’ and ‘Highway Patrol.’ His big break in films came in the title role of monster sequel ‘Return of the Fly’ (1959) and, eventually, to co-lead in ‘Follow the Sun’, a production from 20th Century Fox Television that followed the adventures of two dashing young journalists based in Hawaii. Offers of leading film roles followed from Europe, and he spent the rest of the 1960s starring in a variety of projects, including Spaghetti Westerns, crime dramas and spy flicks such as ‘Bang You’re Dead’ (1965) and ‘Espionage in Lisbon’ (1965). His continental tour ended with another Bava project ‘Roy Colt and Winchester Jack’ (1970) before he returned to the US and guest slots on countless Network TV shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s, like ‘Columbo’, ‘Fantasy Island’, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and ‘Airwolf.’

Viewed half a century later, it’s necessary to make some allowances for the prejudices and attitudes on display. However, the film is simply not very funny and, as that’s the primary function of a comedy, that’s the standard by which it should be assessed.

Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)

Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)‘How easily one is deceived by appearances.’

A handsome young man who runs a bridal fashion house is secretly a serial killer, targeting young girls about to be married. Each killing brings him closer to unlocking a hidden memory from his childhood past, but the forces of law and order are closing in…

Somewhat hard to classify Giallo drama from legendary horror maestro Mario Bava that came out hard on the heels of Dario Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969) in the early months of 1970. Argento’s film redefined the Giallo and established many of the conventions followed by the sub-genre, and provoked the craze which saw dozens of such pictures produced in the first half of the next decade. Bava’s picture helped reinforce some of these specific elements.

Good looking young man about town John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth) has all the trappings of an ideal life. He’s head of a successful fashion business lives in a palatial house and drives an expensive car. However, behind the scenes, things are not so perfect. His marriage to the rich Mildred (Laura Betti) is in trouble, and she refuses to give him a divorce, reminding him that, although he may have inherited the fashion house from his mother, she’s the one paying all the bills. Being surrounded by beautiful models may provide plenty of opportunity for a bit of extra-curricular activity, but, instead, his taste runs to carving up prospective young brides with a cleaver. As he explains rather smugly in his voiceover, he’s completely mad.

Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)


Unsurprisingly, he’s a person of interest to Inspector Russell (Jesús Puente), especially after one of his models, Alice Norton (Femi Benussi) goes missing. She’s ended up in his greenhouse incinerator after a quick spin with him around the dancefloor of his private backroom. This is populated by mannequins in bridal gowns, which we quickly learn is the trigger that provokes Forsyth’s homicidal rages. Each murder provokes more memories of an event from his past, an event that he is desperate to recall, believing that this knowledge will free him of his madness.

This is a rather unusual entry in the ranks of Giallo, with some commentators considering that its inclusion in the sub-genre isn’t a valid one. After all, the only mystery in the film concerns the killer’s motivation, not his identity, and the climactic revelations when Forsyth regains his memories are hardly a surprise to experienced viewers. However, the notion of repressed childhood trauma as motivation for a killer did become a Giallo staple. Argento’s movie had touched on the idea, as had the Frederick Brown novel that was its initial inspiration, but it was Bava’s film that brought it front and centre. Of course, roots of this idea go back even further, to film noir such as Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ (1945) and psychodramas like ‘The Spiral Staircase’ (1946).

Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)


The oddest inclusion in the film is the element of the supernatural. Not surprisingly, nagging wife Betti ends up on the wrong end of Forsyth’s macabre hobby, but it’s not the last he sees of her. Instead, she pops up frequently, at first seen only by other people, then only visible to him. This was apparently an addition to the script made by Bava after close friend Betti expressed an interest in appearing in the picture. Yes, her ghostly presence can be interpreted as a sign of Forsyth’s unravelling psyche as he nears total recall, but it sits uneasily in the narrative, especially at first viewing. It helps that Betti is terrific, and her scenes with Forsyth are some of the best in the picture, but it still takes some getting used to.

As a Spanish-Italian co-production, for once Bava was persuaded to work outside his beloved homeland, and the primary location used for Forsyth’s home was a mansion once owned by General Franco. Of course, Bava took full advantage of these high-ceilinged, rich interiors, and displays his superb technique with camera movement and shot framing. Despite the affluence on prominent display, it’s an unsettling, haunted place filled with threatening shadows.

Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)


If it had taken Argento’s debut film to popularise the Giallo, it was Bava who had birthed it, with earlier films ‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ (1963) and ‘Blood and Black Lace’ (1964). The latter film was also set in a fashion house and, as perhaps as an in-joke, actor Luciano Pigazzi turns up for a brief appearance in this film, playing much the same role as he did in the earlier one. The selection of such a business also plays into the director’s undoubted obsession with the unreliability of appearances. Here, he’s ably assisted by Forsyth’s performance, flipping from handsome and bland in everyday life to manic and violent after the sun goes down. Apart from Betti, none of the rest of the cast gets much of a look-in, unfortunately. However, the scene where she is bleeding out on the stairs above the heads of the oblivious Puente and his sergeant is superbly played by all.

As per usual, it’s Bava’s startling technique that engages, whether it’s the startling transition from a murder to a seance or the misdirection of following the initial murder on a train to Forsyth playing with a model locomotive, it’s a constant delight. Better still, these flourishes are included not for the sake of mere cleverness, but, because they inform the story and its characters. Forsyth’s perfectly preserved childhood room where his movements throw a shadowplay of light and darkness across the faces of his old toys is a perfect metaphor for his character’s inability to move on from the hidden trauma rooted deep in his childhood. Similarly, the scene where he caresses the mannequins in their wedding clothes is more than enough to inform us that, despite his playboy appearance and seeming lifestyle, there’s probably more than a little lacking in his bedroom activities.
Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)

This was Forsyth’s final film in a short film career based almost entirely in Italian and Spanish productions, including the lead in ‘Fury in Marrakesh’ (1966). He also worked as a photo-journalist during this period and found later success as a composer and choreographer. Some of his photographic work has a permanent place in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Harvard Film Archives as well as several other prestigious institutions.

Leading lady Dagmar Lassander is given far too little do in the film, but went onto to lead Gialli such as ‘The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion/Le foto proibite di una signora per bene (1970), ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ (1971) and ‘Reflections in Black/Il vizio ha le calze nere’ (1975). She had leading roles in many pictures during the following decade, including comedies and crime thrillers, as well as somewhat notorious horror ‘Werewolf Woman’ (1976). Later work included featured supporting roles in Lucio Fulci’s controversial horrors ‘The House By The Cemetery’ (1981) and ‘The Black Cat’ (1981).

