Near the end of his life Italian horror maestro Mario Bava confessed to the magazine L’espresso, “In my entire career, I made only big bullshits, no doubt about that….I’m just a craftsman. A romantic craftsman….I made movies just like making chairs.”

A hack, then—but an honest one. Bava learned his trade from his father, Eugenio Bava, a cameraman and effects designer in the earliest days of Italian cinema. As a young man Mario wanted to be a painter, but he drifted naturally enough into film work, designing title sequences and then moving into cinematography to support his young family. His eye was impressive, and for 20 years he shot films for Roberto Rossellini, Mario Soldati, Raoul Walsh, and Jacques Tourneur. By 1960 he’d completed enough projects abandoned by other directors to be entrusted with a film of his own, a black-and-white gothic vampire flick called The Mask of Satan–in America, Black Sunday (showing January 23 as part of the University of Chicago’s Doc Films series).

The film was a hit, but by then Bava was 46 years old. A shy and melancholy man, he was modest about his talents and had a bad habit of taking whatever assignment was presented to him. Later he would repeatedly express his dismay with Barbara Steele, the raven-haired sexpot who’d come to the public’s attention in Black Sunday but would never work with him again. “She could be a big star,” Bava said in 1971. “Then she appeared in that Fellini film [8 1/2] and from then on…she rejected everything, she only wanted to be in ‘art’ movies….But nobody offered her that sort of script. So she practically disappeared from the big screen.” Bava never had that problem: he worked steadily through the 60s and 70s, turning out a fair amount of garbage (his 1966 Vincent Price comedy, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, is firmly ensconced as one of the worst films of all time).

But left to his own devices, on a minuscule budget, with nothing but a desolate setting and a few weeks to shoot some weird, cruel story, Bava became a painter after all. Two weeks ago the Gene Siskel Film Center began an extended retrospective of his movies, sticking largely to superior European release versions; it reveals him as a talented visual artist who clearly sold himself short. Only a handful of the features I’ve seen succeed on a dramatic level, but as in the films of Douglas Sirk, Bava’s stylistic obsessions have a way of insinuating themselves into the story.

More often than not Bava’s tales are strangely sexual. In the marketplace his most important predecessor was Britain’s Hammer Films, which had stormed American theaters in the late 50s with gory and sexually suggestive remakes of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. Yet aside from generous helpings of cleavage the early Hammer releases were too morally rigid to trade very heavily in sexual themes. Bava’s low-budget horror flicks explore the same landscape with a more adventurous attitude toward violence and sensuality.

Black Sunday was the first of these new horror films to center on a female villain. Steele gives an erotic dual performance as a beautiful young princess and her wicked ancestor, a vampire who rises from the grave after 200 years. The delirious Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966) tells the tale of a girl (played by a boy, Valerio Valeri) who’s been trampled to death during a village festival and returns to drive her survivors to suicide. Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) became a prototype for Halloween and Friday the 13th with its darkly funny story about six couples, most of them angling for a coveted piece of waterfront property, who meet their ends by the end. And Bava’s masterpiece, Lisa and the Devil (1972), is a personal valentine to actress Elke Sommer that reflects heavily on carnal pleasure, erupting into moments of black humor and haunting visual poetry. Clearly Bava was a man who loved women–even if he was compelled on occasion to run them through.

Bava had his problems with Steele (she was chronically late, a cardinal sin on shooting schedules as tight as his), but in Black Sunday he gives her two of the more spectacular entrances in 60s horror cinema. The film opens on a roaring fire, from which Bava pulls back to reveal a hooded executioner heating a branding iron, then pans across a line of torch-bearing village elders partly obscured by mist and gnarled branches. The executioner approaches his victim, the fallen princess Asa, who’s been found guilty of vampirism and is tied to a stake with her arms raised. He burns an S onto her back as she grunts and howls. Then Bava zooms in for a close-up as Steele turns to reveal her blunt features.

