Saturday, October 2, 2010

#93: Twitch of the Death Nerve (Mario Bava, 1971)

Whew. This has been quite a week. I saw two great shows by two of my favorite reunited '90s bands, Pavement and Guided By Voices. I'm in the second week of preparing materials for a major life and possible career plan for next year. My wife and two friends were on lockdown at their jobs for three hours because a masked gunman opened fire on the University of Texas campus, fortunately killing or injuring no one, and killed himself in the main campus library. My wife and I celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary and our eleventh anniversary as a couple. Most importantly of all for me personally, my maternal grandfather died peacefully in his sleep after a long life. It's been a strange cocktail of mixed emotions all week long, and when life hits you with everything it has, good and bad, it's important to take a few hours to watch some Italians get murdered horribly. It centers your chi, I hear.

Mario Bava directed several films that horror fans generally consider classics, he is sometimes referred to as the grandfather of the slasher film, and he was a major influence on Dario Argento. For whatever reason, I'd never seen any of his movies until last night. Peculiar. Unfortunately, this particular DVD copy of the film contained the single worst sound quality I've ever encountered. I had to turn the sound on my television to Spinal Tap 11, and even at that level, the sound fluctuated from piercingly loud to normal to so quiet one-third of the dialogue was unintelligible within the space of each single line of dialogue. Come on, Image Entertainment, get your shit together. For some reason, the sound problems disappeared during the film's final 30 minutes, which is when everything gets explained anyway. A string of kick-ass murder scenes is the primary reason for this film existing, so you don't really need the dialogue until that final 30 minutes.
Let's get the dumb stuff out of the way first. This movie is either woodenly acted or overacted, stupidly written (by four people, from an idea by two other people!), and occasionally clumsy. None of that really matters, though, because the actors giving those wooden line readings have strikingly visual faces and facial expressions, the murder setpieces are clever, unexpected, and blackly hilarious, some of Bava's shot compositions are beautiful (others are sloppy, but there's more of the beautiful than the sloppy), and the film's influence on the slasher genre is pretty all-encompassing. If you've seen this movie and the original Halloween, you've seen every slasher movie. Friday the 13th, Part 2 even lifted two murders from this movie, shot for shot. (If you're interested, those murders are an axe to the face and a couple speared in flagrante delicto. I finally got a chance to use my favorite Latin term.)

Bava's film opens with a dialogue-free eight-minute scene that includes two murders and a hilarious fly's point-of-view shot that includes the fly's accidental death in the bay. This is a great scene. I won't spoil any of it for you if you plan on renting this one. (Just avoid that Image Entertainment disc if you can.) After these murders, we're introduced to several characters. There's an entomologist, a Tarot card reader, four randy teens, a developer, his secretary, a fisherman, and so on. We don't know their relationships to each other, in most cases, or what their angle is. Several murders occur, from your basic stabbings and stranglings to your axes to the face and elaborate beheadings. We don't know why people keep getting killed, though it has some vague something to do with development of the bay, a countess, and an illegitimate son. (The vagueness may be deliberate or just a byproduct of the DVD's atrocious sound quality.) We know there are multiple killers, because some of these killers are killed by other killers. And that's basically it. One murder after another, until the final thirty minutes explains, in flashback, who these people really are and why they are killing each other. Then we get a darkly comic ending that's expected in event but not in detail.

There's not much to say about this film without spoiling any of the fun, but I think any fan of Italian giallo, slasher movies, and creative death will enjoy at least part of this movie. Just find a DVD with better sound quality, if you can.
Claims are made that this film has more titles than any other. These claims may be right. Twitch of the Death Nerve is my favorite. It's just fun to say. The original Italian title translates as Chain Reaction, but the film has been released under many others, including:
A Bay of Blood
The Last House on the Left, Part II
(though it has nothing to do with Craven's film and was shot a year before)
Ecology of a Crime
The Antecedent
O Sexo na Sua Forma Mais Violenta

New House on the Left
A Smell of Flesh
the fabulously redundant Bloodbath Bay of Blood.

UPDATE - 10:01 p.m.
We're drinking with some friends right now, and one of them just reminded me that I have seen another Mario Bava film, and on the big screen, no less. Bava's 1965 science fiction epic, Planet of the Vampires, in brilliant color, is recommended to any living thing. It would make a great double feature with Forbidden Planet.

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