Not one of Bava’s best, but still an absorbing psychodrama, touched by his usual genius.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)‘With this suit, I could swim through the centre of the sun.’

A notorious criminal mastermind steals 10 million dollars from under the noses of the police. The authorities escalate their campaign to apprehend him, forcing an underworld kingpin and his mob into taking action against the thief. Can the villain stay one step ahead of both the combined might of the forces of law and order and the criminal underworld?

Stylish and extravagant big-screen adaptation of the popular Italian comic book series from director Mario Bava. Unlike the maestro’s previous offerings, this was a big studio production with backing from well-known producer Dino De Laurentiis, big-name stars and shot on various locations, but mostly at his studio in Rome.

The film opens with the latest diversionary tactic employed by Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) to snare super heist merchant, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his lover and partner in crime Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). Instead of ten million dollars in banknotes, the cargo protected by a convey of motorcycle policemen is just blank paper. The real deal is going with him in an unmarked car with a much smaller escort. Law isn’t fooled, of course, and uses a smoke machine on a road bridge and a dockside crane to grab the swag. Piccoli is called in to face Minister of Finance Terry-Thomas but, after a humiliating press conference which Law and Mell disrupt with laughing gas, Piccoli gets special powers to end the Diabolik menace.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


Squeezing local mobster, Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) by raiding on his clubs and businesses, the detective strikes a deal with the crimelord: hand over Diabolik and the pressure will be off. Meanwhile, Law pulls off another daring heist; snatching an emerald necklace and escaping via a rise with a catapult. But Celi kidnaps Mell and offers Law an ultimatum: the ten million dollars and the emerald necklace in exchange for her safe return. Law accepts the deal, but still has a few tricks up his sleeve when they meet for a showdown.

Diabolik was a character created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani whose instant popularity created a whole new sub-genre of Italian comics known as the ‘Fumetti neri’ (‘black comics’). In his original incarnation, Diabolik was a ruthless criminal genius, who let nothing stand in his way but, over time, and after legal actions by an outraged ‘moral majority’, the character softened into more of a hi-tech ‘Robin Hood’. Fumetti neri in general split into two distinct camps, those targeted more at a juvenile audience and those ‘prohibited to minors’ which emphasised more adult themes, including far higher levels of sex and violence.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


A project to adapt the character to film had begun several years earlier with Jean Sorel in the title role and Elsa Martinelli and his lover and partner in crime, Eva Kant. However, the project collapsed quickly, and it’s unclear if anything more was shot than publicity stills. De Laurentiis acquired the rights and brought Bava on board, intending the film would accompany his production of Roger Vadim’ ‘Barbarella’ (1968) into theatres. Law was under contract to appear in that film, but delays caused by working with the SFX allowed him to take on the role of Diabolik first.

Bava was happy with his casting but less so with Catherine Deneuve who De Laurentiis selected for the role of Eva. As it was, she only lasted a week into filming before Austrian actress Marisa Mell replaced her. By all accounts, this was because Deneuve refused to disrobe for the film’s most iconic scene, where Diabolik and Eva make love naked on a revolving bed covered in money. However, given her subsequent filmography and the fact that the final scene is not explicit, it may be that Bava was able to use the situation as a way to get her released.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 


The finished film is a kaleidoscope of 1960s pop culture, with bright, eye-popping colours and a wonderful mixture of striking production design and Bava’s genius for optical effects. Rather than presenting the action in a static way to reflect its comic strip origins, Bava keeps his camera moving, deliver a fast-paced narrative decorated with stylistic flourishes which give the film a feel of hyper-reality. Bava achieved the apparent scale and complexity of Diabolik’s underground headquarters by combining the actors with Bava’s matte paintings. Other visuals were created by cutting pictures of buildings, aircraft and other items from magazines, posting them on to a sheet of strategically placed glass and then shooting the action through it. Although it sounds like a terrible idea, Bava makes it work.

There are some other noteworthy touches too. Bava uses animation to draw lines on a map, and for a photo-fit device used by the police to try and identify Eva. He also employs his usual trick of foregrounding objects to give depth to scenes, sometimes shooting through some that break the image into squares approximating the comic book panels, such as empty bookshelves and a bedstead.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


There’s a flamboyance and a real sense of freedom to the picture, fueled by a playful, liberated sexuality, displayed not by promiscuity, but the unfettered passion between Diabolik and Eva. It helps that Law and Mell have such sizzling chemistry and give note-perfect performances, sensibly resisting the temptation to play to the gallery. Celi is his usual, reliable self as boss of the criminal underworld and Piccoli underplays beautifully as our larcenous duo’s official nemesis. Thomas also provides a beautiful cameo as the government minister, begging the populace to pay their taxes voluntarily after Law and Mell blow up the tax office and destroy all the official records!

The cool 1960s vibe also gets a major assist from composer Ennio Morricone, who delivers a jazzy, uptempo score that’s an integral part of the film’s ambience. Sadly, the original tapes are no longer available, having been destroyed in a fire, and the only way to enjoy his work is to watch the film, although a re-recording from 2014 is available. Also on hand to deliver his expertise is artist Carlo Rambaldi who designed Diabolik’s iconic mask before going on to significant work in Hollywood, rewarded eventually with 3 Oscars, including one for ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982).

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

The character of Diabolik has his roots in older fictional masterminds, such as Germany’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ and the French ‘Fantomas’. Like those characters, in the source material, he plays with notions of identity, using lifelike masks to take on the appearance of anyone he chooses. This idea was dropped from the film, leaving him more in common with later villains such as ‘Kriminal’. He was developed as a direct rival to Diabolik but arrived on the big screen first in the form of Glenn Saxson. In a sly tip of the hat, the bank manager who hands the ten million dollars over to Piccioli at the start of this film is played by Andrea Bosic, who served as Saxson’s official opponent in those earlier ‘Kriminal’ pictures.

There are some flaws in Bava’s film, though. The process shots and rear-projection are so hideous and poorly done that it’s tempting to believe that it was a deliberate choice, made by the director to contribute to the comic-book aesthetic. If so, then it’s one of the few visual missteps in his career. The script, credited to several writers, including Bava, is a little scrambled and untidy, but that may have been intentional too, as it does lift some sequences directly from the source material and contributes to the freewheeling atmosphere.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

Diabolik’s return to the big screen any time soon seems an unlikely proposition, even though the global audience today shares some of the feelings of the public who first elevated the character to its iconic status in Italy after the Second World War. Specifically, a distrust of authority figures who increasingly excuse graft and political corruption by using the loopholes in a legal system designed solely for their benefit. This growing cynicism would embrace a subversive character such as this, but any new iteration would need to walk a very fine line. After all, a lot of his actions would be interpreted by most as aspects of domestic terrorism, even though he has no political agenda or desire to enforce change on the system.

