Sunday, May 24, 2015

5 Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

It’s amazing what Mario Bava could accomplish when he had free creative reign considering films like Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), but with 5 Dolls for an August Moon (5 bambole per la luna d’agosto), we have an example of Mario Bava as a director for hire, being pressured to return to the newly booming giallo genre he helped create with the previous entries Blood and Black Lace (1964) and The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963).

Admittedly, 5 Dolls is a more conventional affair in comparison to Lisa and Twitch and is obviously influenced by Agatha Christie’s seminal Ten Little Indians. I wouldn’t call it an adaptation but more of a self-conscious tribute with several trendy updates and sly nods to the source material. It turns out that Bava didn’t think highly of Ten Little Indians at all. When he was approached with the script, written by Mario di Nardo, and asked to direct the film he mainly accepted the job, despite some apprehension, because he would get paid up front, which disputes a previous notion I had that 5 Dolls was Bava’s own take on Christie’s classic novel. Making an Agatha Christie inspired giallo was the fashionable thing to do at the time, and, not being able to add much to the script, Bava directed a giallo he would end up having very little regard for, which is unfortunate because it’s one of my favorites. It also has one of my favorite soundtracks, by Piero Umiliani.

The story concerns ten characters, five of them women (most likely the titular 5 dolls), on an island. In the spirit of Ten Little Indians, with no way of presently leaving the island, they are killed off one by one by an unknown assassin whom they eventually realize has to be one of them.

The movie opens to one of the five dolls, Isabel (Ely Galleani – her first film), wandering and trotting around the island alone, as the camera has a fixation on her and the complementary island scenery while a kitschy style of music is heard that will seduce certain viewers and might turn off others. Isabel runs through the woods to peer with curiosity into the window of a modern, swanky mansion to view what has to be one of the best mood setting intro party scenes in a giallo. It’s a real eye opener and will hit the spot for fans of the medium, as Mario Bava has the camera zoom in-and-out on a groovy Edwige Fenech dancing at the center of the party, where all of the suspects are lounging around, managing to look suspicious, decadent, and classy. This is probably my favorite Edwige Fenech moment.

Things do slow down after a mock murder scene at the party, as the story takes a more scandalous turn to try and set the stage for a high body-count murder mystery, as it becomes apparent that things are going to get ugly.

Showcasing a bit of adultery, Edwige Fenech’s character Marie has an affair with the ‘houseboy’ (because calling him ‘the butler’ wouldn’t be hip enough for this film) on his yacht. The wives gossip about their husbands, two of them secretly express intimate feelings for each other, and the three seedy looking industrialist characters (Maurice Poli, Howard Ross from Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982), and Teodoro Corrà – all of whom have exceptional bad guy faces) try to pressure the obstinate scientist (William Berger) to sell them his undisclosed revolutionary formula for a million dollars apiece. (Poli would continue to work with Bava in Twitch of the Death Nerve, Baron Blood (1972), and Rabid Dogs (1974). Corrà would work with Bava again in Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970)).

Despite its attempt at building a scandalous setting, the story does seem rather plain, and like Ten Little Indians, most of the murders are aftermaths, which might not cut it for viewers expecting more stalk ‘n’ slash. I kind of like it, because it ends up being confounding with the way characters keep turning up dead like magic and how the killer can do it so efficiently without getting noticed. It almost makes you admire their expertise. This film’s been referred to as a disaster saved only by Bava’s masterful and unique directing style, but I honestly did enjoy the buildup to the climax and the outcome. The ending’s a little confusing; but taken as is, it ends up feeling like a proper unexpected and ironic conclusion for this type of movie. I like the way they finally put vocals to the running musical theme to the soundtrack when it closes out.

Anyone who’s seen this film will most likely not forget the brilliant corpse pileup in the freezer. It is supposed to be one of Bava’s own additions to the film, and with its repetitive use and the witty music, you can almost feel Bava’s sense of humor here. In the book the murdered characters were carried to their rooms and laid out on their beds, and pretty much left to rot, which quickly would’ve resulted in a rotten smelling mansion. 5 Dolls seems to be satirically correcting this lapse in logic by humorously putting each successive murdered character into a deep freeze.

The interior mod art style to the island mansion almost makes you feel like you’re on another planet. In spite of the modern art look there are still the classic gothic candelabra that can be spotted in the background against the walls. They seem out of place but are also welcoming. 

Although it provides an effective visual of a quirky architecture hanging dangerously over a cliff, the exterior of the beach mansion is obviously not real and part of a glass matte setup along with the boat that is sometimes seen docked at the island. It’s been suggested that the mansion is actually a maquette (small scale model) fixed in front of the camera. Before Isabel stands in front of the mansion to shoot an epic backward glance (one of my favorite clichés) you can see her reflection in the glass.

What would 5 Dolls have been like without Mario Bava’s direction? Hard to say, but despite being paid only to direct the film, aesthetically it still feels very much like a Bava film, and story-wise it does bear some similarities to Blood and Black Lace. The rotating bed definitely had me thinking of Danger: Diabolik (1968), and the shoreline reminded me of The Whip and the Body (1963), in fact it was the same beach at Tor Caldara. The style is all there; it’s just that the script is a little more conventional, but it’s not that bad. There are a lot of memorable sequences and characters, and it excels stylistically, as a visual treat, and as a murder mystery (although it's a little messy in that department). 

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