A Bay of Blood (Dir. Mario Bava, 1971)
I’m not the biggest fan of the ‘slasher’ horror sub-genre by any stretch of the imagination, but my interest in this movie was certainly piqued when I heard it described as the forefather of such horror classics as “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”. Even without that foreknowledge, it is readily apparent that Mario Bava’s outrageously violent film (for the time anyway) shares commons elements with the slew of slasher films that would dominate the 1980’s horror market. For one, there is the troop of four horny teenagers who galavant down to the titular bay for a day of debauchery, unknowingly placing themselves in the midst of a murdering madman. There are the inventive and imaginative kill scenes (two of which would be directly reproduced in “Friday the 13th: Part 2”) that are typically shot from the direct point of view of the killer, or his weapon in some cases. Then there is the setting: the calm, serene out-of-the-way bay is the perfect place for someone to go on a murderous rampage without anyone being the wiser. Despite these similarities, “A Bay of Blood” is ultimately very different from the formulaic tripe of the slasher film.
As the aforementioned four teenagers come zooming into frame however, its hard to imagine how this scenario will deviate at all from the standard slasher formula that has been beaten into every horror fan since the early 80’s. They do what teenagers tend to do in horror movies: they find a remote, idyllic spot, and starting breaking into buildings and having sex. At first look, there is no uniqueness to what happens next. All four are brutally murdered by an unseen lunatic with a hatchet. What separates this segment from the one’s it would eventually inspire is the motive and identity of the man behind the hatchet.
The teenagers find themselves on the wrong side of a sharp blade thanks to the above young lady, whose decision to go skinny dipping in the bay proves fatal thanks to her discovery of a dead body. The body belongs to that of the owner of the bay, who has been bumped off to make way for some sort of real estate project. The teenagers are killed off not out of a perverse pleasure for bloodshed, but out of what the killer views as necessity. This dynamic is directly addressed within the first 20 minutes of the film, as two characters discuss the difference between fishing in the bay and catching insects to kill and study them. The character who is fishing argues that it is not inhumane of him to scoop living creatures out of the water, for their death serves an ultimate purpose. He will eat what he catches, and derive no pleasure from having taken life to do so. He accuses his fly-catching friend, on the other hand, of essentially killing the flies to amuse himself. This is what truly separates this film from slasher films, which, to continue the metaphor, contain fly-catching madmen as their villains who kill for the pure excitement and thrill of it, or because they’re simply insane. Michael Myers, Freddy and Jason are not following any sort of plan, they have no goals or ambitions, they just like to kill. The reason these type of movies are so popular is that it really is scary that there could be a remorseless psychopath out there who simply enjoys killing any who cross his path. This film is scary for a similar but altogether more depressing and terrifying reason.
Further deviating itself from its future cousins, the high body count of “A Bay of Blood” is not the result of one man, but of practically the entire cast of the movie. Due to the large amount of money involved in owning the land surrounding the bay, all the characters in the movie will do whatever it takes to be the last one standing. The only characters in this movie who don’t commit murder at some point or another, are the 4 teenagers and a married couple that consists of the aforementioned fly-catcher and a morose fortune teller. The fact that the character who is meant to represent those who kill for pleasure commits no acts of violence in this film tells you all you need to know. The “philosophy” of this film, if you will, seems to be that human beings will kill another living thing at the drop of a hat, but will not do so just for the sake of the act itself. Bava develops characters that are easy for the viewer to relate to, and then turns them into murderers simply by dangling money in front of their faces. To me, this idea that all humans are capable of murder is even scarier than the idea that dangerous psychopaths exist in our society. In Bava’s world, you face the potential of being murdered by anyone at anytime for any reason, whereas in the world of “Halloween” all you have to do is avoid Michael Myers (easy said than done I suppose).
Ultimately, this film is a fun ride but with its fair share of drawbacks. The plot is impossible to follow at points, and is resolved in the most ridiculous fashion possible. Bava was forced to work with a minuscule budget (he used a little red wagon for his dolly shots!) and made a visually striking, influential work anyway, so that has to count for something. If you have any interest in horror films, or more importantly slasher films, you owe it to yourself to check out one of the most under-seen and influential films of the 70’s.