Bava’s cut-price optical effects helped bring the film in for a cost of approximately $400,000 when it had originally been allocated a budget of $3 million. De Laurentiis offered him the chance to direct a sequel with the unused money, but Bava turned it down, unhappy with what he felt was interference from the studio during the filmmaking process. Perhaps the money would have been better used smoothing off some of the rougher edges of this film anyway.

A thoroughly enjoyable Sixties romp, tinged with psychedelia and filtered through the genius of Mario Bava.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)‘You will be devoured last after I have eaten up all of your fellows.’

At the end of the Trojan War, the warrior Odysseus sets out on the journey back home to Ithaca. But he was angered certain of the Gods and the path is beset with mythological beasts, traps and sorceries. During the ten years that pass, his wife Penelope remains faithful, but she is surrounded by young princes who demand that she take one of them as her husband and new King…

Epic, almost seven-hour adaptation of Homer’s famous poem, made for Italian television by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Franco Rossi. De Laurentiis had also been responsible for the feature version ‘Ulysses’ (1954) with Kirk Douglas but had always been unhappy with the compromises necessary to bring the story down to feature-length. This Italian-French-German co-production, however, delivers almost the entire tale intact.

It’s been a hard 20 years for Queen Penelope of Ithaca (Irene Papas). Not only did husband Odysseus (Bekim Fehmiu) fight in the decade-long siege of Troy, it’s now ten years later, and he still hasn’t returned. The royal court is filled with young nobles who are eating her out of house and home and demanding that she takes one of them to fill the vacant throne. Her son Telemachus (the excellent Renaud Verley) can do nothing but suffer the insults heaped on him by the prospective grooms, led by the insufferably arrogant Antinous (Constantin Nepo, aka Constantin Andrieu).

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Your dinner is in the bin.’

The frustrated Verley is persuaded by the goddess Athena to look for his father. So he hits the road to visit Troy veterans Nestor (Jaspar von Oertzen) and Menalus (Fausto Tozzi). Neither can give him any information, but Tozzi’s wife Helen (Scilla Gabel) tells of how Fehmiu scaled the walls of Troy alone to find her. Meanwhile, the man in question has washed up on the coast of Phaeacia. Thanks to the help of the young Princess Nausicaa (Barbara Gregorini) he’s been received at court by King Alcinioo (Roy Purcell) and Queen Arete (Marina Berti). After initially keeping his identity a secret, he reveals himself and begins relating the stories of his adventures.

It’s here that the most famous part of the poem begins, of course. Fehmiu has already told the smitten Gregorini about his seven years spent in the arms of goddess Calypso (Kyra Bester), so he begins with his crew’s temptation by the Lotus Eaters and goes on to their encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus (Samson Burke). This sequence was directed by horror maestro Mario Bava, and some sources claim that Bava also worked on the same scenes in ‘Ulysses’ (1954). However, others suggest there is no evidence for this assertion. Either way, it makes perfect sense for De Laurentiis to bring Bava on board, though, given his legendary ability with optical trickery and practical SFX.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

🎵So let them say your hair’s too long… 🎶

And Bava does not disappoint, delivering a substantial sequence that proves to be the highlight of the series. The scale of the giant’s cave is achieved with a combination of matte paintings and perfect camera positioning, aided by appropriately oversized props. Forced perspective and high angles emphasise the creature’s size and some quick cuts with a giant hand (very reminiscent of a couple of the same moments in ‘Ulysses’ (1954)) only serve to further the illusion, rather than dispel it. It’s a technical tour de force, assisted by the excellent performances of the cast and Carlo Rambaldi’s work on the monster’s face, although the latter has dated a little.

The rest of Fehmiu’s tale is more of a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality. The only major misstep is his visit to ‘keeper of the winds’ Aeolus (Vladimir Leib). Up until this point, the costume department has delivered flawless work, but here something went badly wrong. Leib and his entourage are saddled with silver Afro fright wigs and matching clothing. They look more like refugees from an Italian science-fiction picture of the period. It’s also worth noting that the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis are omitted entirely; probably due to the technical difficulties of bringing them to the screen in a convincing way. However, on the bright side, we get a very memorable Circe, courtesy of the strikingly beautiful Juliette Mayniel.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘But you know I’ve always looked up to you…’

What holds the project together though, is some fine performances from the leading players. Fehmiu is excellent as Odysseus; brash and arrogant in the flashbacks to the start of his journey, but older and wiser in the telling of it. He even has doubts during his revenge on his wife’s suitors in the final act, something that his younger self would not have entertained. The actor is also plainly doing most of the sword combat himself. It’s not spectacular work, but it does avoid the over-choreographed unreality of more modern films, genuinely seeming more authentic to the period. And authenticity is a touchstone throughout the production, Fehmiu eating a meal with his fingers at the Phaeacians’ court (no cutlery in Ancient Greece, folks, not even knives!)

Dark-eyed Papas also makes the best of her role as the archetypal ‘woman who waits’ bringing a much-needed emotional edge to proceedings without overplaying her hand. It’s interesting to speculate why Silvana Mangano didn’t get that part instead. After all, she’d played the same role in ‘Ulysses’ (1954) opposite Kirk Douglas, and she was married to producer De Laurentiis at the time! It’s also curious that only Gabel’s beautiful Helen has her face whitened with makeup, because this was the standard practice for all noblewomen in Ancient Greece where the suntan was not socially acceptable.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Not so fast, Mr Odysseus.,.’

Conversations between the Gods are kept to a minimum and rendered by offscreen voiceover accompanied by shots of statues. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s preferable to well-known actors making cameos on smoke-filled sets dressed in togas. Peter Hinwood apparently played Hermes, a half-decade before he found everlasting cult fame in the title role of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975). You’ll also recognise the young Gregorini in her debut role. A swift name change later and she was ‘Bond Girl’ Anya Amasova opposite Roger Moore in ‘Ths Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) and another made her Mrs Ringo Starr. One of Gabel’s first screen credits was as Sophia Loren’s ‘swimming double’ in ‘Boy On A Dolphin’ (1957). Despite his memorable performance here, Nepo’s screen career was a short one. In real life, he was a celebrated Russian surrealistic artist whose best-known work is the wonderful painting ‘La Nuit de Walpurgis’. 

