Monday, April 8, 2013

Baba Yaga (1973)

Comics have had their fair share of controversy, dating back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, most notably with the book Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham in 1954, where mature comics were practically demonized and said to contribute to juvenile delinquency. Wertham’s status as a respectable child psychologist gave his book merit, resulting in a national boycotting of comics, and so the Comics Code Authority seal-of-approval came about. The seal was used on the cover of comics to assure parents that the stamped comic complied with the censorship standards and guidelines set forth by the Comics Magazine Association of America. Nevertheless, this restriction put numerous comic companies out of business, and the industry took a huge blow.

Italy had its own comic code stamp introduced in 1962, known as the “Garancia Morale” seal-of-approval. However, when the comic series Diabolik was created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giusanni of the Astorina publishing house in 1962, they avoided being restricted by the boundaries that adhering to a moral stamp-of-approval would cause by declaring outright on the cover that the material was for adults. Ultimately, the dark, murdering antihero Diabolik was a huge hit and numerous similar title characters (usually with a K in the title) sprang up, such as Kriminal, Mister X, Sadik, and Satanik, and the fumetti neri genre eventually became increasingly more violent and erotic. It ultimately grew to be very controversial, so much as to create moral panic, with the publishers of Diabolik eventually facing criminal charges.

The fumetti neri genre that started with Diabolik, nonetheless, paved the way for adult themed comics. One of the most popular controversial Italian comic artists of the time was Guido Crepax, and the erotic comic series he’s most known for, Valentina, was adapted to film by Corrado Farina as Baba Yaga, a cult Eurohorror that’s a real surreal oddity.

Valentina (Isabelle De Funès) is a Milanese photographer, specializing in the more exotic and classy side of erotica. She frequents peculiar late night gatherings of a clique of rather odd and pretentious characters. Travelling home on foot one night, at 3 AM, and, under mysterious circumstances, an enigmatic woman in black, Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker), picks her up and gives her a ride home. Nightmares, hallucinations, and further confrontations with Baba Yaga result, as it becomes painfully obvious that Valentina’s vintage camera has been cursed and Baba Yaga is a sapphic witch intent on seducing and taking control of her. With the help of her friend/lover, Arno (George Eastman), Valentina intends to get to the bottom of the mystery of Baba Yaga and the seemingly malevolent effect she’s having on her life and, through her, a few unfortunate others.

Corrado Farina's comic to film adaptation is both a kinky and intellectual Eurohorror that articulates on satirical themes independently alongside the central story between the heroine and a witch intent on dominating and possessing her. The opening scene of young Italians acting out parts and satirizing American history for what seems to be purely for their own entertainment before the police show and break up the group is one of many examples of the satirical nature of the film. 

Like several other Italian fumetti adaptations, such as Kriminal and Mister X, Baba Yaga openly references its source material with comic art during the intro credits, but I think Baba Yaga does this even better by inserting the comic art between sub film clips with tantalizing effect, abruptly introducing Valentina and the social clique she associates with late at night, as the film’s wonderful score seduces viewers into its kitschy world. Further mimicking the adult fantasy comic style, black and white still frames are used to eccentrically illustrate nightmare flashbacks and love making scenes, giving a real cool pop art feel to the film.

The pinnacle zeitgeist of the late ‘60s, early ‘70s is captured in Baba Yaga, with its lead, Valentina, being at the height of the youth counter culture movement in Milan. She’s modern, sexy, a free-spirited, independent nude photographer, and her being haunted by something seemingly ancient and paranormal like Baba Yaga and her strange world of hallucinatory and erotic dreams is a pleasing excursion into dark non-existing corridors that uneasily provoke the imagination with the fear of the unknown (I’m mostly referring to that eerie black-hole-to-nowhere in the floor in Baba Yaga’s house). 

Corrado Farina’s prior film, They Have Changed Their Face, is a delightful modernization of the Transylvanian Dracula myth, with an easily noticeable allegory for capitalism and some of the heaviest fog ambiance this side of Silent Hill, combining classic outdoor settings like graveyards and time frozen sleepy villages with extremely modern and almost futuristic interiors. It’s a terrific innovation to the Gothic horror piece that Farina also implements to a slightly different extent with Baba Yaga, giving us a very baroque interior with Baba Yaga’s house, surrounded by the modern outside world with plenty of topical themes and cultural issues for the more intellectual mind to ponder over.

