Friends, comrades, and random people attempting to sidle up to me during a garden party, effetely holding your hand out, twittering at my every comment in an obvious attempt to enter my bedchamber, I bid thee all welcome! It is I, the Duke of DVD, once more brandishing my pulsing member to passersby from the store window of MAD Cinema, dispelling the demons of Hollywood and yanking down the frilly pantaloons of stuffy critics. Oh sure, they'll nod knowingly at one another, cloistered in their smokey dens, adjusting the fronts of their trousers and sniffing with disdain at the so-called "bad" movies. But we know better! We know better.
As has been obvious of late, I have a man-crush on Mario Bava. "But sir!", you say in a piping voice, "Surely there are other, even more obscure, even more MAD, filmmakers from 1960's Italy that you could expound upon!" You would be incorrect, peasant. Mario looks down upon us now from his throne of bone and sinew, tilting his head slightly to the right in order to hear us talk about his masterworks over the screams of the damned.
Let us not keep him waiting!
Kill, Baby... Kill! is not really a good title, in my opinion. It is also known as The Curse of the Living Dead and, my personal favorite, Operation: Fear. "Operation: Fear" is so very much more descriptive to what the movie contains. "Kill, Baby... Kill!" sounds like the title of a Russ Meyer film, or perhaps the title of the Vicar's upcoming autobiography (ghostwritten by Tom Clancy). Granted, a "baby" does do some killing, but in this case it's a young child instead of a busty blonde. This movie is very much about fear, though, and when a certain Italian director initiates a clandestine operation titled "Fear," well, you better be ready!
Our movie opens with a woman shrieking "No, NO!!" as she flees from a stately mansion. Running across the expansive front lawn, she flees upstairs in an abandoned tower. Shrieking again, she leaps to her death, impaling herself onto the top of a spiked fence! We see the shadow of someone watching. They turn to leave, walking slowly back down the stairs, and we see the lower half of what appears to be a young girl, buckle-shoes and all. Some giggling is heard. Creepy!
We cut to a group of fellows carrying a coffin through the dilapidated streets of a poor Transylvania town. A carriage arrives, and out steps the strikingly handsome Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). He watches the coffin parade as it goes around a corner, out of sight. His coach driver warns him that this village is known for its hatred of visitors and general unpleasantness (and apparently abysmal housing market). The doctor goes off in search of the only inn in town. He passes windows where pox-ridden villagers watch him with distrusting gazes. Finally he arrives at the tavern/inn, where it seems most of the populace has gathered.
As it turns out, the good Dr. Eswai is a coroner, called into town to conduct an autopsy. The person who called him is Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), an out-of-towner himself called in to investigate the apparent suicide of the chick who impaled herself. The doctor is shown up to Kruger's room, where we see him getting slightly angry and rough with a local in an attempt to get some information. The Inspector knows something is foul in the town and is dedicated to finding it. Accompanying the Inspector is the burgomeister of the town, Karl (Max Lawrence). Karl knows the score, being a local, but so far he's keeping mum on the subject.
The doctor asks to be shown to the body, only to find out that it happened to be in the coffin he saw upon arriving in town. It seems the townsfolk are in a mad hurry to get the body buried as soon as possible. The doc and the Inspector manage to stop the gravediggers, who protest loudly that handling the dead is a sin and will be punished. Not deterred, the doctor has the body delivered to a local shop of sorts, and lets the Inspector know that he'll need a witness. That witness turns out to be the stunning Monica (Erika Blanc), a medical student who is a native of the village, returned to visit the graves of her parents, or so she says.
The autopsy reveals a surprise in the form of a silver coin embedded in the heart of the deceased! Monica lets us know that this ancient custom apparently is designed to protect the soul of the departed from further evil influence. Sounds like a good idea that needs to be adopted in our day and age. Suddenly, we get the first of what will be many creepy little kid moments: a small hand is pressed up against the window of the autopsy room, unnoticed by the doc or Monica. Slowly it pulls away, leaving us on edge.
