While Mario Bava is known for dabbling in all kinds of genres, he was and is the pioneer of giallo. Giallo, a subgenre of Italian horror cinema in the 1960s, earned its name from cheap, pulp paperbacks published in Italy in the 1930s and 40s. Giallo means “yellow,” the bright and striking color publishing giant Mondadori chose to coat their crime novel covers in -- a practice that other publishing companies would soon imitate, making the terms "yellow" and "mystery" a synecdoche of sorts. As a name, giallo is perfect. The movies that characterize it were, like the trademark yellow paperbacks, low budget and, on the whole, commercially unsuccessful. Yet there are other associations. Despite it’s sunny exterior, the color yellow takes on more sickening undertones. Yellow fever. Yellow journalism. Yellow belly. That third notch in the rainbow is connected to disease, sensationalism, and debilitating cravenness. Yellow is the last color in blood-drained cheeks met with fear and left with sallow complexion.
Emerging in 1963 with Mario Bava’s film The Girl Who Knew Too Much, giallo came right on the tail-end of Italian neorealism. Bava himself worked as a cinematographer while directors like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica were making the masterpieces of destitution. In post-WWII Italy, neorealism afforded Italian filmmakers the opportunity to consider the relationship between reality and representation in a way that addressed the economic and moral climate of the country. Combine a believable, though often upsettingly sad, reality on film with horror and you have yourself the roots of giallo.
Yet giallo also comes at the root of another interregnum. Major world events, like the rise of space travel and atomic research, helped make 1960 a pivotal time in the world of horror. For centuries before, horror and mystery was predominantly built around the threat of some kind of monster. Giant squids. Man-eating whales. Vampires. Dragons. The threat of a horror story, and the challenge for any plucky sword-bearing hero, was to take down that monstrous “other,” the clearly defined and easily demarcated beast with its green skin or excessive fur. And then the 20th century happened.
How could any advanced-weapon toting aliens compare to the horrors of World War II? Dracula didn’t stand a chance against the fear of economic desperation that crept in at night. What cinematic realism led to, as much as anything else, was the realization that we are the monsters. Reality was made that much more terrifying with the understanding that horror was everywhere, that it didn’t hide in evil lairs or haunted castles. Horror is the mind unhinged. Horror is the emotions that tug out reason. Horror is peering over the edge of a ship, checking the depths for signs of blood-sucking tentacles, and catching your own reflection, sallow and mad.
Mario Bava straddles the lines between myth and man, between legend and life. At the crossroads, Kill Baby… Kill is at once a supernatural thriller set in a cursed Transylvanianesque village (with all the folklore trappings) and an inversion of every expectation that comes with such a premise. The set has all the cobwebs, fog, dark rooms reliant on the ever-capricious candlelight, and human-eyed portraits that a mystery film could ever need. It calls to mind any vampire novel you’ve ever read. The characterization of the townspeople plays with these expectations. We know early on that there is a legend, a curse that plagues the town, yet no one will speak of it. Dr. Eswai, the coroner who comes into the village to perform an autopsy on a dead girl and to help Inspector Kruger solve her demise is, like the Inspector, disgusted by pandemic superstition. He knows there must be a logical reason for the terrors of the town, that whatever is happening in Villa Graps must be real and unimagined. And he is right. And wrong.
The killer is both a ghost and a little girl. The citizens are being killed as much by supernatural forces as they are by a deranged and vengeful mother. Known to play with appearances, Mario Bava confirms and inverts our every assumption about the killing and saving forces in the world. The killer is a 7-year-old blonde girl who likes to play with a little white ball. Yet this girl is also a monster seeking revenge for her ignored and bloody death. Similarly, the unexpected heroine is not the handsome, logical Dr. Eswai but the scary, dark-haired witch-lady who roams the streets at night in her dark cloaks, ready to whip anyone with a leech vine if she thinks Melissa (the demon child) has set her sights on them. You know, bleed them to save them. But it’s scary witch-lady Ruth who ultimately rids the town of Melissa’s haunting spirit. It is both real and entirely unreal, and the terrors within the dichotomy are equal parts otherworldly and just-down-the-street.
Casting the angelic-looking little girl as the monster is something that goes so far against our expectation of evil that the proposition itself is immediately unsettling. Yet there are very real horrors buried within it: the death of a child by trampling, a mother’s psychotic reaction to the pain of that loss. An interesting distinction, though, is that Melissa doesn’t touch a single one of her victims. She kills by the victims’ self-killing. In each case, the citizens, no matter how fearful, become entranced and end their own lives by ramming stakes through their hearts or slitting their own throats. Melissa doesn’t kill. She watches. Perhaps this, of all things, is the most realistic aspect of the film. It suggests that our great killers are our own weaknesses; that the terrors we imagine are nothing compared to the unseen realness of fear itself. Each supernatural suicide suggests that we run the risk of killing ourselves the moment we give in to what terrifies us. The monster’s weapon is our yellow belly.
Balmain, C. (2002). Mario Bava's "The Evil Eye": Realism and the Italian Horror Film. Post Script, 21(3), 20-31. (Can be accessed free here)
Ishii-Gonzales, Sam. "Mario Bava." Senses of Cinema 3122 Apr. (2004). Web. 22 Aug. 2011. < http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2004/great-directors/bava/>.
Needham, Gary. "Playing with Genre: An Introduction to the Italian Giallo." Kinoeye 12.1110 June (2002). Web. 22 Aug. 2011. < http://www.kinoeye.org/02/11/needham11.php>.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.