Maestro of the Big Bullshits: Mario Bava and No Budget Genius of Planet of the Vampires
Giallo is pronounced like Gallo: the Cheap Wine That Taught Me How to be an Alcoholic, and the Italian Horror Thrillers That Maybe Might Teach Me Something Else.
"Permanent Withdrawal" from Opiates You Don't Use Anymore: Giallo, Gallo, Gallows and the Eternal Dry Drunk Watching Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires
Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires (1965) a.k.a. Planet of the Damned, Planet of Terror, Demon Planet, The Haunted Planet, The Haunted World, Space Mutants, Terror in Space, The Shadow World, Terrore nello Spazio: An Appreciation
Italian director Mario Bava (1914-1980) is often credited as the true creator of the first giallo with the contemporary psycho-killer mysteries The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1962, and Blood and Black Lace, 1964. But one of his most distinctive films was the giallo-inflected science fiction masterpiece Planet of the Vampires (1965). The film offers a distillation of giallo's formal and stylistic elements (baroque design, expressionistic lighting, erotically charged violence) unmoored from earthly crime or psychosis in an entirely artificial, alien setting. Another of giallo's characteristics (identified as the first of 8 by Anne Billson in "How to Spot a Giallo Movie") are the films' floridly over the top titles, (A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Seven Blood Stained Orchids, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and perhaps most memorably, What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer's Body? and Your Vice is a Locked Room). With Planet of the Vampires the characteristic is inverted and flattened into a litany of colorless, commercially (mis)calculated alternate titles, (The Demon Planet, Mutant Planet, Space Mutants, et al), none of which describe the film at all.
Genre versatility was a special quality of Bava's, a point of pride. While he was dismissed by most studios and the public during much of his lifetime as a routine maker of "filone" (formula films), he could bring in horror, thriller, peplum sword and sandal epics, science fiction, viking or western B movies on time and under budget (the typical filone having a budget of under $80,000 and a shooting schedule of three or four weeks). Bava was the go-to technician called on to fix or finish other directors' messes without complaint, often uncredited, underpaid or even unpaid. But for his crews and cast and eventually a more discerning generation of movie goers and critics he was recognized as a master craftsman of very particular skill sets that allowed him, in the perennially low (very low) budget world of Italian popular films to make something, (and something very beautiful) out of less than nothing. This from the American star of Planet of the Vampires, (1965), Barry Sullivan:
"When I showed up later for the dubbing session the first images came on the screen and I couldn't believe my eyes. It was the most beautiful use of color, composition, framing that I had ever seen. It looked 100 times more expensive that it was. It did not resemble the studio conditions I remembered. The thing I remembered most about the studio was how hot it was, in those rubber space suits under the lights, and how they kept the studio cool so we wouldn't sweat in those wet suits, which we did anyway. And yet there we were up there on the screen in these spectacular settings that Mario Bava somehow fashioned out of nothing. I couldn't look away from the screen, couldn't look down at the script long enough to read my lines and finally asked the dubbing producer to just let me see it all, to take away the surprise so I could finish my dubbing. It was so beautiful it nearly brought tears to my eyes. It looked like an MGM Hollywood picture. I thought I said it would take a magician to make this picture look like something special, and I guess we got one." (From Tim Lucas' audio commentary for the remastered DVD release).
(Daydreaming last week about Planet of the Vampires, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Night of the Blood Beast, Queen of Blood, all from my childhood 1950's and '60's, kept me from stepping in front of a moving car. Not suicide, just the wanting to stop living thing again. Terror in space.)
What do you do with no talent, no good script, no time, no budget, no special effects, no nothing but let's make one more movie, let's make one more day of a life?
What did Mario Bava do?
Many observers said he worked himself to death.
From "A Prescription for a Comeback: Dr. Cheryl Karcher's Opiate Addiction" New York Times 7/24/16:
"Dr. Karcher couldn't quite describe what it was like to go cold turkey, so I asked a friend who is a physician and is in the throes of quitting opiates, and who agreed to talk only if I did not name him. It's not just body aches and flu-like symptoms: 'it's the feeling that life is pointless, that there will never be joy again…what's worse is that it erases any memory of joy or even of the simple quotidian pleasures of everyday life…' Dr. Karcher said, 'I have a friend of mine whose husband used to be an addict and she said, 'Cheryl, I really believe it would have been easier for him to kill himself than to get sober.'"