"Now, Monica, I want you to make out with whatever you find under that sheet. I'll be taking notes."
It must be said here that Bava plays up the "creepy kid" thing like few others. Melissa, who according to sources was played by a young boy in drag, is all sorts of creepy. Wide staring eyes, like saucers they are, send shivers down the spine as this little ball that she plays with bounces in and out of scene after scene. Bava uses some odd zoom-in, zoom-out camera tricks to replicate the child swinging on a swing in a very dream-like sequence, filled with fog and beautifully creepy lighting. His use of colored lenses and unsettling camera angles is simply unparalleled, and it's little wonder that directors like Scorsese and many others have admitted to taking inspiration from Bava.
After the autopsy, our two protagonists part, Monica going to her lodgings, Dr. Eswai going to his. He is accosted, however, by the two gravediggers, in a dark alley. They attempt to murder him(!) for simply performing the autopsy. Sheesh, overreact much? He fights them valiantly, but they appear to be getting the upper hand when suddenly they are scared away. A mysterious, raven-haired woman has appeared up some stairs nearby. The doctor turns to watch the diggers flee, and upon turning back finds that the woman has disappeared.
The doctor returns to the inn, where the serving girl (and daughter of the innkeeper) tells him that the town's ills can be firmly laid at the feel of the Villa Graps, a haunted spooky mansion containing untold evil. Suddenly, the girl realizes her mistake! She shouldn't have even mentioned Villa Graps! The creepy blond girl shows up at the window again, pressing her hands against it. The serving girl screams, knowing she's been cursed. Her parents know they must send for Ruth. Turns out, Ruth is already at the door, sensing the need for her services. Ruth, as it happens, is the dark haired mysterious lady who scared off the gravediggers. Played by the stunning Fabienne Dali, she is apparently the local witch/medicine lady.
Ruth sets about helping save the serving girl, employing the use of various herbal essences and abrasive chemical solvents. The ritual culminates in Ruth whipping a bundle of herbs across the bare back of the serving girl, which apparently saves her from Melissa's wrath (as well as making her Massengil fresh). Upon leaving the inn, the doctor stops Ruth to demand answers. She informs him that a curse is upon the village but doesn't elaborate, telling him to leave or risk death. Not content with this, and having read nothing about it in the village's brochure, the heroic doctor takes it upon himself to check out Villa Graps firsthand.
We cut to Ruth's house, which looks very witch-like with herbs hanging to dry and various apparatus sitting around. Jars and vials sit around, no doubt containing such witch-related items as "bunghole of toad" and pixie farts. Karl the burgomeister is there and it turns out they are lovers! Ewwwwwww! Karl has another dead body with him, shrouded with a sheet, fresh from the Villa Graps. Ruth lets us all know that the body needs to be buried before sunrise the next day, and then proceeds to implant a coin in its heart. We are never really let in on why the dead bodies need to be buried so quickly, but I'm gonna go with my answer to all of life's unanswered questions: zombies.
Meanwhile, Dr. Eswai arrives at Villa Graps, which is (no surprise) the large mansion we saw the girl at the first of the film fleeing from. He goes inside, seeing as how the door is unlocked, and explores. The mansion is a dusty collection of Gothic furniture and mouse droppings. Going upstairs, the doctor finds a haggard old lady, who informs him that she's the Baroness Graps, living alone. The doc finally leaves, but sees Melissa on the way out. He tries to talk to her but she teleports around, bouncing her ball and giggling creepily. The doctor chases after her to no avail, but he does find a portrait of Melissa, which informs us all that she is long deceased.
We cut to Monica, sleeping in her bed, terrorized by ghostly whispers. The doctor heads back to the inn and finds that the serving girl is also being haunted. The doc goes in search of help, leaving the serving girl alone long enough for her to impale herself on the sharp edge of a candelabra! The doctor sees Ruth and the gravediggers carrying a shrouded corpse to the graveyard. He follows and gets a free moment to check out the body. It's the Inspector! We cut to the burgomeister, alone in his room. He opens his wardrobe and we are all shocked to see Melissa there, staring death at him! He backs away, but Melissa is too strong. Using only her mind, she forces him to cut his own throat with a handy sickle hanging by the door.
