Bava’s ‘Twitch of The Death Nerve’ or — Bay Watch?
It might sound like sacrilege but, believe it or not, ‘Bay of Blood’ aka ‘Twitch of The Death Nerve’ aka ‘Ecology of Crime’ aka ‘Carnage’ aka ‘Chain Reaction’ (phew!) is the Bava film I struggled to get into the most, and not just because of the endless titles. Widely regarded as one of Bava’s best it’s only been on my third viewing that I’ve started to warm to the film, up until now having been left somewhat cold by it, like dipping naked into a freezing cold bay. And I can still understand why.
‘Bay of Blood’ (1971) starts with a horrific murder that’s really quite the shock, except Bava has only just begun pulling the rug out from under our feet as the jolt of that death is quickly augmented by even further killings and surprises. We don’t have much time to get our bearings when a group of young kids appear on the scene and are brutally dispensed with in a sequence that is not only effective as hell but, in twenty minutes or so, pretty much defined the entire Slasher genre to come. Then it’s back to more mayhem and intrigue resulting from the events that started the movie.
It’s all quite breathless… maybe TOO breathless. Sure, it means the film has a high body count (awesome) but with a plot that’s complicated and convoluted enough as it is it can be hard to take everything in and process it. This disorientation is further compounded by the fact that there are no good people or heroes in ‘Bay of Blood’, leaving us with little to hang onto other than unrelenting nihilism. I think I found it all a bit too brutal and directionless on first viewing.
I think the problem is in Bava’s subtlety. I know that’s not a word usually associated with the director and in terms of violence, gore and shock there’s nothing subtle going on here in the slightest. It applies, instead (I think), to his sense of beauty and also his humour… which is jet-black here. This is a bay of blood, an ecology of crime, where everything and everyone either dies, is a killer or simply a victim. How can you have any allegiances surrounded by such immorality? The film even starts with a fly falling to its death in the water below. Yet this pervading sense of death is Bava’s intention. It’s just very easy to miss on first glance that Bava has inserted a lot of reassuring humour here and that everyone is only very good at “playing dead”.
Plus, despite being a scrappy-feeling Slasher this is still, as usual with Bava, a gorgeous looking movie whether it is mysteriously evocative shots of nature, wonderfully composed views of an eye watching proceedings through a partition or the usual cliché you have to mention with Bava which is all the incredible lighting on display. For example: notice the sequence at the beginning where we are following the little old lady through her home as overly ripe, melodramatic music plays. Her house is lit in an intimate fashion, closed in by shadows and a feeling of smallness as she reflects on the past. What a small home. But as soon as the murder occurs Bava dramatically changes the space, bursting it open to form a larger arena where more action can occur (she lives in a mansion!). The feeling of cosy safety has been shattered to an exposed space where hiding and safety is not possible. It’s just great.
However, I still find the main plan of the “baddies” to be absolute nonsense (essentially involving killing everyone in sight) and leaving them with an impossible mess to cover up or explain to any investigating authorities. Having said that, this is a film where people have hatchets rammed in their faces, couples continue to thrust in spasms of sexual pleasure after being impaled by spikes in the course of love-making (that death nerve is indeed twitching) and with an ending that if it doesn’t leave you laughing in shock will have you wondering who is going to pay for all the therapy.
I can understand why it took me a while to get into ‘Bay of Blood’ and not just because the Slasher genre is one of my least favourite in terms of horror (I need a little more romance in my gruesome tales). The unlikeable characters, ridiculous plot and helter-skelter pacing (at least this film has energy) can act as a bit of a barrier to full immersion or even comprehension. The young kids, ‘Friday The 13th’ sequence is great but feels almost like a separate mini-movie in its own right slotted between two other disparate films. Still, ‘Bay of Blood’ is hugely influential, certainly a grower and, like nearly all Bava’s work, contains countless moments of invention and style and is a strong entry in an already formidable filmography.