But then I am clean and sober and have been for 16 years, and carefully clip the above article (and any others like it that I come across). I write underneath this one, "Permanent Withdrawal. But withdrawal from what?"
Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Killer Shrews, The Brain Eaters, Night of the Blood Beast, Beginning of the End, The Horror Chamber of Doctor Faustus, The Beast with 10,000 Eyes, Atomic Submarine, Queen of Blood, Voyage to the End of the Universe, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. And right in there was Mario Bava's, Planet of Vampires. When you watch this film, look for the scene when the space ship first lands on the alien planet, its smooth descent made possible by filming the model sinking in a tank of water. (If you look carefully in the upper right, you can glimpse the tip of a technician's finger stabilizing the model).
When you watch this film, look at the incredible wardrobe design of the space suits, completely impractical black rubber/leather body suits with yellow felt piping, skull cap headpieces and high peaked collars, carefully designed by Bava and tailored by Gabriele Mayer in only 10 days, their Draculas-with-ray-guns style weirdly anticipating the otherwise inappropriate title, (Bava biographer Tim Lucas and others sensibly proposing Planet of the Zombies instead).
When you watch this film, look at the alien world and remember it is made of left-over plastic rocks from a sword and sandal movie, (you can actually identify some of the same rocks in Bava's 1961 Hercules in the Haunted World) with Bava's preferred candy- red, purple, green and blue lights. And Italian military camouflage smoke called fumone that floated up, vats of dry ice that drifted down, and atmospheric density created for interior shots (especially the wrecked alien ship they discover) using church incense. Bubbling lakes of steaming lava-muck were made of red-lit boiling polenta cereal. The alien ship was made of painted lightbulbs. The interior used found machine parts, including the upside down tail light lense off a 1957 Packard. Dirt from a nearby construction site was hauled in to cover a few yards of the sound stage floor, (Cinecitta Studio's Stage 6, Europe's largest sound stage and an empty shell that Fellini called his "favorite home"). Filling the emptiness was achieved with combinations of split-screen, painted miniature backdrops and "Schfutten shot" effects, named after Eugene Schfutten (achieved in 1927 by filming the reflection of a miniature landscape model in a mirror, with a small section of reflective surface scrapped away to transparent glass in order to film actors behind the glass at a distance, matching the scale of the miniature). (And the irony of the "Schfutten shot" mirror effects in the underbudgeted, underappreciated Planet of the Vampires by the underappreciated Mario Bava-always his worst enemy in interviews and in his career choices-see following quote-is the fact that Eugenio Bava-Mario's father, and the father of special effects photography in Italy-actually invented this technique and used it 10 years before the German Eugene Schfuttan, and assisted Mario in its use on Planet of the Vampires).
(From an interview with Mario Bava by Ornella Volta in Terror Fantastic #3, December 1971):
"My father wore a bow tie and a beret, a la Rafaello; he was an artist. He was a painter, sculptor, a photographer, an electrician, a medium and an inventor. He wasted years and years and years studying perpetual motion. In 1906 he became involved in the movie business. But that's a long story. He forgot his past and threw himself wholeheartedly in the seventh art: he became a cameraman (there were no directors of photography as such, then). Several years later I came to this world, between a miniature and a handful of hypo sulfate. I grew up wrapped in film, so to speak. When I was three, I used to play with bits of potassium cyanide-I liked its ruby red color-alternating it with white hypo sulfate in long serpentine lines. My father never thought that I could get poisoned. I knew that it was poison I was playing with and I knew not to lick my fingers while touching it. Those were heroic times, full of pioneers of a new two-dimensional universe. There were no specializations. Cyanide and hypo sulfate were used to make chemical fondues and I used to hold an end of the film while my father rubbed it with cotton wool in our kitchen sink, taking care not to drop any in the salad! That's the reason why I am a craftsman, after all; I spent my early days in my father's workshop, which was quite like the workshop of a Renaissance painter. We had to do everything by ourselves and to solve problems using only our brain and our enthusiasm; and it was the result that mattered, not the money. Therefore, my love/hate relationship can be traced back to those early days…"
And when you watch this film, think about Bava's amazing modesty, his complete tone-deafness for career advancement, or self-aggrandizement. His irresistible-seeming impulse to shoot himself in the foot, again and again, in interviews. One can only imagine his horror and incredulity at our world of branding and the art-entrepreneur:
"…well, I think of myself as someone who manages to get along. I don't care about being successful; I just want to continue to keep working. My father used to tell me this and he had been in the movies since 1906. I'll never be an Antonioni. I love to improvise, to solve problems, to create new scenes out of emergency. In my opinion, a good director shouldn't do this, he should stick to the original script and schedule. Masterpieces were born this way…what the hell, if something goes wrong one day, I can always move away from horror films and do something else. What really matters is to keep working…" In other interviews he said, "As a director, I blew it from the beginning: I made two big mistakes. First, I just can't stay serious for more than 2 minutes, and to a producer, a director who doesn't wear glasses and hasn't got a frowning, intellectual countenance or a serious look, well, he simply isn't a good director. Second, I always tried to get along with scarce, shoestring budgets. I mean, if I need a Ferrari Dino for a particular sequence and they gave me a Fiat 500, I shrug my shoulders and just change the scene to make it work all the same, that's all. The results? Instead of telling me, good work, Mario thanks to you we saved on the estimated budget, and you know how to deal with these problems and so forth,…Next time, you know what? I ask for a Fiat 500 and they give me a bike!..."
