Monday, November 19, 2012

5 Dolls For an August Moon (1970)

AKA Island of Terror

Could it be that I’ve been operating this damn site for the better part of a year and have yet to discuss a Mario Bava film? It would appear so. Not that there’s any particular reason for that but lets be honest, you really don’t need me to tell you that Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963), and Blood and Black Lace (1964) amongst many others are brilliant. Hundreds of others have already done so and have said it ten times better than I ever could. Having said that, I still don’t think a site like this would be “complete” with out at least one Bava flick in the archives, and even still I didn’t want it to be an obvious one either. While nowhere near as obscure as it was once considered to be thanks to DVD, 5 Dolls For an August Moon does seem to be an oddity in Bava’s filmography. Bava himself hated the film as he wasn’t fond of the script at all and the film was rushed into production so fast he literally had no prep time. Fans seem to be torn every which way when it comes to this film. There are those who love it, those who share Bava’s point of view and hate it, then there are those who are totally bewildered by it and aren’t sure what to think. Of all the stances one could take on this film, the third one is probably the most understandable as 5 Dolls is quite the head scratcher. Personally, I find myself in the first and third categories. Despite having revisited it several times after first watching it, there are still some things about it I still don’t fully comprehend, yet the film possesses an undeniable oddball charm, one that immediately drew me in and continues to warrant repeated viewings.

Millionaire industrialist George Stark has invited several of his fellow wealthy friends along with their wives and mistresses (one of which happens to be Euro goddess Edwige Fenech) to his island home for the weekend. The guest of honor is Professor Gerry Farrell, a scientist who has just discovered a revolutionary new formula for an industrial synthetic resin. Still in mourning over the loss of his partner who died during the development of the formula, Professor Ferrell isn’t interested in selling, although George and his fellow businessmen all want the formula and are making huge offers. Tensions soon grow as each man outbids and out offers the other. When George’s houseboy suddenly turns up dead and the boats which are the only means of leaving the island disappear out of the blue everybody is quick to point fingers, although the group quickly becomes smaller in numbers as more and more bodies begin to end up hanging in the freezer.

French poster and VHS under the Island of Terror (L'ile de l'epouvante)

With a title like “5 Dolls For an August Moon” (5 bambole per la luna d'agosto) you’d probably expect this film to be pure giallo, and while it does contain certain giallo elements, it wouldn’t be fair to classify it a such. It also wouldn’t be fair to call it a straightforward murder mystery either because to be honest this film isn’t really a straightforward anything. It’s as much a black comedy as it is a mystery/thriller, and “straightforward” is the last way you’d describe the way the film goes about it‘s business. With a storyline like this, there’s bound to be at least some intrigue, and indeed there is once we get to know these characters and all their eccentricities, so there is the feeling that it really could be anyone in the group, as most are pretty shady characters. The film does a good job at keeping you totally in the dark when it comes to the killers identity as the majority of the murders happen off screen, and along the way we’re thrown a real curveball making things even more confusing, and the sense that there could even possibly be more than one killer will possibly spring to mind. As I said above it’s the films overt quirkiness that kept me interested, and as the film gets weirder and weirder as it goes along the more you’ll wonder just where the hell it’s all going to end up, although once you get there there’s a chance you’ll be even more dumbfounded than you were while watching the film. Of course there’s also the darkly comedic elements, stemming from the nonchalant “another dead body, in the freezer you go” reaction the group has whenever finding one of their fallen friends, and it is chuckle inducing hearing the same piece of music played whenever the contents of the freezer are presented.

Even if Bava wasn’t entirely behind the story it’s apparent that he cared enough to make the film look as good as possible. Right after the opening credits Bava begins the film on a strange note with an extended party scene featuring the cast of characters basically behaving like jackasses, giving us a pretty good idea at the type of people we’ll be spending the next hour and a half with, complete with delirious close up’s, zooms and Edwige doing a much welcomed enticing dance all the while Piero Umiliani’s sexy  psych-lounge plays overtop everything. Bava makes excellent use of the island and beach locations, not just in the sense that they’re naturally amazing looking, which they are, but the way Bava uses them as a backdrop for little things he added on the fly to make the film more visually appealing (more appealing than he probably thought it deserved to be) like for instance, a creatively displayed body, and Bava’s brilliant use of color (for this film the focus is on blue) shines through during the nighttime exterior shots. Bava also benefited from having already stylish looking interiors to shoot in. The design of Stark’s villa is quite the sight, very “chic” and “modern“, if you will, for the time I suppose. There’s also the way Bava chose to hang the dead bodies in the meat freezer, making them look like a collection of prime cuts wrapped in plastic. The film may have been made in 1970 but there is an obvious aura of leftover psychedelia from the previous decade lingering throughout the film, aided by Umiliani’s aforementioned score, which as any fan will tell you is along with Bava’s direction, a main selling point of the film.

When 5 Dolls was initially released in Europe in 1970 the reaction was pretty apathetic and it wasn’t until 31 years later when Image released the film on DVD as part of their Mario Bava collection did the film finally see an American release. Hey, I say a mixed reaction 31 years later is better than no reaction at all. Also this is a totally random tidbit of information (which seems appropriate when considering the film) but the legendary doom metal band Cathedral cleverly referenced the film (“Five dolls for an August moon, on this island I await my doom”) along with several other films featuring Edwige Fenech in their tribute tune to the queen of giallo movies “Edwige’s Eyes” on their 2010 album The Guessing Game. Have a listen here. There are those who will tell you 5 Dolls For an August Moon is for Bava completists only. I say that’s a bunch of hooey. Granted it might be one of his most difficult to get into 100% in full during just one viewing, but it’s far from his worst film as he often considered it to be, and just a good example as any of Bava’s mastery behind the camera. Even if you end up not liking the film as a whole, there is a good possibility that something about it that will stick with you, and you might just find that something compelling enough to revisit the film again and again, finding even more things to like each time you come back. Plus the fact that it’s a film directed by Mario Bava that features Edwige Fenech should be enough to make you want to check it out.

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