Just as the doctor arrives back at the inn and discovers Karl's body, Monica walks in and sees his corpse. She takes off, screaming that she just can't take it anymore. Dr. Eswai follows, and they soon get lost (due to her wailing meanderings), and then, surprise, end up back at Villa Graps. The Baroness Graps, feeling extra chatty, shows them Melissa's room, which is covered in dolls for that extra creep factor. The doc and Monica soon get seperated, and as he's trying to find Monica the doc runs afoul of the ghostly whispers. Fleeing in terror, he runs through a shitload of cobwebs, which stick to him like, uh, cobwebs. He finally makes it outside the house before fear overcomes him and he passes out on the front lawn, looking like a cobwebbed frat guy after a particularly rowdy party.
The doctor comes to in Ruth's house. She's had time to rescue the doc and then return to her house. He watches as she's about to insert a coin into the heart of her lost love Karl, the burgomeister (I love that word, btw, and plan to use it every day). Suddenly, the bombs start dropping! Ruth informs Dr. Eswai that Monica is in fact Melissa's sister! Apparently they were separated at birth or some such. We cut back to the Villa and Monica is talking to the Baroness, who informs her of that very same fact. She also tells of how Melissa died in an accident and has systematically gone about killing everyone because of it.
Monica flees in terror, down into the family crypt (when is it EVER a good idea to seek refuge in a fucking CRYPT? When, I ask?!). Of course Melissa shows up, saucer eyes in full effect. We cut back to the Baroness's room as Ruth enters, ready for a showdown. She informs us that the true evil in Villa Graps is the Baroness herself, who, it turns out, is a powerful medium and is using her powers to control the dead, forcing them to kill with fear! We next see Dr. Eswai running to the Villa to save Monica. Monica, however, is in the grip of fear via Melissa via the Baroness (got that?).
The doctor arrives to see Monica walking up to a ledge just outside the family crypt. The door won't budge! We cut back to the Baroness and Ruth, locked in mortal combat! Ruth begins choking the life out of the Baroness, who in turn is grasping for a poker near the fireplace. Suddenly the Baroness collapses, dead. The door opens finally letting the good doctor in, who rushes up to save Monica from throwing herself off the ledge! Alas, poor Ruth is done for. We switch scenes back to the Baroness's room where Ruth stands impaled through the stomach with the fireplace poker. She collapses knowing that she's rid the town of the curse for good.
Monica and Dr. Eswai walk off back towards town as the sun rises on a new, and hopefully less evil-filled, day... Fin.
Operation: Fear is, in my humble opinion, one of Mario Bava's most awesome masterpieces. The Gothic styling, the way he uses the small setting of the town to instill a sense of isolation, and his acute awareness of just what makes us scared, all of these things add up to something many have attempted, and failed, to copy. I was constantly stunned by how beautiful the scenery was, how Bava's camera transported me to this small hamlet. His use of fog and light should be held up as a master class on environment and space. The use of slightly fogged windows upon which Melissa's hands would press was genius.
The acting was top notch as well. Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, who played Dr. Eswai, was very much the image of the everyday man thrust into a situation which requires a hero, and rising to the occasion. I was particularly smitten with Fabienne Dali, who was simply beautiful in every single scene she was in. Her Ruth affected a slightly disheveled look, and constantly gripped a black shawl draped around her neck. Her beauty was breathtaking. Melissa (or rather the young boy who played her) was also equally adept, but in a way more creepy way. His/her way of never blinking and simply looking ominous was spot-on.
In the end, I must conclude that this movie is the bee's knees and give it 3 Thumbs Up. Everything from the sets, to the camera work, to the acting is across-the-board fantastic and represents everything we all love about Italian Gothic horror.