Asked in another interview if he was generally happy when he was filming Bava answered,
"Usually I am very edgy. I always hate the film I am making. I force my collaborators out of retirement. Moreover, the team is always the same: my son, the cameraman, the electrician…in my entire career, I only made big bullshits, that's for sure." When the interviewer protested that his films are now well regarded, Bava replied, "Nowadays, people lack culture. I'm just a craftsman, a romantic craftsman. I'm the only one left. I made movies as if I were making chairs. Or rather, I made movies as a challenge, a dual challenge. A challenge made against the Americans, for instance, with their super-productions, versus me, with my fucking last-minute improvisations… (for example), one of my first films (credited to Ricardo Freda) Caltiki the Immortal Monster was a creature I created using tripe. Tripe for cats, you know. I'll tell you more: the guy who had to buy the tripe-100 kilograms every day-decided to save the money by using the same tripe every day. In three days the tripe was killing everybody for real with its damn smell! Gerard Herter, a German actor, had to fight the monster and he almost died because of it. When the movie was shown in Tunisia, the scene where Caltiki-the tripe-explodes left such an impression that the audience ran from the theater in terror. And it was only tripe!"
Only tripe. My own art making was and is similarly impoverished. There were childhood years of studying junk, making up special names for mystery machines, collecting things, filling drawers, studying stuff, putting it out on tabletops. Moving it this way, and that way. In a row. In a column. In other configurations and combinations. Sometimes viewed from an extreme low angle. Photographed with Brownies and later, Instamatics. Sometimes alien monuments sometimes crashed model airplanes, then more crashes and more until it was all I wanted to do. There were many technical barriers I faced in creating new things, trying to create new things with old things in new ways. Machine parts and the twisty possibilities of manufactured parts, often metal, where adhesives failed (glue, tape) the machines like intricate and robot cairns coming undone, falling down, so many varieties of clunk, and crash to the floor. Slunk, block and donk that the music of falling apart machines alone kept me entranced with this walk to and fro school, to and fro the movies, watching with special fascination the films utilizing models, miniatures, small things made with such loving care, arrayed, motorized, lit and photographed, ostensibly to create the illusion of machines, space ships and landscapes on a gigantic scale, yet never really persuasive as anything other than miniature worlds, perhaps miniatures combined with live action figures on a split screen, or backgrounds or details of matt painting on smoothly seamless glass, in a manner similar to the way stop-motion animation dinosaurs and creatures (Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen, George Pal, Jim Danforth) and their painstaking technologies to simulate living, moving autonomous beings, yet never really persuasive as "real" but rather presenting an illusion that creates a reality much stronger and stranger than mere "realism" (via CGI) could offer.
Around this time I discovered my parents' Gallo wine in the fridge and scotch, brandy and gin in the top cabinet. I learned to crave the cabinet, and my miniature worlds became more and more elaborate, drawn, photographed, videotaped and, for a time and in a sense, inhabited.
Mario Bava hated whatever movie he was making. I came to hate the miniature worlds. Then not. Maybe not. It's still permanent withdrawal, isn't it? And the job to keep making the biggest, most beautiful Vampire Planet bullshits ever, keep working with absolutely nothing but smoke, incense, dry ice and mirrors.