Other technical merits boost the production, including an elegant score by composer Bruno Nicolai and excellent location work. The exteriors were entirely filmed in the former Yugoslavia, and its empty, sun-baked coasts are the perfect setting for this sweeping tale of men and mythology. As well as its television broadcast, the series was condensed into a 105-minute feature called ‘The Adventures of Ulysses’, This went to theatres over the next couple of years and apparently contained nearly all of Bava’s contribution.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively faithful attempt to recreate Homer’s original poem on the screen. Filmmaking is rarely this ambitious or so well accomplished.

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)‘Don’t be silly; I don’t want to oscillate her, I want to duplicate her.’

Evil genius Dr Goldfoot has decided to take over the world, taking advantage of his resemblance to one of NATO’s top generals. When the military men gather in Rome, he begins to eliminate them one by one, using his Girl Bombs; seductive robots who explode on command. An agent of the Secret Intelligence Command attempts to foil the scheme, with the help of two bumbling friends…

‘Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine’ (1965) had been a worldwide hit for American International Pictures but had done some of its best business in Italy. After the domestic success of ‘The Amazing Dr G’ (1965) for the Italian comedy duo Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, producer Fulvio Lucisano was looking to finance a sequel. So why not combine the two projects into one? Bring Vincent Price back as Goldfoot and star him alongside Franco & Ciccio!

Producer Lucisano had worked with Mario Bava on ‘Planet of the Vampires’ (1965), and American International were only too familiar with the horror maestro, having distributed several of his films Stateside. Some of these had been joint ventures, and Bava had even shot separate versions for the different markets simultaneously. He was also known for bringing in projects on time, and on budget. What could possibly go wrong?

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

‘Don’t knock it, it’s better than a real job!’

Dr Goldfoot (Price) is up to his old tricks again. This time, he’s perfected a new army of girl robots. Not only do they look fabulous in gold bikinis, but they explode on contact with NATO generals! Working with Oriental sidekicks, Hardjob (Moa Tahi) and Fong (George Wang), he’s planning to take control of a nuclear missile and start another world war between the US and Russia. All that stands in his way is disgraced secret agent, Bill Dexter (Fabian), his love interest Rosanna (Laita Antonelli) and two blundering hotel doormen (Franco & Ciccio, of course).

Fabian attempts to convince his boss Colonel Benson (Francesco Mulé) of the threat that Price poses, but he’s already screwed up once too often, and he’s thrown out on his ear. The handsome young agent gets more of a sympathetic hearing from pretty secretary Antonelli, and things start looking up when a mistake allows idiots Franco and Ciccio to become registered as fully-qualified agents. Mulé gets the office computer to select the two best operatives to investigate the exploding Generals situation and, of course, it spits out the names of our gormless duo, after some tinkering from Price. Rather enjoyably, the mad genius breaks the fourth wall on a few occasion to explain his schemes to us, but the film fails to commit to the idea of the villain as narrator, which could have been interesting. And might have been funny.

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)

‘Laugh, damn you, laugh!’

The later stages opt for the same approach as the first film; an extended chase sequence, this time, mostly around a funfair. This is delivered in the style of a silent movie, complete with intertitles and under-cranking the camera to speed up the action. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work because there is no creativity behind the gags. It just falls flat. Curiously, it contains Bava’s most extended appearance in one of his films; as an agitated passer-by who gets involved in the action and, subsequently, as an angel in the clouds. There’s little other evidence of his involvement, beyond some nicely-framed shots and a sequence where the girls dance in a roomful of mirrors. It’s a hint at what the film could have been.

These shortcomings may be due to a production decision made early in the film. There were always going to be two separate and distinct cuts of the final film; one for release in America that prominently featured Price, and one for Italy which highlighted Franco & Ciccio. Indeed, a different scriptwriting team worked on each; Robert Kaufman (returning from the first film) and producer Louis M Heywood for the American version, and Franco Castellano and Giuseppe Moccia for the Italian one. How these scripts were finally mashed together is anybody’s guess.

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)

‘Haven’t you got that hair dryer fixed yet?’

There’s further evidence of a general downturn in quality too (and the original wasn’t that good!) The Supremes catchy theme song has been replaced by a useless effort from the slightly less famous outfit, The Sloopys and American International studio star Frankie Avalon has been switched out for teen heartthrob Fabian. He was another crooner who music moguls were trying to mould, unsuccessfully, into the next Elvis. His performance here is stiff and wooden, but at least we are spared Avalon’s tiresome mugging from the first film.

Strangely enough, the Italian cut of the film with, more Franco & Ciccio and less Price, is better. The story is more coherent and feels more fully developed. Perhaps it’s closer to Bava’s vision of the property, which makes sense as he would have been more familiar, and probably more in tune, with the humour and taste of his own country. However, there is more Franco & Ciccio, which is never a good thing.

Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)

‘You mean, my new single didn’t even make the Top 40?’

If it seems a little baffling as to why a director such as Bava would take on such a project, there are several possible reasons, any one of which might have been sufficient on its own. To begin with, Bava was a massive fan of science-fiction, and the story falls broadly into that category. Perhaps it’s significant that his next project was ‘Diabolik’ (1968), who was a far more successful comic book villain in every sense. Also, he may have wished to try his hand at something different, and there’s the fact that Bava’s films were not all that successful on their original release, particularly in Italy. Ironically, this film proved to be his only real box-office hit domestically! In other words, he may just have needed the work.

Art fantastic Price may have thought a trip to Italy and working with Bava would be a meeting of minds. After all the director’s father, Eugenio, was a well-known sculptor and Bava himself was known for the visual brilliance of his films. However, when asked about working with the actor, Bava remarked: ‘Oh, that pain in the ass. All he did was talk about statues all the time.’

A clumsy, low-grade comedy that was undoubtedly the director’s worst work, and an experience that Price probably wanted to forget.

Ulysses (1954)

Ulysses (1954)‘These Greeks are tough, with stringy meat.’

The Princess of Phaeacia finds an unconscious man washed up on the beach. The stranger has no memory of his past life but proves himself strong, brave and honourable. The two plan to marry, but, on their wedding day, he feels compelled to return to the sea, and his memories begin to return…

Handsomely mounted, if necessarily abbreviated, feature version of Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’ which tells of Odysseus’ ten-year journey home after the end of the Trojan War (yes, it’s the same character). It was a passion project for producer Dino De Laurentiis who secured a global distribution list with Paramount Pictures and some important American talent, most notably international box-office stars Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn.

