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Scary movies 60s style

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A new look at Italy’s ‘maestro of horror’

Haunted houses, ancient curses, vampires, serial killers, people possessed by Satan – all the meat and potatoes stuff of the spine-tingling world of Mario Bava.

In a career spanning four decades, the Italian director and cinematographer inspired generations of filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton.

Earning him the title of maestro of horror, Bava’s atmospherically shot tales of terror shaped the genre of modern horror film, achieving himself a cult-like status among film fans.

Bava’s big screen chills and thrills and all that hides behind them is the subject of a new book out this week from Film and TV Studies expert, Dr Leon Hunt.

Growing up on a healthy diet of horror books and films, with Universal and Hammer classics staples, lead Dr Hunt, via European then Italian horror, to worship Bava.

“It was a few years before I saw any of his films because they weren't easy to see when I was growing up, but I saw stills from them in books and magazines and was always intrigued,” he said. “Bava's now regarded as one of the pioneers of Italian horror, and because he was originally a cinematographer, his films are very strong on atmosphere. They looked and felt very different from the Anglo-American horror films I saw.”

Starting out, Bava worked as a cameraman and shot a range of features, shorts and short documentaries each end of the Second World War, really hitting his stride with mythological adventure films in the late 1950s.. But his ingenious low-budget, super stylish films from 1960 onwards captured people’s imagination.

“Bava's films attracted a cult following from the start,” said Dr Hunt. “Cult film fans will overlook flaws if a film leaves a strong impression with several great scenes - Bava's films usually have several outstanding scenes, even if they don't always hold together as a whole.”

Bava’s violent official debut, The Mask of Satan was banned for seven years by the British Board of Film Censors which thought it too gory. Its opening scene starts with a beautiful princess condemned to death for consorting with Satan. She comes to a predictably ugly end.

“Even when they became easier to see, Bava’s films retained the irresistible aura of the strange and obscure,” Dr Hunt said. “His films looked like no one else's. 

The book, Mario Bava: The Artisan as Italian Horror Auteur aims to unravel the enduring allure of what was made as cheap throwaway pulp cinema.

“I hope it will appeal to fans of horror cinema, Italian genre films, and of course, fans of Mario Bava,” Dr Hunt said. “I hope it sheds light on why we are still so fascinated by a filmmaker often regarded as unimportant in his lifetime, but whose films have survived and been celebrated well beyond what anyone would have expected.”

Hear more about Bava from Dr Hunt himself on the  Cult Connections podcast and on Writers on film podcast. The book will be available in the Brunel library soon. Cover art by  Johnny Walker and Eleanor Rose.