By Michael Roberson
For 1963’s landmark The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Italian horror legend Mario Bava is credited with pioneering the giallo film, one of the most influential horror subgenres. But with 1971’s A Bay of Blood, Bava mixed the giallo film’s black-gloved point-of-view killers and highly stylized murder scenes with the body count framework of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to create an even further-reaching subgenre: the slasher film.
A Bay of Blood (which is also known by a wide variety of alternate titles; Chain Reaction, The Ecology of Crime, and my personal favorite, Twitch of the Death Nerve) features one of the best opening scenes in the giallo canon. After some introductory establishing shots of the titular bay, we see a lonely countess in a wheelchair slowly meandering around her waterfront mansion. Through a trademark giallo point-of-view shot, we witness a black-gloved killer throw a noose around her neck and kick her wheelchair out from under her: a typical but impeccably stylish beginning for a giallo. After her death, Bava throws us a curveball. Rather than serving as the expected setup for a whodunit, the camera pans up from those black leather gloves to reveal the killer’s face. Just as the killer begins staging the crime scene, setting out a forged suicide note, a second killer appears and stabs him to death.
By the end of this scene, the movie has already established its two key elements: a free approach to the conventional giallo plot – wherein one mysterious murderer does all the killing before being unmasked at the end – and some particularly explicit, messy gore. Throughout the movie’s thirteen murders, we are treated to at least half a dozen killers with an array of motives centered around the countess and her bayside mansion, making this less of a murder mystery and more of a murder free-for-all. The gore effects, created by special effects legend Carlo Rambaldi (who, when he wasn’t crafting hyper-realistic gore for Italian horror masters like Bava and Lucio Fulci, found time to create the E.T. puppet for Steven Spielberg), likewise depict a wide variety of methods and weapons, captured with lingering specificity.
Those murder scenes and that body count (at 85 minutes and 13 murders, that’s a murder about every five minutes) contribute to A Bay of Blood’s most lasting legacy, the birth almost ten years later of the slasher genre. Two of the film’s murder scenes were lifted wholesale for use in the most prominent slasher franchise, the Friday the 13th movies. Effects legend Tom Savini copied a nauseatingly detailed machete-to-the-face for the original Friday the 13th, and the scene of two lovers pinned to a bed with a spear was lifted shot-for-shot for Part 2. The placement of these images in the most visible franchise of the 1980s slasher film explosion may make A Bay of Blood one of the most influential and unacknowledged horror films of all time.
But beyond its murder scenes, A Bay of Blood may have had an even greater impact on the development of the slasher film through its plot structure, which is encapsulated in miniature in the film’s second act. While the rest of the cast conspires to inherit the dead Countess’ estate, four teenagers (as usual for the genre, played by actors who are visibly about ten years too old) sneak into an abandoned lake house on the property for a weekend of partying. The appearance of teenagers who exist solely to party and get killed fills about twenty minutes of screen time in A Bay of Blood, but as filmmakers such as Sean S. Cunningham would prove a decade later with films like Friday the 13th, this formula could support not just entire films but entire franchises.
That being said, A Bay of Blood is considerably less formulaic than the slasher movies that would follow in its wake. The plot is far less predictable (and frankly, more convoluted) than one would ever expect to find among the corpus of anonymous, blandly functional slasher films the United States produced over the course of the ‘80s. And being a Mario Bava film, it demonstrates an overwhelming sense of style, from the lush cinematography (by Bava himself) of waterfront exteriors to the elegantly modern set design of the mansion and lake houses. The film also has a wickedly clever streak of black humor that separates it from not just the slasher films but from other Italian horror in general (in addition to being the forefather of Italian horror, Bava was also the genre’s most playful director). The dark humor is accentuated by Stelvio Cipriani’s fantastic score, particularly in the film’s shockingly funny closing moments, which feature one of the all time great musical cues in Italian horror (and there are a lot of them).
At once an outlier in the field of Italian horror and an excellent example of the form, A Bay of Blood defies easy categorization within horror’s labyrinthine subgenres. Upon its release, it was widely shunned by the Italian horror film establishment for its lingering depictions of graphic violence (perhaps this was in part due to not just the high amount of violence, but to the irreverence with which Bava treated it). Though hyper-violent setpieces would become commonplace in future horror films, A Bay of Blood’s charmingly cynical attitude still feels fresh and the movie is as fun as it ever was.