The title of this quintessentially ‘60s-product-of-hot-headed-Italy suggests a sex kitten romp, but the name is a much more literal in this deliciously macabre take on the spirit of Daphne de Maurier. As is seemingly the first commandment of all Giallos – to be obeyed with holy penitence – the narrative is paradoxically simple yet horrifyingly obtuse, but it boils down to the ghostly menace of young Melissa Graps terrorizing a European village around the turn of the 20th century, a village newly visited by a doctor (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) there to autopsy one of the bodies. Kill Baby, Kill also further develops Mario Bava’s formal fixation with the architectural impossibility of the mind. With one foot in the psycho-sexual and the other in the undulating tension between the supernatural and modern medicine, Kill Baby, Kill frolics with many of the thematic devils twisting the throat of mid-century life.
Bava’s style is a peculiar, swirling mixture of the imperative and the effacing, colliding baroque horror-aria maximalism with a sense of shadow and negative space suggesting not a failure to stylize or lack of style but a conscious style of and about emptiness. The occult rhythms of Antonio Rinaldi’s camera push, and in some ways anticipate, the American New Wave’s compulsion for zooming to a viciously disarticulated extreme. This camerawork is co-conspirator with the scythe-like lines of color that throw the film into a dizzying realm of hallucinogenic maelstrom absent even in Bava’s earlier works, which were slightly more conciliatory to the established tradition of narrative above style.
Kill Baby, Kill could be hobbled by the lunacy of its writing, but the outre style stirs a glorious riot of obsession and menace that gives off a vibe that the film is operating on an alternate plane where narrative rules don’t hold any sway anymore. Dream images ebb and crest – and cackling, disembodied childhood voices echo off-screen – in a register that would only be bruised and defaced by a more streamlined, sensible narrative flow.
Take the film’s most famous sequence – the good doctor leaving a room only to end up in the same place over and over – which flamboyantly displaces time and distorts space, teasing the trajectory to Bava’s later acts of dislocating not only superficial surfaces but the grounding principles of Western thought, Aristotelean time most of all. Perennial returns to visions of the child’s ghost eventually trap the film in the vindictive tide of Bava’s world, the murderously entrancing understanding that time is in standstill even when we think we’re on a journey to conclusion. After all, motion doesn’t mean moving forward.
Bava presses on space both as molding clay and mental stressor, and here he displays a mental affinity with more respectable Italian auteurs – Fellini and Visconti – in a sense of formal and emotional maximalism that test the limits of reasonable spatial geometry. Because of this vigorous disinterest in logic, certain viewers have essentialized the film as a kitsch or camp plaything. And, true Bava always teased a tonal liquidity that can be read comically – certainly absurdly. But this emotion is never alone. Bava’s greatest achievements go beyond the pale of comedy and into the tragedy of a world that no longer subsists on reason. His films are absurd screwballs only insofar as they yank at the sense of bodily distortion and lack of dominion over one’s physical and mental presence so central to both physical comedy and horror.
Few other directors, (Godard comes to mind), achieve such an imbalance, feverishly fetishizing the scintillating, robust extravaganza of melodramatic cinematic assault while also countering, even deliberately sabotaging himself, with the diametric opposite: an ambling, potent aura of icy muteness. The pointed, potent play of contradictions simultaneously envelopes the audience and casts them back at a remove. On one hand, his characters and his films are ebullient, even maniacal hot-beds of desire and want, heated emotions invited and imbibed in by Bava who clearly empathizes. On the other, the movies and the people within are exquisitely composed with a Machiavellian, oppressive sensibility, as though their bursting acrimony and the tortured waters of their soul can’t quite defeat some disastrous inability to connect with each other, some greater cosmic reminder that we are all replaying the same stories ad infinitum.