If the title Kill, Baby… Kill! suggests the sort of hyperbolic exploitation (possibly involving kickass go-go girls) found in Russ Meyer’s similarly over-punctuated Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! from the previous year, in fact Mario Bava’s film – called Operazione Paura (i.e. Operation Fear) in its native Italy, and released in different markets at different times as Don’t Walk in the Park, Curse of the Dead, Curse of the Living Dead and even Die toten Augen des Dr. Dracula (i.e. The Dead Eyes of Dr Dracula) – is more akin to Bava’s earlier ventures into gothic like Black Sunday (1960) and Black Sabbath (1963).
It is 1907. While the rest of Europe is taking its first confident strides into the Twentieth Century, fin-de-siècle enlightenment appears to have bypassed altogether a small village in the Carpathian mountains, ruled as it is by “poverty and ignorance, combined with superstition.” Yet when a young woman working as a maid at the Villa Graps dies in suspicious circumstances shortly after pleading for help in a letter sent to the police, two outsiders – Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) and the coroner Dr Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) – arrive to determine the cause of her death: suicide, accident, murder, or, as the local burgermeister Karl (Luciano Catenacci) insists, something more supernatural.
The locals, bound in a sort of panicky omertà, will not talk to Kruger, and try to bury the woman’s corpse (and its secrets) before Eswai can perform an autopsy. When Kruger goes missing, Eswai – a straight-jawed man of curiosity and science – finds his only allies are Karl, the local sorceress Ruth (Fabienne Dali), and Monica (Erica Blanc), a natural science student who has not been back to the village since she left aged two. There, Eswai is inexorably drawn to the dilapidated Villa Graps, its elderly Baroness (Giana Vivaldi), and a blonde girl named Melissa who died two decades earlier and whose appearances, laughter and bouncing ball are harbingers of impending doom.
Kill, Baby… Kill! is not merely set at the turn of the century, but traces the clash of reason and the irrational, as a backward-looking curse that plagues the village is pitted against the forward momentum of Eswai’s progressive thinking. This is a story of collective guilt and implacable vindictiveness, as the past keeps returning to prey vampirically on the present – but it is also a story that travels through darkness to the dawn, ushering in a new epoch, exorcised of all diabolical vestiges. As such, one might regard Kill, Baby… Kill! not only as a piece of high gothic, but also as marking that subgenre’s end – and looking forward to the modern era of horror, inaugurated two years later with films like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby that would leave behind gothic’s creaky old castles for anxieties more rooted in the twentieth century.
Shot in the medieval town of Calcata in Italy’s Latium region, the film makes full use of its semi-ruined settings, while adding further atmosphere with miasmic mists, ubiquitous cobwebs and stylised lighting (which bathes everything in unnatural colours). Yet Bava is most striking in the way that he transforms real locations, through editing and in-camera trickery, into Escher-like spaces and nightmarish labyrinths that surreally entrap his characters. Locked inside one of the villa’s rooms after paradoxically running through it several times in a wraparound loop (and even, impossibly, chasing himself), Paul stumbles backwards into a large painting of the villa, only to materialise, magically, in front of the building itself. Such disorienting use of the film’s geography, where reality behaves like a dream and art literally imitates life, would go on to influence the paradoxical interiors of, e.g., the hotel in The Shining (1980), the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and even the office corridors in the opening of I Heart Huckabees (2004). Meanwhile, the casting of a boy (Valerio Valeri) as the ghostly Melissa serves to make her haunting presence seem even more perversely uncanny. She is one of cinema’s very first evil child phantoms, though she would certainly not be its last, ensuring that Bava’s film, coming at the end of horror’s classic gothic phase, would still cast its long shadow over the genre films that followed.
© Anton Bitel