The executioner strides toward the camera bearing the Mask of Satan, the three-inch spikes that line its inside pointed forward. As it fills the frame Bava cuts to the front, showing the mask’s serpentine face. Asa utters a final curse against her malefactors, the executioner winds up for a mighty swing of his mallet, and, in profile, the mask is driven into her face, blood pouring out the eye and mouth holes.

Two centuries later a pair of physicians enter the vampire’s crypt and foolishly pry off the mask. On their way out they spy the distant silhouette of a cloaked woman standing below a crumbling Roman arch; a medium shot reveals two giant mastiffs by her side, and a close-up confronts us again with Steele’s rudely cut face. This time, however, it belongs to the virginal princess Katia.

The younger physician (John Richardson) falls for Katia, though he’s easily misled by her doppelganger from beyond the grave. Bava explicitly links sex and death in the film’s most frightening moment, when the physician grabs the princess by the cloak and thrusts a crucifix at her; pulling away, she reveals beneath her cloak not the princess’s lovely bosom but the vampire’s naked and bloody rib cage.

Unfortunately the love story, like the rest of the script, is functional at best, enlivened only by the director’s bold set pieces. Bava was fond of violent zoom shots and used them liberally throughout his films. Zooming in on a monster’s face may seem like the ultimate cheap shock, yet Bava would often cut to a reaction shot, cut back to the monster, and then zoom back out, a much more surprising move that compounds the viewer’s disorientation even as it returns him to a more objective point of view. Black Sunday offers one early example of this when Katia’s father, lying in his bedchamber, is confronted by Asa’s undead lover. The door swings open and the monster’s mustachioed face appears, lit eerily from the side; Bava zooms in on it, then cuts back and forth between the approaching monster and the father. When the father brandishes a crucifix, Bava zooms out on him, then zooms in on the empty door swinging shut, a marvelously kinetic effect that he would refine over the years.

Black Sunday forever identified Bava with gothic horror, and he returned to the genre again in 1963 with The Three Faces of Fear, released in America as Black Sabbath (which you can watch on video while hoisting a few–not necessarily a bad idea–on January 19 at Delilah’s). A trilogy film, it’s hosted by Boris Karloff, who also stars in the best episode, “The Wurdalak,” as a grizzled father coming home to his family after being bitten by a vampire. Both films were released in the U.S. by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, whose hardy exploitation distributor American International Pictures had been supplying our nation’s drive-ins with horror and biker pictures since the mid-50s. As a rule Bava’s pictures were censored, recut, dubbed (often badly), and retitled for the American market, which can’t have done much for his sense of integrity. For AIP he also shot the English-language sci-fi feature Planet of the Vampires (1965), which the Film Center will screen in February. Another undistinguished script, about a space team that sets down on a planet inhabited by the undead crew of another ship, it’s a tour de force of zero-budget special effects in which Bava almost manages to conjure the surface of a planet using nothing but a soundstage, two oversize rock structures, expressionist color, and an endless supply of fog.

Bava once claimed that he made Kill, Baby…Kill! (showing January 18 and 20 at the Film Center) on a bet, to prove he could shoot a feature in 12 days. Released in Italy as Operation Fear, it turns a rather rickety ghost story by Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale into an offbeat psychodrama about sex and sadism. At twilight a young woman runs crying from her house, climbs onto a balcony, and leaps to her death, impaling herself on an iron fence (there’s another taut cross zoom that closes in on both the woman’s face as she prepares to die and the spikes below her). Another handsome young doctor (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) arrives in the village to perform an autopsy and shares an uncomfortable moment with Monica (Erika Blanc), the young honey designated as a witness, as he dissects the nude woman. As it turns out, the subject is only the latest victim of Melissa Graps, the girl trampled to death in front of her neighbors.