It’s been ten years since the end of the Trojan War and Queen of Ithaca, Penelope (Silvana Mangano) still waits for news of her husband, the warrior Ulysses (Douglas). Unfortunately, her house has been overrun by young nobles eager for her hand in marriage, and, more importantly, the kingdom’s throne. Her son Telemachus (Franco Interlenghi) is too young to be taken seriously by these suitors, led by the arrogant, forceful Antinous (Quinn).

‘I’m sorry, sir, but all the First Class cabins are already taken…’

Meanwhile, Douglas has been washed up on the island of Phaeacia and has caught the eye of the Princess Nausicaa (Rossana Podestà). He can’t remember who he is, or where he comes from, but, after proving his he-man credentials, Podestà can’t wait to get him to the altar. Unfortunately for her, he’s called to the sea on their wedding day and suffers a ‘Hollywood Amnesia Flashback’. We see him marshalling his troops inside the Wooden Horse inside the gates of Troy, outwitting the Cyclops Polyphemus and getting caught up in the machinations of the sorceress, Circe (Mangano, again).

During the 1950s, it became common practice for big American Studios to collaborate with their Italian counterparts. Income from US films had not found their way back home during the Second World War. These funds were now available to spend, making productions shot in European countries a desirable financial proposition. In particular, Italy had a thriving pre-war film industry and boasted the massive Cinecittà Studios in Rome built under Mussolini’s government in the 1930s. Biblical epics and historical adventures could be shot there at a fraction of Stateside production costs. ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ as it became known endured for more than a decade before being sunk by the runaway production costs of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor vehicle ‘Cleopatra’ (1963).

Ulysses (1954)

‘I’m sorry. Kirk, but I do think that extra hour under the sun lamp was probably a mistake…’

So, although it may seem strange at first glance to see major stars such as Douglas and Quinn acting alongside names unknown outside their native Italy, it made perfect sense from a financial point of view. If such working practices needed endorsement, this film provided it with a hefty take at the box office. Subsequent sources also give it credit as the springboard for the more fantastical elements of the Peplum genre personified by world-wide smash ‘Hercules’ (1957).

The film was not without its problems, though, with acclaimed veteran director GW Pabst quitting the project on the eve of shooting and original cinematographer Mario Camerini taking over as director. He was replaced behind the camera by the five-time Oscar-nominated Harold Rossen and, although it’s debatable who should get the plaudits, the film often looks quite gorgeous. There’s also some excellent work from the team of costume designers, including Barbara Karinska, a two-time Oscar winner for ‘Joan of Arc’ (1948) and ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ (1952).

Ulysses (1954)

It was always that last pint of the evening…

De Laurentiis was reportedly unsatisfied with the final film as he felt it abbreviated too much of Homer’s epic poem. This was inevitable with a runtime of only 104 minutes but, although the story is a little fragmentary at times, there’s some good work here from the team of seven screenwriters. Apart from director Camerini, this included famous American novelist Irwin Shaw and playwright Ben Hecht, who was once described as the ‘most prolific and highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood’. Their work is most impressive in the sequence with Circe, which combines elements of the Calypso episode, the visit to the Underworld, and the events which occur after the crew’s visit to Thrinacia. Still, De Laurentiis did have a point. There’s no encounter with the lotus-eaters, no visit to Aeolus, no Laestrygonians, and no Scylla or the whirlpool containing Charybdis. The film also shortchanges Telemachus, whose travels to find his father are entirely omitted.

Fifteen years later, De Laurentiis put things right by mounting a genuinely epic, almost seven-hour version for Italian television, ‘L’Odissea/The Odyssey’ (1968). Directed by Franco Rossi, it’s a notable achievement, especially on a small-screen budget. The highlight is the tour de force sequence with Polyphemus, the Cyclops. This was directed by horror maestro, and SFX wizard, Mario Bava and some sources give him credit for the same scenes in this film. Watching them back to back, there is some similarity with the cutting and the setups, and the SFX are similarly accomplished. However, the later version is noticeably superior from a technical standpoint, and some dispute his participation in the earlier film.

Ulysses (1954)

Kirk was always an easy gig for the costume department…

There are still some significant things to enjoy in this earlier version, though. Douglas brings his star power and likeable energy to the title role, although it’s notable that this is a Ulysses who does not need help from the Gods. He makes his own decisions and achieves victories through his wits and physical prowess rather than a reliance on divine intervention. However, this brings with it more than a touch of arrogance to the character, particularly when his selfish procrastination brings about his crew’s death.

There’s also the suspicion that the character has been tweaked somewhat to fit Douglas’ virile screen persona, specifically to provide plausible deniability for his associations with women other than the faithful Mangano, who has been waiting for him at home for 20 years. His convenient ‘amnesia’ allows him to romance Podestà without any subsequent guilt, and he gets a pass for his six-month dalliance with Circe too because, after all, she looks just like his wife, doesn’t she? Neither of these devices make appearances in the source material.

Ulysses (1954)

The ‘Robin Hood’ reboot remained in Development Hell…

Incidentally, the circumstances surrounding the making of the film became the inspiration for the novel ‘Il Disprezzo’ by Alfredo Moravia. The book was later filmed by Jean-Luc Godard as ‘Le Mépris/Contempt’ (1963) and starred Jack Palance, Brigitte Bardot and director Fritz Lang playing the ‘GW Pabst’ role as himself. Godard reportedly hated making the film and called the novel ‘a nice vulgar read for a train journey’. However, it remains critically lauded and one of his best-regarded films.

A vigorous, fast-paced run through the highlights of Homer’s epic poem. It won’t please purists or scholars but delivers an entertaining mix of mythology and adventure, even if it feels a little anonymous at times.

Knives of the Avenger/I coltelli del vendicatore (1966)

Knives of the Avenger (1966)‘We’ll string them up to dry like cod in the north wind.’

A tribal queen in hiding from the renegade who is trying to take her absent husband’s throne is saved from his men by a mysterious drifter. The stranger bonds with her son, but comes to learn that his own violent past is a part of her tragic story…

The European success of Richard Fleischer’s big-budget Hollywood production of ‘The Vikings’ (1958) prompted a cycle of similar Norse adventures from Italian cinema in the 1960s. However, by the time that Sider Films attempted to enter the fray, audience interest had waned, and their production collapsed through lack of funding just a couple of weeks into shooting. After several attempts to remount the picture, the producers engaged horror maestro Mario Bava to salvage the project.