Though understandably not entirely representing the witch from Slavic lore, and she doesn’t resemble the comic character very much, either, I still think Carroll Baker plays and looks the part of Baba Yaga really well, perhaps more of a Baba Yaga that went from a witch of the forest to a witch of the city. The woman in all black attire, resembling someone that just came from a funeral, never fails to be pretty cool and creepy. According to the myth, Baba Yaga is supposed to be wholly ambiguous and enigmatic, and that can’t be truer in this version of her, as we never really understand who she is and why the witch is interested in Valentina and exactly what her purpose is.

Perhaps the most strikingly original and memorable inclusion is the porcelain S&M doll with changing facial expressions, Annette (Ely Galleani of Five Dolls for an August Moon), which Baba Yaga gives to Valentina, for protection, as she claims, but Annette really is something a lot more. For me, Annette is a direct skewing or eroticizing of the traditional Gothic horror tropes, as exemplified by having her walk the mansion halls with lit candles in hand not in a nightgown but in a dominatrix outfit. There’s also a bizarre supernatural sex fantasy that accompanies a doll come flesh-and-blood that even Arno (Eastman) jokes about by predicting her transformation with a silly one liner.

Of course Antropophagus fans may not be able to look at Valentina’s lover, Arno, with a straight face, recalling the infamous gut munching scene from the cannibalistic madman in Joe D’Amato’s film. However, after a while, I personally didn’t see the monster from Antropophagus anymore or the vile thug from Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs. Arno is a film director and Valentina’s link to the real and modern world, a kind of down to Earth safehold, to prevent Valentina from getting sucked too far into the witch’s world. When coming to her aid, he’s the big-strong-man to flank Valentina in her showdown with Baba Yaga as well as a perpetrator to some of the more political and pop culture themes in the film.

In evaluating the story, I'd say there’s really nothing wrong with the flow of the plot aside from a fairly weak conclusion, where it seems the writers take a kind of easy-way-out, deus-ex-machina approach to wrapping things up, just because it’s nearly time for the movie to be over. As in Suspiria and The Gates of Hell, when physically opposed, the main source of evil, capable of all manner of harm, ends up being a major pushover when finally challenged -- like standing up to a big bully that turns out to be a sissy.

Whether or not you’re familiar with the comic, Valentina, Baba Yaga is still recommended and well worth several watches. I first saw it a long, long time ago under the title Kiss Me, Kill Me on a DVD released by Diamond Entertainment as part of an Italian horror gift set that incorrectly credited Umberto Lenzi as the director, so for the longest time I thought Corrado Farina was one of Lenzi’s pseudonyms (the DVD description melded Baba Yaga and Lenzi’s So Sweet.. So Perverse.., which suspiciously made it seem like they were aware of the false credit, trying to add a more well-known director’s name to the cover of the release). I haven’t read the comic yet, but the film is one of my favorite psychological Eurohorrors, so I’m real interested in checking out the series. I might try tracking down some of the back issues of Heavy Metal Magazine from the ‘80s that reprinted and translated into English some of Guido Crepax’s work. Judging by the look of the comic, Isabelle De Funès was a great pick to play Valentina (though Farina felt she was too skinny), and Carroll Baker wasn’t too shabby a pick for Baba Yaga. To condense my thoughts on the film, I’d say this is an ultra-cool Eurohorror with a fantastic modern-retro touch.

"I couldn't care less about power and riches and your cosmic secrets, and don't try to tell me who to make love with, because no man has ever done that, let alone a woman." Valentina / Isabelle De Funes


[Update: June 23, 2014] I had no idea there was a Valentina TV series. It’s great stuff and definitely worth seeking out. And Demetra Hampton is an excellent Valentina. If this intro does not seduce and hypnotize you, then you are in the wrong place ;)

1 comment:

  1. Already following, and I left a comment on your American Mary article, a title I've just added to my Amazon Wishlist.