Visually the film draws on two of Bava’s favorite horror movies, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). The doctor’s arrival in the village is patterned after Hutter’s arrival at Count Orlock’s castle, and the cryptic silhouette of men carrying a coffin off in the distance, framed in the foreground by crossed twigs, recalls the ghostly exteriors in Dreyer’s film. At one point Dreyer’s hero climbs up to a landing and sees shadowy figures dancing on a wall; Bava re-creates the setting for the voyeuristic scene in which the doctor spies a local sorceress whipping a teenage girl to free her from the pull of Melissa Graps.

These homages aside, many sequences in Kill, Baby…Kill! are highly original. Near the end of the film the doctor hears the heroine crying out and dashes through a door into a room where a large painting hangs. At the end of the room is a door, which he passes through to find himself in an identical room with an identical door, which he passes through to find himself in an identical room, and so forth. Then the doctor catches sight of a fleeing figure and gives chase, passing through the room again and again, until he catches the figure, spins it around, and confronts–himself! Horrified, the doctor covers his face, and when he looks up again the figure is gone. He wanders toward the painting, a large landscape covered by a cobweb, and after getting tangled in the web he’s transported outdoors to the site of the painting.

Even more unnerving is Monica’s nightmare, a two-minute sequence about midway through the film. She writhes in bed, then Bava dissolves to portraits of Melissa Graps bent in a fun-house mirror; a similarly distorted image of the child herself, curls flowing; a close-up of a doll’s face going in and out of focus; a vertiginous spiral staircase lit in green and orange, the child’s ball bouncing down it. A succession of twisted doll images ends in a shot that zooms violently into the doll’s dead white face. Monica awakens and sees the doll lying at the foot of her bed. She hides her face in fear, but then it’s gone, and the wind bursts through her bedroom window.

Bava worked in a variety of genres, turning out Viking adventures (Erik the Conqueror, Knives of the Avenger), westerns (The Road to Fort Alamo, Savage Gringo, Roy Colt and Winchester Jack), even the hyper-groovy sex comedy Four Times That Night. But in 1971 he returned to horror in a big way with Chain Reaction (Ecology of Fear), released in America as Twitch of the Death Nerve, a bloody black comedy about greed and the battle of the sexes. (It’s showing at the Film Center in February.) The first nine minutes transpire without a word of dialogue, as an ailing countess, living on her estate on the bay, is hanged by her husband, who’s then stabbed to death by persons unknown. This stalls a plot by the avaricious Frank and Laura to buy the property from the husband and turn it into a resort and cues the arrival of the countess’s acidic daughter, Renata, and her wimpy husband, Albert, who also want the property. Looking out for the ecology of the bay is a fussy entomologist and his wife, a local fortune-teller (Laura Betti, who helped Bava come up with the story). A Shakespearean array of murder plots among these three couples leads to numerous rippings and impalements, the women often goading the men into action.

But there’s a subplot that begins about 15 minutes into the film and concludes well before its midpoint: One lovely day two young guys and two young girls spin onto the deserted estate grounds in their dune buggy, looking for kicks. The smooth-talking Duke hopes to get into Denise’s pants, while the geeky Robert loses sight of Brunhilda, a leggy redhead in an impossibly short minidress. Brunhilda disappears to go skinny-dipping in the bay and pulls up a dead body, but before she can alert the others her throat is cut. Robert pays for his incredibly bad 70s haircut when he opens a door and someone on the other side buries a scythe in his face. Duke finally gets what he’s been after, but as Denise straddles him their lovemaking is cut short by a spear that punctures first her, then him, then the mattress. From there Bava’s camera drifts back out over the idyllic bay.

The whole sequence is over in less than 20 minutes, but its horrid slapstick would spawn an endless series of serial-killer movies. The film’s U.S. distributor, Hallmark Releasing, exploited the film heavily on the basis of its violence—the American title was Carnage—and principal Steve Minasian later helped to finance Friday the 13th.