Arald, King of the Marvar (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) has been away from the Northlands for three years on a voyage searching for food. In his absence, warlord Hagen (Fausto Tozzi) has returned after banishment and is attempting to take the throne. He intends to marry Stuart’s wife, Karin (Elissa Pichelli, billed variously as Lisa Wagner or just Lissa). She has fled, going into hiding with her young son, Moki (Luciano Pollentin) after being warned of imminent danger by sorceress Shula (an unidentified actress, possibly Gordana Miletic). One fine day, wanderer Helmut (Cameron Mitchell) comes riding by and saves Pichelli and her son from the attentions of two of Tozzi’s men. He decides to stick around, and the three make for a cosy family unit. It’s obvious Mitchell is smitten, but Pichelli reaffirms her loyalty to Stuart even though she’s not sure that he’s still alive.

Knives of the Avenger (1966)

Family meals were always a bit awkward…

When Pichelli finally fills in Mitchell on her history, it’s a bit of a shocker. On the day she married Stuart (then a Prince), tribal loose cannon Tozzi murdered the family of rival chieftain, Ruric, not realising that the King (Amedeo Trilli) had just negotiated a lasting peace. A masked Ruric takes revenge by burning the tribe’s villages to the ground, raping Pichelli and having Trilli put to the sword. All this is bad news for Mitchell’s romantic intentions because he is Ruric, having spent the last few years trying to escape the memory of his crimes and, with Tozzi back in the neighbourhood too, a showdown is inevitable.

This was not the story of the film that began shooting with original director Leopolda Savona. When Bava came on board, probably keen to work again with his friend Micthell, he re-wrote the entire script, throwing out most of Savona’s footage and re-shooting about three-quarters of the film. All in six to seven days! Although this seems like a recipe for absolute disaster, this was Mario Bava, a man who had extensive experience salvaging other director’s projects, usually uncredited. It was just such an assignment, on ‘The Giant of Marathon’ (1959) with Steve Reeves, that led to Bava finally getting the opportunity to direct in his own right. So, although there are some issues with story continuity, it’s fair to say that most audience members would have no idea that this was such a troubled production.

Knives of the Avenger (1966)

‘What was that you were saying about my haircut?’

What Bava fashioned was pretty much a Viking western, and many commentators have pointed out the general story similarities to George Stevens’ classic ‘Shane’ (1953), which was apparently one of Bava’s favourite pictures. Given the short time he had available to knock the story into shape, it’s not perhaps surprising that he would have modelled his outline on such a tried and trusted original. There’s even one scene where Mitchell rides into town accompanied by the strains of a Marcello Giombini score that has an echo of Ennio Morricone’s work on the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. What does he do when he gets there? Go straight to the tavern and get into trouble with the locals, of course!

Inevitably, given the circumstances of production, there are some problems with the narrative. We’re never entirely sure of when Pichelli learns of Mitchell’s true identity; in fact, we only know that she does because she calls him by his real name in passing during an unrelated conversation. There’s no big dramatic scene in which she learns the truth, and she seems remarkably forgiving to a man who raped her and whose soldiers killed her father. If it wasn’t for that one use of his name, you might reasonably assume from her behaviour that she never finds out. The similarity of Mitchell and Pollentin’s hair colour and style also makes it pretty clear that the boy is the result of that rape, but the issue is never directly addressed.

Knives of the Avenger (1966)

‘Eyes on my face, creep!’

Bava also struggles to establish the geography of the world in terms of the proximity of the various locations. Whilst in the family hut, Micthell and Pichelli hear Pollentin’s cries for help, but it takes a horse ride for Mitchell to arrive at the beach and come to the lad’s rescue. Similarly, Pichelli has been told to go far away to avoid Tozzi but seems to have set up home surprisingly locally, given the time to takes some characters to get there from the town. Also, Tozzi appears to know where she is but, rather than go there himself until near the end of the picture, keeps sending various minions to get her, only to have them bested by Mitchell. It’s also notable that the locale doesn’t look much like the frozen Northlands, although the script does try to address this by having Mitchell complain about the cold and take the warmer robes of a man he has just killed because the winter months are just around the corner. It’s not very convincing, but at least an effort was made.

But there are some outstanding sequences. The first combat between Mitchell and Tozzi in a darkened tavern is a tour de force of lighting and camerawork with the protagonists facing off like wild west gunslingers before launching into an energetic mixture of fisticuffs and a wrestling match, punctuated by throwing knives. The climactic scenes in the ‘sacred caves’ are also beautifully shot with splashes of colour evoking both the Hades of Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961) and the early scenes of his previous Norse adventure ‘Erik The Conqueror’ (1961). The fact that Bava saves these slightly more esoteric touches for this final location is entirely appropriate. After all, these are the caves where the dead lie and supposedly speak through the local prophetess.

Knives of the Avenger (1966)

The wedding photographer had been at the punch again…

These final sequences are surprisingly brief but, in a way, appropriate, as Tozzi never seems to be a very threatening villain, little more, in fact, than the local tavern bully. This is not due to Tozzi’s performance; it’s because we hear about all his dastardly crimes second hand, the audience seeing far more of Mitchell’s violent past. However, it’s that bloody backstory and subsequent search for redemption that give the character a depth that the actor exploits to the full with his engaging performance.

A fast-paced and enjoyable adventure with a stamp of quality provided by the visual flair of its director. Given the circumstances of its hurried production, it’s one of Bava’s most outstanding achievements, even if it’s not one of his finest films.

Savage Gringo/Ringo del Nebraska/Nebraska Jim (1966)

Savage Gringo/Ringo del Nebraska (1966)‘A man can drink more beer than there’s blood in his body.’

A drifter helps a rancher and his wife who are being intimidated by a gang of cut-throats from a nearby town. Things turn violent when the rancher is shot during a night-time ambush, and the drifter is blamed for the crime. But is there more going on than meets the eye…?

Italian-Spanish Spaghetti Western made in the wake of Clint Eastwood’s international success in Sergio Leone’s ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964). Shooting began with co-writer Antonio Román in the canvas seat but, shortly into shooting, he was replaced by horror maestro Mario Bava, taking his second trip into the Old West after hitting the trail along ‘The Road To Fort Alamo’ (1964).

