Italian genre cinema is known for its baroque titlessome films seem to boast more names than cast members. Post-war filmmakers were driven to market their movies to as wide an audience as possible, banking on popular trends. But the absurdly long collection of titles attached to Mario Bavas 1971 film A Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve) is more telling than it first appears.
The films original title, Reazione a catenawhich translates to chain reaction in Italiandescribes the maestros pioneering film perfectly. Bava dispatches with his characters in gruesome ways. His plot about a familial inheritance drama exists only to propel us to the next kill. A Bay of Blood is often categorized as a giallo film, and it bears a few hallmarks of the genre (red herrings and a glimpsed black-gloved killer), but what Bava has created here is an early prototype for the slasher filmone that predates Bob Clarks Black Christmas (the 1974 movie is widely regarded as the first in the genre). In this way, Reazione a catena takes on a dual meaning, with Bavas movie setting off a chain reaction in horror cinema one decade latera host of violent works that fixated on body-count over everything else.
In case you needed further proof of A Bay of Bloods influence, look to the films bucolic setting (and ominous body of water), a death scene where one character is slaughtered with a machete-like instrument to the face, and the double impalement of two young people having sexall found in the Friday the 13th series (Part 2 blatantly rips off the aforementioned scenes). Other imitators can be found in the films alternate titles, specifically The Last House on the Left, Part II, the American reissue. This was a cheap way for distributors to cash in on the controversy generated by Last House on the Left, Wes Cravens film released a year after Bavas. Any ties to Cravens postmodern contribution to the slasher genre with the Scream series are amusing, but incidental.
Bava himself had an absurdist sense of humor with a nihilistic streak, which he injects into A Bay of Bloods theme of man versus nature. Man should live and let live, and without any interfering, one character opines to another who studies insects in captivity. If you kill for killings sake, you become a monster. And thats exactly what happens as the films cast of unlikable characters murders each other in grisly ways. But man isnt an insect. We have centuries of civilization behind us, the insect collector retorts. Bava reveals these greedy players are no better than the beetles that squirm in the mud and float in the bay. In the films opening, the elderly countess who owns the highly sought-after plot of land is strangled to death, but her murderer is abruptly slayed before he can enjoy the fruits of his bloody labor.
The joke is on us, too. Bava highlights his darkly comedic perspective by contrasting sunny location shots with scenes of brutality, set to Stelvio Ciprianis strangely upbeat score. The woodland setting is a work of camera trickery since Bay of Bloods shooting location lacked the desired forestry. The films surprise ending is perhaps the biggest gag of all.
Bavas reputation as a master visual stylist precedes him (Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace), but in Bay of Blood, the maestro toys with his characters while pulling his audiences strings, too. According to legend, Christopher Lee, the star of Bavas 1963 film, The Whip and the Body, walked out of a screening of Bay of Blood in disgust. One can imagine the grin on Bavas face at the fact. A Bay of Blood is a historically significant film and a cautionary tale about the perils of human nature, but its also a gore-soaked lark from one of the horror genre’s most vital filmmakers.
Alison Nastasi is a giallo addict and the weekend editor of Flavorwire. You can find her talking about exploitation cinema, VHS, occult oddities, Hammer horror, and other genre fare on Twitter.
A Bay of Blood screens in NYC this March as part of Anthology Film Archives The Killer Must Kill Again!: Giallo Fever, Part 2. See the full lineup here.