Film Review: Kill, Baby... Kill!

Restored version of Italian horror icon Mario Bava's eerie 1966 ghost story burnishes the elegant use of color often blurred on DVDs and older prints.
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A filmmaker who influenced directors as various as giallo-master Dario Argento and Federico Fellini, Mario Bava worked in every genre and on a variety of budgets, though he was famous for his ability to make a little money go a long way—he had a painter's eye and a phenomenal sense of where to put the camera so as to draw the audience's eye to what counted.

Set in 1907 in a remote Italian village where time seems to have stopped two decades earlier, Kill, Baby…Kill! opens with the bizarre suicide of a young woman, Irene Hollander, who impales herself on an iron gate. The bizarre manner of her death does not go unnoticed, even in the middle of backwards nowhere, and the burgomaster sends for a coroner, Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), in hopes that the report of a man of science will quell the gossip that's already started circulating. Hollander was a servant at the Villa Graps, whose only current occupant is an aging and eccentric baroness, but many of the locals believe there's a curse on the town that originates with the Graps family, and ugly talk spreads fast in a place where everyone knows everyone, half of them are related to each other and many have secrets. Especially when Hollander's death is followed by a string of apparent suicides, each under different but equally peculiar circumstances.

With the help of Monica Schuftan (Erika Blanc, a regular in Italian genre films of the 1960s and ’70s, whose character is coyly named after Eugen Schüfftan, pioneer of a silent-era process for merging painted sets with live-action footage), Eswai starts poking around dark corners and discovers all sorts of nastiness, as well as disturbing evidence that the deaths may be connected to the vengeful ghost of a seven-year-old child, Melissa Graps (Valerio Valeri), who died in 1887.

No account of its narrative can account for Kill, Baby…Kill!'s enduring reputation: It's little different from hundreds of other tales of ghostly retribution. What distinguishes this one is its exceptional lighting and cinematography, which draw the viewer into a world of otherworldly color and disorienting spaces, a milieu defined by vivid washes of color, spiral staircases splashed with green and purple light that appears to snake out of stygian gloom and stretch beyond the ceiling, doors that keep opening into the same room, winding streets and patches of ground vanishing into the mist. Shot both on location (a medieval village in Tuscany and a real villa) and on studio sets, Kill, Baby…Kill! unfolds in a stylized world that's striking even when seen in the most washed-out, careless presentation.

But the restoration by Kino Lorber is truly beautiful: To say the colors are truer than in other versions sounds contradictory, giving that they're meticulously unnatural. But blues that read as smudgy purples in other versions are vividly blue, and skin tones lack the orangey tint that often makes the characters look like victims of careless spray tans. The vivid red of floor-length velvet drapes is lush, while brown beams and clothing that often looks artificially reddish are now truly brown.

Make no mistake, Kill, Baby…Kill!'s giggling child ghost, often seen with a rubber ball, is the film's single most powerful visual, one that Fellini appropriated for the Toby Dammit segment of the highbrow 1968 anthology horror movie Spirits of the Dead. (The other two segments were directed by Roger Vadim and Louis Malle.) And the fact that little blonde-haired Melissa—who is largely seen in fleeting glimpses and through windows, little palms pressed against glass—is played by a boy adds to her uncanny quality. But this restoration is a great introduction to Bava's haunted world for Euro-horror neophytes, and a treat for longtime fans.

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