Great Moments in Slasher Film History: Bay of Blood (1971)
As horror films go, giallo movies are among my favorites. I enjoy the subgenre's weaving of pulp mystery characterizations and plot devices into its tales of blood-soaked terror, an attribute that sets it apart from its American counterpart, the slasher subgenre. Despite their differences, the Italian giallo did inspire the American slasher, particularly in the case of Mario Bava's 1971 movie Bay of Blood (a.k.a. Twitch of the Death Nerve, a.k.a. Reazione a Catena). Critics have credited Bay of Blood as being the giallo movie that most obviously influenced the slasher film craze in the U.S. during the 80s--particularly Friday the 13th Part 2, which copied a few of Bay of Blood's death scenes almost shot for shot.
I just saw Bay of Blood for the first time the other week, and here are some thoughts about this gory gem and unique relationship to slasher films and the giallo subgenre itself. Read on....
The plot of Bay of Blood is simple. An elderly heiress dies under mysterious circumstances within the first few minutes of the film, and the unclaimed inheritance of her valuable bayside forest estate sets off a murder spree among rival family members that comes to a bizarre and unexpected conclusion within the film's final frames.
Bay of Blood may not be one of Bava's best giallo films, but that's largely because it's not meant to be. For as much as it shocked audiences during its initial release, Bava shot this film as a wickedly dark parody of the giallo subgenre itself. Most giallo films depict a single killer (or two) and a main character that spends the duration of the movie deciphering the killer's motive and identity--no matter how convoluted or improbable they might be. In contrast, almost every character in Bava's movie is both a killer and a victim, and the motive is all too clear: greed.
According to one interview in the documentary that was included on the Bay of Blood DVD, Bava made this movie as a frustrated response to fans who kept asking him why he didn't make his horror films as gory as those made by Dario Argento; if this claim is true, it would certainly explain Bava's mix of nihilism and gallows humor in the film's plot and visual tone.
With such an aim to depart from and satirize giallo narrative conventions, it's peculiar that Bay of Blood would earn its place in horror film history as the creative connective tissue between giallo and slasher films. Only a handful of scenes within the movie are directly credited with influencing the slasher subgenre--namely, the scenes where four young adults trespass into the bayside estate to party and have sex, only to be murdered in creatively gruesome ways. Within the plot of the movie, these characters have no direct relation to the feuding family members and are murdered simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet the gory killings, creepy woodland settings and full-frontal nudity in these scenes would go on to inspire The Burning, Just Before Dawn, Madman, Sleepaway Camp and countless other slasher movies.
Two victims united in death in Bay of Blood.
Another oddity that stems from Bay of Blood and its influence is that American slasher films that center on teenagers often feature a somewhat puritanical sense of morality. In these films, the teenage characters who partake in alcohol, drugs and sex will die horribly while the innocent and virginal teenage characters will most likely survive. In contrast, no one is completely innocent in Bay of Blood, and almost everyone is killed regardless of who they are or what they've done. When you consider the identities, motives and reactions of the perpetrators behind the last act of murder in the movie--a punch line of sorts to Bava's feature-length morbid joke--it almost feels like a refutation of the simplistic morality that would populate the slasher subgenre that had yet to exist. (Depending on how you look at it, the only real survivor in Bay of Blood is the titular bay estate itself, an outcome you'll never find in an American slasher movie.)
Bava was a talented filmmaker and the fact that he could make a low-budget film such as Bay of Blood look so impressive is a testament to his skill with the movie camera; thus, it only stands to reason that many of his imitators would lack his finesse and wit. Nevertheless, rarely have I seen such a contrast in themes between a groundbreaking film and the later films it influenced.
Before closing this post, I also want to mention another giallo film that's fit for a comparison to American slasher movies: Andrea Bianchi's Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975). This film is an average entry in the giallo subgenre, but it has all of the earmarks that would be associated with American slasher films: a masked killer, a high body count and--as the title explicitly indicates--ample amounts of nudity. In fact, the movie is structured almost precisely so that the sex and murder happen like clockwork intervals, with a murder followed by a nude scene, followed by another murder and another nude scene, and so on. I would even go so far as to say that Bianchi put more effort into balancing the portions of sex and violence in his movie than into making the killer a frightening presence.
While an American slasher movie would try to infuse the situation depicted in Strip Nude for Your Killer with the aforementioned moral structure, all of the characters in Bianchi's movie are far from innocent. True to giallo's roots in pulp mystery fiction, each character in the film in involved in some kind of vice--be it blackmail, physical abuse or sexual promiscuity. Even the characters that survive the bloodshed and unmask the killer's identity are somewhat sleazy. True, the characters in Strip Nude for Your Killer are all adults while the characters in American slasher movies are frequently teenagers, but the discrepancy between the portrayal of characters based on age between the giallo and slasher subgenres raises an important question: Does this discrepancy mean that 80s-era slashers were made for largely teenagers and if so, does that mean that American filmmakers of that time (both big-budget and low-budget) felt that there wasn't an adult audience for serial murder thrillers in the U.S.? If that is so, does that attitude still apply today, especially in light of recent slasher film remakes?