Friday, September 11, 2009

Victims of superstition

There are some movies that constantly gnaw at me -- in the back of my mind whispering about how I need to watch them again. When I'm trying to suppress my Arrogant Classic Horror Fan mode (which tried to rear its head in Army training whenever some 19-year-old mentioned the brilliance of WHITE NOISE), one of these whispers becomes a roar, and it says KILL, BABY ... KILL!. I'm someone who's continually frustrated and disappointed with modern horror movies, and at the same time fascinated by the genre's masterpieces and how sharply they contrast with what's produced today. KBK represents one of my top five favorites of said masterpieces, and I now believe it's director Mario Bava's best film. Revisiting it recently, I found it to be even better than what my memory told me.

Like other Bava horrors, KBK brings us to a world of witchcraft, murder and intoxicating Italian beauty. We start out immediately with the grusome death of a young girl, who appeared to jump down a bell tower against her will. After the title card flashes, we get our first glimpses of the film's frightful centerpiece: a young girl in her Sunday best. In response to this death, Dr. Eswai comes to the small Italian village from the city, determined to find truth in a myth that has plagued the area and apparently claimed many lives. The myth has such a chokehold on the town that no one will talk about it, for fear of their own lives. As the doctor probes deeper, he finds the myth is terrifyingly real, and that a ghost of a young girl will appear to anyone who speaks of it and force them to commit suicide.

There is very little more to the plot than the preceding paragraph, but I'll leave it at that for those who haven't seen the movie. It's a simple story with really no side plots, and this helps KBK rise above other Bava horrors with a slow creaky mid-section (BLACK SUNDAY, BARON BLOOD to name a couple). KBK is able to grow from creeping dread to full-on horror partly because the true details of the myth aren't laid out until near the end, allowing the viewer to wonder with the protagonists just what the hell this ghost girl is all about.

The ghost, Melissa, is presented as a spectre who loves to keep the villagers' nerves frayed, and always makes good on her mythical threat. One famous shot of Melissa playing on a swing alone in the dark (beginning from her viewpoint), shows that her murders are not enough to satisfy her vengeance -- her presence will always torment the town. Melissa doesn't benefit from any special effects to enhance her other-wordly quality, but Bava has his own ways of contrasting her from the more physical characters. We never really see Melissa move, her youthful dress makes her stand out from others (as there are no other children her age in the town), and Bava shows uses other symbols to represent her (the grave, the painting, the ball, etc.).

Adding to the creepiness on screen is perhaps the best musical score for any Bava horror (with Ennio Morricone's swinging funky dream of a score for DANGER: DIABOLIK being the best among all Bava movies). Composed by Carlo Rustichelli (who did the same for Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY, under the name "Jim Murphy"), the music is low-key but supports the images wonderfully, with a mysterious theme that keeps popping up whenever we suspect Melissa might be watching. The score, and how it is used, is a perfect example for me for how horror has evolved for the worst. A frightmaster like Bava can create a movie full of chills by constructing a dreadful atmosphere that takes the viewer out of their comfort zone, while maintaining a credibility that he's merely leading you by the hand through this awful place. There's no need for cheap scare tactics or unbelievable villains.

But maybe it's the spoiled modern film fan in me who's still a bit disappointed by the ending. After all the buildup with investigating the cause beyond Melissa's terror, the solution to it isn't given much weight, it's like "okay, that should do it, bye!" I've always thought a better ending would make this solution more ambiguous, like if Dr. Eswai himself saw Melissa on his way out of town. But then again, there was a time when not every movie ended with a super twisty-ambiguous-maybe-we-can-do-a-sequel ending.


  1. I love this movie and return to it often. I do find the ending a bit abrupt, but I find that to be true with a lot of older films. Melissa is creepy and the atmosphere is full of dread - which I far prefer to blood & guts flying all over the room and Baroness Grapps is a fine example of a nut who your stuck not knowing whether to feel hostile toward her, or just sorry for her. The only thing I could really do without is "MONICA!" How many times is her name yelled?

  2. I see many people complaining about the stupid title Kill Baby Kill, but the original title, Operation Fear is not better. But make no mistake, is a first order Bava shock that has a lot to do.