Because of the overwhelming volume of Hollywood films that are made and the success of the horror genre, the modern horror movie is a fairly American phenomenon. However, the influence of European filmmakers on these films cannot be understated, whether those roots fall within the surrealism of German Expressionism or the eerie Gothicism of Britain’s Hammer pictures. Of course, Italian filmmakers have made their mark on the horror world as well, with the striking visuals of Dario Argento and the shocking gore of Lucio Fulci leading the way. But, before Argento or Fulci hit their stride, Mario Bava was making movies in Italy, influencing both of those directors. Nestled in between Bava’s masterpieces Black Sunday and A Bay of Blood sits an amazing yet unsung example of his work from 1966 called Kill Baby, Kill.
Kill, Baby Kill begins with Irena Hollander (Mirella Pamphili from The Great Silence) falling to her death, impaling herself onto the sharp iron spikes of a fence below. Because Irena’s case is the latest in a long string of suspicious deaths, Dr. Paul Eswai (The Last Man on Earth’s Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is summoned to the town to perform an autopsy. Along with his assigned assistant, a young woman named Monica Schuftan (The Devil’s Nightmare’s Erika Blanc), Paul carries out the autopsy and finds a silver coin implanted in the dead girl’s heart. Monica tells him that the townspeople believe that inserting a silver coin in the heart is the only way to keep the dead from coming back as ghosts. The coin is not the only superstition that is alive and well in the town; the residents are plagued by the spirit of a young girl named Melissa who, it is said, causes the death of anyone who lays eyes upon her. Once the ghostly girl is seen, the only way to lift the curse is to seek the help of Ruth (Fabienne Dali from Destination Fury), a practitioner of the dark arts who uses her powers for good. Ruth has a nemesis in town, however: an older witch named Baroness Graps (Giovanna Galletti from Strange Witness). While visiting the Baroness in her castle, Paul encounters the young ghost. Monica sees the girl as well, and in the eyes of the townspeople, both are doomed. Paul and Monica must solve the mystery of the little girl and, with the help of Ruth, lift the curse before it’s too late.
Fantastically surreal and intentionally confusing, Kill Baby, Kill is quite an enigma. The screenplay was written by Mario Bava along with Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale (the guys behind Bloody Pit of Horror and Terror Creatures from the Grave), and it successfully combines aspects of gothic and supernatural horror with mystery and suspense. It goes from being over-the-top and campy to utterly terrifying, sometimes within the same scene. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if the narrative is real or in the middle of a dream sequence, and that’s half the fun of it. Kill Baby, Kill is a fun puzzle for the viewer to solve along with the characters.
Kill Baby, Kill seemed to have an identity crisis from its very release. Its original Italian title is Operazione Paura, which translates to Operation Fear in English. In order to avoid confusion with the growing spy thriller trend, it was rechristened Kill Baby, Kill for subsequent theatrical runs, but it didn’t end there. In the UK it was released under the title of Curse of the Dead, a name that was expanded for an American reissue to Curse of the Living Dead, presumably in order to ride the coattails of George Romero’s pioneering zombie film Night of the Living Dead. Not to be outdone in the coattails department, Germany renamed the film again, adding an iconic horror character’s name that has nothing to do with the film – Die toten Augen des Dr. Dracula (The Dead Eyes of Dr. Dracula). Finally, and even more perplexingly, a later American reissue called the film Don’t Walk in the Park, making it out to be a cut-rate slasher film. The constantly morphing title only adds to the riddle that is Kill Baby, Kill.
Italian horror movies have a very distinct look, and Kill Baby, Kill is a perfect example of it. Mario Bava’s father, Eugene, was a respected and talented cinematographer in his own right, and Mario cut his teeth as a director of photography. So, of course, it’s no surprise that Bava’s films have some of the most innovative and influential camera work around. Along with his cinematographer/collaborator, Antonio Rinaldi (who also shot Planet of the Vampires and Hatchet for the Honeymoon for Bava, among others), Bava goes to great lengths to keep the visual aspects of the film interesting while not distracting from the meat of the story. Taking advantage of the Eastmancolor technology, the film’s color palette is full of bright, primary colors, bathing everything in blue and red light. There is camera movement in almost every shot, ranging from silly point-of-view gimmicks to motivated zooms, pans and tilts. Shadows are everywhere, yet they seem to not hide anything; instead, the darkness frames the picture. Mario Bava knows exactly how he wants his movie to look, and he and Rinaldi have the technical know-how to pull it off. Like all of Bava’s film, Kill Baby, Kill is masterfully shot, and his influence can be seen and felt in hundreds of movies, Italian or not, that have been made since.
In addition to the technical aspects of Kill Baby, Kill, the artistic elements are also remarkable. Spooky imagery is found everywhere in Kill Baby, Kill. Bava borrows his elongated and angular set motifs from the German films of F.W. Murnau, and he puts the open, gothic look of the old Hammer productions to use as well. The sets consist of old spiral staircases and filthy, scratched windows: all of the trappings of a good horror film. Melissa, the ghost girl, is there for the sole purpose of giving the creeps to both the characters and the audience, and she is made even creepier by the array of dolls and toys that accompany her. Bava takes the classic horror archetypes and tropes, twists them around, and makes them his own. As strange and haunting as the story of Kill Baby, Kill is, it’s the pictures on screen that follow the viewer home.
Along with Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava makes up the holy trinity of Italian horror. While Argento and Fulci have enjoyed more mainstream success, Bava has made many legendary films, and Kill Baby, Kill sometimes gets overlooked among classics like Black Sabbath and Twitch of the Death Nerve. Still, it is a great example of Italian horror in general, and Bava’s inimitable style in particular.