AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve. Italy. 84 minutes. Directed by Mario Bava, 1971. Starring Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Claudio Volonté.
The strangling death of wheelchair-bound Contessa Federica by her husband Filippo Donati–and Donati’s subsequent (and immediate) fatal stabbing by an unknown assailant–kicks off a series of gruesome murders amongst the inhabitants of, and visitors to, an idyllic, remote bay in the Italian countryside. Who is the killer? For that matter, is there only one killer? What is the motive behind the killings? And is anyone safe?
Filmmaker Mario Bava is credited for having invented a number of cinematic conventions and tropes, not the least of which is–via his work in the early ’70s–the modern slasher movie. (As someone who generally isn’t a fan of slashers, I’d like to take this moment to send a sarcastic shout-out his way: Thanks, Mario!)
A Bay of Blood–which is known by a dizzying array of alternate titles, the most common appearing to be Twitch of the Death Nerve–is the epitome of what would eventually become the slasher format. Sure, there’s a plot–a needlessly complicated one involving a plan to turn the bay into a resort town–but it’s extremely thin, existing only to fill the dead space between murders and give the characters a bit of reason for what they’re doing. There are also subplots, including a twenty-minute-long diversion involving a quartet of teenagers who break into an abandoned property. There’s also an ending, which seems like an attempt by one of the six credited writers (including Bava himself and Dardano Sacchetti, whom I’m officially designating as my archenemy from this point forward) to introduce something along the lines of “poetic justice” to the story.
To be blunt, nobody is going to watch this film for witty dialogue, insightful characterization or thought-provoking story. (Unless they’ve managed to confuse it with other, more highbrow films coincidentally titled A Bay of Blood or Twitch of the Death Nerve.) They’re going to watch it for the killings.
Luckily for those people, Bava has them covered. When it came to mise-en-scène, the guy was a fucking genius, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bay were his tour de force–of the four Bava films I’ve seen (the others being Black Sabbath, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and Planet of the Vampires), this is definitely the most beautiful. The thing that keeps me coming back to Bava is that he understood how how to stylize violence itself to the point where it became art. His predecessors and contemporaries–Browning, Whale, Tourneur, Corman–may have been able to make pretty horror movies but this guy was always on another level entirely. (The only director I can think of who seemed to be able to pull off this trick before Bava came on the scene is Hitchcock–in fact, I think it’s one of the reasons people keep coming back to Psycho.)
And he backs this up with some highly impressive effects work. The hatchet murder, for example, looks like it could have been done today. That’s not to say Bay doesn’t look or feel dated, because it definitely does. What I am saying is that if you’re the sort of horror fan who puts a lot of stock in effects (I’m not quite sure I understand you people, but whatevs), you are not going to walk away from Bay disappointed.
Mario Bava’s raw talent and directorial eye make up for A Bay of Blood’s shortcomings–and believe me, there are a lot of shortcomings. But let’s get real: who needs plot and characterization when you’ve got a director who can turn the gruesome and grotesque into fine art?