After an impressive display of marksmanship, drifter Ringo, also known as Nebraska, (Ken Clark) is offered a job by rancher Marthy Hillman (Alfonso Rojas). He and his green-eyed firebrand wife Kay (Yvonne Bastien) are being hassled by an ex-army colleague of his, Bill Carter (Piero Lulli). Along with his gang of cut-throats, the villain has the nearby town of Bandera in his pocket, including the ineffective Sheriff (Livio Lorenzon).

Savage Gringo/Ringo del Nebraska (1966)

‘I’m whiskey intolerant, ok?’

Riding out to survey the property, Clark and Rojas find one of the ranch foremen dying and the cattle stampeded. Heading to town, they confront Lulli and his men in the local saloon and Clark gets to exhibit his prowess both with fists and six-gun. On the way back to the ranch house, they are ambushed, and Rojas is shot, with Lulli ensuring that Clark gets the blame. Back at the ranch, while Rojas lies injured, Clark and Bastien face up to their feelings for each other while a mob from the town closes in.

Original director and co-author of the script, Antonio Román was a filmmaker with considerable experience as a screenwriter, cinematographer and as a director. However, it seems his way of working was far too slow for the liking of producer Fulvio Lucisano who relieved him of duty after the initial location shooting in Spain. How Bava became involved is unrecorded, although his reputation for being able to take over the reins and deliver a finished film on time and on budget after a director had been fired, or walked off the set, was well-known. Although critically lauded today, he spent a lot of his career as a director for hire, rather than having the time and resources to develop his own projects and this Western is another example of his skills at rescuing a troubled production.

Savage Gringo/Ringo del Nebraska (1966)

The ‘penny a point’ card school was getting a bit serious.

That the film was already in production when Bava came on board left him with little opportunity to put his highly individual spin on the material. There’s no audacious use of the colour palette here or optical trickery. Instead, it’s the quality of visuals that serve both story and setting. The framing of shots is sometimes inventive, but never distracting, and slavish nods to the hyper-stylisations of Leone are pleasingly avoided. The drama does play out in a predictable vein, but we spend enough time with the characters to be invested in their fates, even if they are little more than one-dimensional archetypes. However, it’s certainly interesting to contrast them with the figures commonly seen in Hollywood horse-operas of the time. Our hero might be acting from a sense of natural justice, but almost everyone else is motivated only by greed and self-interest. The weary cynicism of the Spaghetti Western appears far more rooted in the reality of human behaviour than the vast majority of their American cousins.

Where the film does evoke Leone’s more famous work in the genre is with Nino Oliviero’s musical score. There is a definite touch of Morricone-lite in his use of marching rhythms, trumpet and flute and, even the film’s opening shot is accompanied by a song that begins with a man whistling! The composer is far better known for co-writing the song ‘Ti Guarderò Nel Cuore’ which became a standard under the international title ‘More’. To date, it has been recorded by artists as famous as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Doris Day, Roy Orbison, Tom Jones, Duke Ellington, Booker T & The MGs and Glen Campbell, among many others.

Savage Gringo/Ringo del Nebraska (1966)

‘Are you going to spend the whole evening staring off heroically into the distance?’

But how much of the film is Bava’s work does remain debatable. When interviewed in later years, supporting actor Renato Rossini did not remember Bava being on set, and he worked with the maestro subsequently on ‘Five Dolls For An August Moon’ (1970). This notion might also seem to be supported by the locations. The landscapes are a much better fit for the Old West than those of Bava’s previous Western ‘The Road To Fort Alamo’ (1964), and the film has a lot of exterior shooting. Bava famously would not work outside Italy, so, at first glance, it seems that a good proportion of the finished product must be footage that Roman shot in Spain, Bava’s contribution being the interiors filmed later on. However, both films were shot at the Elios Studios in Rome which was also used for Sergio Corbucci’s ‘Django’ (1966) and many other Spaghetti Westerns, so it’s almost a certainty that they had a standing set of an Old West town permanently available. This supports the opinion of most commentators that the vast majority of the film is Bava’s work, perhaps as much as 90%.

There are two schools of thought as to why Bava’s name does not appear on the credits and why the film was not ascribed to him for several years. On the one hand, there was Spanish money invested, and the co-financing deal was apparently dependent on the presence of a Spanish director. On the other, Román and Bava had just worked together on ‘Planet of the Vampires’ (1965), and the Maestro may simply not have wanted to take the credit. Ex-colleague and director Riccardo Freda was quoted more than once in subsequent years as stating that Bava was a self-effacing man who was always reluctant to put himself forward.

Savage Gringo/Ringo del Nebraska (1966)

‘What do you mean, you don’t accept returns?’

Leading man Clark had also starred for Bava in his previous Western ‘The Road To Fort Alamo’ (1964) and makes for a quietly charismatic hero with a definite physical presence. He usually underplayed his roles and, although this can sometimes be mistaken for lack of ability, it’s far more likely that he simply understood the concept of ‘less is more’ far better than many of his contemporaries. Like a lot of leading men in Italian cinema of the time, his career began with roles in muscleman movies and Peplum before briefly graduating to the world of the Eurospy. But it’s this kind of stoic role that suits him best, and it’s a pity that he didn’t head out on the range more often. Elsewhere in the cast, Bastien is a little over-demonstrative at times, but there’s sterling support from both Lulli and Lorenzon, who later appeared in a featured supporting role in Leone’s classic ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1968).

A somewhat unremarkable Spaghetti Western with few surprises, but one delivered in a highly professional package with an unmistakable mark of quality.

Planet of the Vampires/Terrore nello spazio (1965)

Planet of the Vampires (1965)‘Apply neuro-vascular tension, suppress cortical areas X, Y Zee.’

Two spaceships answer a strange signal from the unexplored world of Aura and are forced down by sudden gravitational power. As soon as they make planetfall, crew members go berserk and attack each other with murderous intent. Surviving the madness, the Captain of the Argos and his team attempt to make repairs, reach their sister ship and find out what’s going on…

Highly influential science-fiction horror from Italian director Mario Bava, who has gained a significant cult following in recent years. Throughout his career, he worked mostly in lower budgeted genre pictures, so his talents went unacknowledged by the mainstream critics of the time, but his mastery of the visual image has led to a positive reappraisal of his impressive body of work.

