SUSPENSE master Mario Bava is known for showing a fair amount of violence in his films, but "The Howling" helmer Joe Dante has a particularly vivid and grisly association with the late Italian director. A fan since he was 14, a young Dante would venture into Philadelphia's sleaziest grindhouse movie theaters to catch the occasional Bava film.
"There was one picture called 'What' that was made as 'The Whip and the Body,' " the "Gremlins" director recalls. "There's a scene where Christopher Lee is beating Daliah Lavi with a whip on a beach at sunset. Somebody in the theater got so excited that he stabbed the guy next to him. This was the only time this picture had played and by God, I wasn't going to get up and leave. The police came . . . but I stuck around to see the end of the picture."
Nowadays, you don't have risk your life to see Bava's horror classics, as many are available on DVD. And beginning this evening at the Egyptian Theatre, the American Cinematheque is presenting the retrospective "Mario Bava: Poems of Love and Death."
Dante is appearing Saturday to introduce 1973's "Lisa and the Devil," starring Elke Sommer as a tourist lured by a devil (Telly Savalas) into a house filled with ghosts and rotting corpses, as well as 1972's "Baron Blood," in which Sommer confronts a sadistic 400-year-old nobleman (Joseph Cotten).
Despite the beautifully savage nature of his films, Bava, who died in 1980, was sunshine and light on set, says Sommer. "I lost my dad when I was 15 . . . and Mario was like a surrogate papa," the actress recalls. "Savalas was at times quite difficult, but Mario managed to get everybody together and have some pasta and a glass of wine and make everything cool. He was incredible."
On March 21, "Hostel" director Eli Roth will introduce Bava's 1971 masterwork, "A Bay of Blood." Considered the father of all slasher films, "Blood" tells the story of 13 Italians who fall to slaughtering each other in increasingly grisly ways.
Ironically, Roth didn't actually see "Blood" until he finished his own 2002 slasher thriller, "Cabin Fever."
"I was really shocked," admits Roth. "All the movies I was 'paying homage' to had taken from 'Bay of Blood.' I had sort of second generation ripped off everything from 'Bay of Blood.' "
While Bava's films were mostly ignored in the U.S., he maintained respect among his peers. "There is a story that . . . Michelangelo Antonioni saw 'Kill, Baby, Kill' and . . . gave it a standing ovation," says biographer Tim Lucas. "Within the industry he was accepted, but the public didn't cotton to him until much later."
MARIO BAVA: POEMS OF LOVE AND DEATH
WHERE: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.
WHEN: Tonight through March 23