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Mario Bava and his operatic world of horror

Italian pioneer Mario Bava is often cited as the “Master of Italian Horror” and is often counted alongside the legends who changed the genre forever, including Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell. Although Bava is held in such high regard by scholars, cinema fans and other filmmakers, most of his works remain unwatched by newer generations of audiences who are more familiar with the modern successors that his artistic vision has spawned.

The son of famous cinematographer Eugenio Bava, Mario was introduced to the world of cinema from an early age and learnt how to master the elusive craft of special effects from his extremely talented father. Starting out as a cinematographer himself, Bava worked on some of the landmark projects in the history of Italian cinema. He wasn’t just the cinematographer on Italy’s first-ever horror film, I Vampiri, but he also co-directed the first Italian sci-fi project, The Day the Sky Exploded.

Right from the beginning, it was evident that Bava possessed a spectacular ability to view things differently which resulted in his unforgettable, unique interpretations of the horror genre. “Movies,” Bava believed, “are a magician’s forge, they allow you to build a story with your hands… at least, that’s what it means to me. What attracts me in movies is to be presented with a problem and be able to solve it. Nothing else; just to create an illusion, and effect, with almost nothing.”

Over the course of his fantastic career, Bava made pioneering gems that influence various genres to this day, ranging from sci-fi to J-horror. What made them so special was the fact that he maintained a consistent aesthetic framework throughout all his works which made his directorial style an instantly recognisable artistic flourish. Contextualised within surreal settings and presented through lyrical images, Bava transcended the limitations of the cinematic medium.

Quentin Tarantino once explained: “Mario Bava became one of the first directors that I got to know by name because I saw Black Sabbath on late-night television and I would kind of look forward to seeing it pop up again. He’s a great Italian horror filmmaker and then I started noticing other movies in the TV guide that his name and they all had this big, cool, operatic quality about them.”

Bava was an expert when it came to visual narratives due to his artistic background, having perfected the use of chiaroscuros in his black-and-white masterpieces like Black Sunday and then eventually conquering the realm of colour with projects like Black Sabbath and Kill, Baby… Kill! (a personal favourite of New Hollywood auteur Martin Scorsese). Bava’s influence extends beyond the scope of normal measurements because his works had a formative effect on the development of the Italian giallo tradition as well as the slasher genre.

More than anything else, Bava was a sculptor who fashioned images out of our own subconscious fears. He always maintained that cinema was a form of alchemy with which artists can produce reflections of everything that is beautiful and terrifying about human existence. By the end of his career, Bava had achieved much more than the knowledge of alchemy. He had successfully created a body of work that would continue to play an indispensable part in the evolution of cinematic art.