Twitch of the Death Nerve was shocking not only for its violence but for its bitter misanthropy: almost every-one in the film is corrupt, and at the end, after Renata and Albert have finally murdered their way into possession of the prized estate, their two school-age children blow them away with a double-barreled shot-gun and go skipping off to frolic in the bay.

Bava returned to gothic territory for his next project, 1972’s Baron Blood (also on the Film Center’s February calendar). It’s a rehash of Black Sunday, starring Antonio Cantafora as an American student who goes to Austria to trace his roots and resurrects the title character, a sadistic 16th-century nobleman played by a listless Joseph Cotten (Vincent Price was approached for the role but declined, reportedly fearing another Girl Bombs). Producer Alfredo Leone managed to lure Bava out of Italy by giving him the Korneuberg Museum, a fully furnished castle near Vienna, to use as a set–and Elke Sommer to use as a star. The familiar story drags on too long–for once the American distributors might have had the right idea when they cut eight minutes–but the picture performed well at the box office, and Leone was so pleased he gave Bava a free hand on his next project, another film with Sommer.

“I loved Bava with all my heart,” Sommer told Fangoria in 1992. “He was everything to me–a father figure, a lover figure. He was very quiet–as quiet as Italians can be–but he had incredible energy….Bava was quite a patriarch among the whole group of actors and technicians.” Bava returned the compliment with Lisa and the Devil (also showing at the Film Center in February), a dreamy, convoluted story whose gor-geous photography flatters Sommer’s beauty. Lisa, an American tourist exploring Toledo, Spain, sees a fresco depicting the devil as a bald, hook-nosed creature with pointy ears. In a local shop she comes face-to-face with Leandro (Telly Savalas), a butler in the village whose face is identical to one on the fresco. Frightened, she backs out of the shop, gets lost, and wanders around town until she again bumps into Savalas, who’s wearing a beret and white gloves and carrying a mannequin (not to mention giving the dry comic performance of his career). He gives her directions, but as she walks she’s accosted by a man identical to the mannequin, who speaks to her with the passion of a lover; she pushes him away, and he falls down a flight of stone steps to his death.

The bad dream continues as Lisa is picked up by a passing car and meets a bickering married couple and their chauffeur. The car breaks down, leaving them to spend the night at the villa of a blind countess whose butler is you-know-who. The chauffeur, who’s been having an affair with the wife, is murdered, and after the butler leads the occupants of the house in a mock funeral march, pulling the body out of the living room on a little tea cart, the husband is so smug about the death that the wife runs over him six times with their car.

Lisa drifts through all of this like an angel, haunted by her encounter with the mannequin and tempted by her lust for the countess’s handsome son, Max. Yet Max harbors his own secret: in a private bedroom he tends to the skeleton of his dead lover, for whom Lisa is a dead ringer. He chloroforms Lisa, lays her on the adjoining bed, and strips her, but he can’t rape her because the skeleton keeps laughing at him. When Lisa wakes up the next morning, the bed beside her is empty and the room–in fact the entire villa–is deserted and covered over with vegetation.

If Bava spent his career making chairs, this is a very sturdy and handsome one, a story that became a repository for 40 years of photo-graphic technique and many of his favorite themes: family dysfunction, sexual sin, the inescapable specter of death. Ironically, it met the cruelest fate of any Bava film: after a promising premiere at Cannes in 1973 it secured distribution only in Spain, and after two years Leone decided to make the most of his investment by turning the film into an Exorcist knockoff. Bava reluctantly agreed to shoot some new scenes of a possessed Lisa being exorcised by Robert Alda, but he asked that his name be taken off the project; the new cut, released as The House of Exorcism, was roundly panned. Since Black Sunday Bava had averaged two films a year, but after Lisa and the Devil he made only three more before dying of a heart attack in 1980.

Yet filmmakers like Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino have singled him out for praise, and recently Image Entertainment released “The Mario Bava Collection” on DVD, vanquishing the bastardized American versions of his films with digital transfers of the original European releases. As it turns out, his fans are more concerned with his reputation than he ever was.