Approaching the planet Aura, all looks to be going according to plan for twin spaceships the Argos and the Galliot. Then, without warning, communication between them is interrupted, and a rapidly increasing gravitational force seizes the Argos. Disaster looms but, fortunately, in the grand tradition of movie spaceship commanders, Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) manages to ‘switch to manual’ and bring the ship to ground safely. Almost as soon as his crew recover, however, they begin to attack each other in a psychotic frenzy. The seizure passes with his colleagues having no memories of their actions, leaving Sullivan with a pretty big mystery to solve.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘Who goes there?’

Receiving a mayday from the Galliiot, they locate their sister ship but find the crew dead, apparently victims of the same strange madness that they experienced. They bury the dead on the planet’s surface but find the corpses they saw in the locked control room have mysteriously vanished. Another mystery is the damage to their own ship that prevents them from leaving. Sullivan assigns Wess (Ángel Aranda) to supervise repairs, but later finds the technician attempting to sabotage a vital piece of equipment. When questioned, Aranda remembers nothing about what he was trying to do. If that wasn’t enough, outside the ship, the dead astronauts of the Galliot are rising from their tombs.

What sets this film apart and has ensured its celebration as a cult favourite over the years is the rich visual quality and style that director Bava brings to the story. A master of optical FX, framing, colour and lighting, he is able to evoke a truly alien landscape with little more than a hyperactive fog machine and some fake rocks. It’s staggering that the production cost only around $200,000 and Sullivan, who also hated the script, was almost at a loss for words when he saw the quality of the finished film.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I’m ready for my closeup, Mr Romero.’

The model work by Carlo Rambaldi is somewhat less successful, though, and looks rather dated. However, the takeoff and landing sequences are still impressive when you consider they were accomplished using resources such as cotton wool, tissue paper and an aquarium. Bava’s skill with trick shots also comes to the fore with some of the ship interiors, although it does have to be acknowledged that no cinematic spacecraft will ever rival the Argos for the most wasted space on a flight deck.

The script, mostly written by Ib Melchoir was adapted from a short-story by Renato Pestriniero entitled ‘One Night of 21 Hours’ and, although the basic concept remained, significant changes were made from the source material. The central idea of alien possession of human bodies harkens back to Don Siegel’s masterful ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956) and its source novel by Jack Finney. However, Pestriniero’s story does not depict the aliens as any kind of threat. Instead, once possessed, the human ego is suppressed, allowing the id to take control, in effect turning the hosts into joyful children with no purpose but to dance and play. Sensibly, this was dropped for the film with the Aurans being given a definite, and far more sinister, purpose.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I guess he had the eggs for breakfast.’

The electronic score by Gino Maranuzzi Jr takes a nod toward the electronic soundscapes of ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) and helps to enhance the mood of dread evoked by Bava’s stunning visuals. The sequence where the dead rise from their shallow graves, tearing their way through their plastic shrouds is a perfect combination of Bava’s visual genius and Maranuzzi Jr’s minimalist approach. Also worthy of note are the black leather and high-collars of the crew’s uniforms designed by Gabriele Mayer. They are striking, unique and impossibly cool.

It’s not a perfect film by any means. Melchoir’s script makes almost no effort to give our principals any distinguishing personality traits beyond a half-hearted attempt to provide Sullivan with some moments of self-doubt. This shortfall would not be so noticeable if there were a little more going on with the story. Apparently, in earlier drafts of the script crew member Tiona (Evi Marandi) developed a telepathic link with the Aurans and that subplot might have gone some way to giving the drama the extra content that it needs. So there’s not a lot for the cast to work with, although Sullivan delivers a robust and authoritative performance that helps to ground the drama. The kind of on-screen chemistry necessary t to convey the inter-relationships and camaraderie of a tight-knit crew of characters may not have been possible because of language barriers. Sullivan was American, Marandi was Greek, Aranda was a Spaniard, leading lady Norma Bengell was Brazilian and the rest of the cast Italian, language barriers may have prevented the creation of

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

The temperatures with a little high for the time of year…

Production seems to have been a smooth affair, although it is curious that part-way through the picture the unidentified actor playing Commander Sallis of the Galliot is replaced in the role by Massimo Righi. This substitution does suggest that some reshoots may have been necessary. However, there is no record of this or any other such indicators in the finished film. There does seem to have been some issues with casting the lead female role, though. Studio starlet Susan Hart was apparently cast, but this seems to have caused some friction with AIP studio head Sam Arkoff, perhaps because she had just married his business partner James H Nicholson. Shooting began without an actress in the role before Bengell was eventually cast.

Many commentators have made hay with the similarities between the film and the Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ (1979), and it’s fair to say that one influenced the other to some extent. One of the shots of the exterior of the downed Argos shows the ship to be a kissing cousin to the sinister space vehicle discovered by the crew of the ‘Nostromo’. More notably, when Sullivan and Bengell explore the wreck of an extraterrestrial craft on the surface of Aura, they find two giant, calcified, alien skeletons. These are not nearly as impressive as Scott’s ‘Space Jockey’ of course, but the similarity of their find is undeniable. The film’s downbeat, ironical climax was also faintly echoed almost two decades later by the ending of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982).

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I guess the orgy is off then…’

Sullivan was a Hollywood veteran who contributed fine work in many big studio productions, particularly in the Noir arena, and was a regular on Network TV in the 1970s. His credits include ‘And Now Tomorrow’ (1944), ‘Suspense’ (1946), ‘Payment On Demand’ (1951), Vincente Minnelli’s multiple-Oscar winner ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ (1952), ‘Loophole’ (1954), Samuel Fuller’s ‘Forty Guns’ (1957) and ‘A Gathering of Eagles’ (1963). He was also terrific as the title character of the unjustly neglected ‘The Gangster’ (1947). Bengell was an award-winning actress and singer in her native Brazil who achieved worldwide notoriety and the displeasure of the Catholic church for her full-frontal nude scenes in Ruy Guerra’s ‘The Unscrupulous Ones/Os Cafajestes’ (1962).

Model-maker Rambaldi went on to work with John Huston, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento before relocating to America and winning Oscars for his visual effects on ‘Alien’ (1979) and ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982). Melchior is fondly remembered for screenwriting on science-fiction projects such as fan-favourite ‘Robinson Crusoe On Mars’ (1964), ‘Reptilicus (1961), ‘Journey to the Seventh Planet’ (1962), ‘The Time Travellers’ (1964) and ‘The Angry Red Planet’ (1959), also directing the last two. Roger Corman based his cult classic ‘Death Race 2000’ (1975) on a short story by Melchior. 

An important work in both the history of big-screen science-fiction and the career of director Mario Bava. An essential watch for lovers of cult cinema.