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Color, 1971, 84m.
Directed by Mario Bava
Starring Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Laura Betti, Claudio Camaso, Anna Maria Rosati, Brigitte Skay, Leopoldo Trieste, Isa Miranda, Nicoletta Elmi
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay, Image (US R1 NTSC), Raro (Italy R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Thanks to his orgiastic feasts of gothic horror and comic book pop art, no one ever described Mario Bava as a restrained director. However, few could have anticipated the unbridled ferocity of his trendsetting 1971 shocker, Reazione a catena ("Chain Reaction"), which turned up in Europe under such titles as Antefatto, A Bay of Blood, and Ecologia del delitto before terrorizing U.S. drive-ins for years as Last House - Part II and, most unforgettably, Twitch of the Death Nerve. Here Bava essentially tears the horror genre apart from the ground up, dispensing with linear plotting or realistic characterization in favor of a mechanical, devious (and sometimes blackly hilarious) catalog of murders, all served up with the tricky, sumptuous photography which gives his films their unforgettable artistic stamp. Even more than his earlier Blood and Black Lace, this is the body count movie par excellence.
In the haunting and very surprising opening, an elderly countess (Miranda) stares sadly through a rain-dappled window at her property surrounding a remote bay. Suddenly her wheelchair-bound body is seized up by a lariat, hoisting her back and choking the life from her throat. Her assailant nonchalantly steps outside and surveys his handiwork, then returns inside... only to get a nasty surprise himself. Thus begins a mad, scurrying patchwork of fragmented narratives in which various residents and visitors become victim or predator, or sometimes both at once, in order to claim this valuable chunk of property. Watch and learn the fates of four partying youths, a Medusa-haired tarot freak (A Hatchet for the Honeymoon's Betti), the sinister squid-hunting local Simon (Camoso), and visiting married couple Renata (Thunderball's Auger) and Albert (giallo regular Pistilli). The solution to this bloody tangle of lives and motives will certainly startle you and probably provoke a sick chuckle as well.
Though rarely acknowledged by the mainstream press, A Bay of Blood is now regarded by most of the horror community as the progenitor of the slasher wave from the '80s (with Steve Miner's Friday the 13th Part II suffering the most direct accusations of, ahem, "direct inspiration"). However, Bava's film is a more clever, subtle, and visually sumptuous affair than your standard stalk and kill yarn; even with limited means he conjures up a swirling symphony of poetic images, from the rippling textures of the bay waters (even when strewen with corpses) to the macabre ochre glow behind a glass door during Renata's standout victim scene. The cheeky gore effects still shock today, including an unforgettable facial machete application, a unique shish-kebab variation, and a startling beheading, all laced with some '70s-styled helpings of nudity and sex. Stelvio Cipriani's deft score wavers between beautifully sustained and creepy beat rhythms (the main titles in particular) to the hilarious upbeat pop pastorale of the end credits (later recycled for Francois Ozon's Potiche!), while the actors all seem to be having a ball before turning up as lambs to the slaughter. (Genre fans, look for an appearance by little Nicoletta Elmi, who also turned up in Deep Red, Flesh for Frankenstein, and Bava's Baron Blood, among many others.)
Apart from tangling with British censors during the video nasty debacle (leading to a censored U.K. VHS release from Redemption), this very gory film has somehow managed to avoid censorship in most territories and has been presented uncut in virtually every country in which it has been released (including a memorable stint on VHS from Gorgon with wonderfully grotesque cover art). Discounting a hideous budget release from Simitar, the first legitimate DVD of this film (packaged as Twitch of the Death Nerve but containing the onscreen title of A Bay of Blood) was released by Image in 2001. Unfortunately the English mono soundtrack suffered from heavy distortion during louder sounds and was often very harsh on the ear, making the film a chore t to sit through. That disc also includes the theatrical trailer under the alternate title of Carnage (first seen on home video as part of Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell), along with the standard Bava bio and photo gallery, a special tongue-in-cheek "Murder Menu" leading to each death scene, a couple of outrageous radio spots, and thorough, illuminating liner notes from Tim Lucas, anticipating his more extensive coverage to come in his essential Bava book. Lucas also managed to return to the film for an audio commentary when the rights passed over to Anchor Bay, leading to another DVD release in 2007 as part of their second Mario Bava collection (with a standalone release issued soon after). The commentary is excellent and up to the standards of his other Bava tracks, explaining the production details in depth and pointing out little facts about each of the cast memebrs, the memorable shooting location, and Bava's own humorous touches in many scenes. That transfer looked very similar to the Image one (i.e., very colorful, free of damage, and perfectly framed), with significantly improved audio as well. The radio spots and trailer were carried over along with a stills and poster gallery. Released in Italy almost concurrently from Raro Video was another DVD containing the Italian cut of the film (with optional English subtitles), a 23-minute featurette with Lamberto Bava called "The Art of Crime," and the trailer. Though the film was clearly geared for an English audience (even with dubbing, most of the actors were clearly speaking English), the Italian cut features a few variations in its editing and, adjusted from PAL, runs a little more than 40 seconds longer than the English cut. This isn't a matter of one version really being more "complete" than the other; it's simply a slightly different assembly with a few extended in and out points and some alternate reaction shots here and there, but it's a nice option for completists.
In 2010, A Bay of Blood became the very first Bava film to hit Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow in the U.K. In terms of extras it remains definitive, carrying over the commentary and radio spots while adding the Italian cut (in standard def with English subs), a video appreciation of the film from Joe Dante, the Trailers from Hell version of the trailer with Edgar Wright, "The Giallo Gems of Dardano Sacchetti" (a fun 33-minute interview with the horror/thriller screenwriter), and "Shooting a Spaghetti Splatter Classic" (a 21-minute interview with assistant cameraman Gianlorenzo Battaglia). Unfortunately the release stumbles when it comes to the feature itself, as the HD master suffers from highly desaturated colors (with red almost nonexistant) and milky black levels. It's not hideous by any means, but it certainly feels a whole lot less like a Bava film and leaves a whole lot of room for improvement.
Thankfully the 2013 Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber (with a DVD reissue at the same time) is easily the best-looking edition of this film to date and perhaps their most beautiful Bava release to date. The colors look wonderful here, ranging from the spooky blues of the night scenes to the rampant gold and crimson flourishes in the art direction during interior shots. There's also a pretty substantial amount of additional image information on the top, bottom, and right sides, too. For a comparison, just check out this shot from the Arrow release and this one from the Kino. It's really no contest. (All of the screen caps included in this review are from the Kino version.) The LPCM mono track sounds exceptionally sharp and clean, the best aural rendition of the film so far as well. The same Tim Lucas audio commentary is also included, thankfully, after the odd speed bump of the Kino Bava disc just before this one, Black Sabbath, as well as the alternate Italian cut (again in standard def and English subtitled). Finally the disc closes out with the Carnage trailer and bonus ones for Black Sunday, Baron Blood, Lisa and the Devil, and House of Exorcism. All in all, a really gorgeous presentation and a welcome relief after a long, bumpy road of past releases.
Updated review on August 29, 2013.
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