Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
Many Italian horror films of the 1960s skirt the arena of what is traditionally referred to as “gothic horror.” Others embrace the tropes of gothic fiction more intently. And then there’s Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill, a film that is more or less the gothic horror genre made manifest and raised up on a dais for worship. Rarely is any subgenre embodied in such a pure and reverent way as Bava accomplishes here, in his ultimate tribute to the romantic, sumptuous delights of classically spooky worldbuilding.
Mario Bava is of course one of the founding fathers of the Italian horror genre, with an early career full of similarly gothic classics, including the likes of Black Sunday, The Whip and the Body, and Black Sabbath. From the mid-1960s onward, Bava’s attention increasingly drifted toward the emerging giallo genre with classics such as Blood and Black Lace, and eventually proto-slashers like A Bay of Blood. But amid it all, he had time for one last, gloriously gothic masterpiece, in the form of Kill, Baby, Kill. Displaying all the visual intricacies, lush settings and dynamic camerawork for which the man was known, it’s one of Bava’s most enduring and complete efforts, although it sometimes seems oddly unfamiliar to American horror audiences today. If there’s a classic of Italian horror waiting for you to unearth it this October, make it this one. Everything about the film screams “Halloween season.”
Kill, Baby, Kill derives much of its power from its setting, the fictional village of Karmingam, hidden somewhere in the remote depths of the Carpathian mountains. Here, a rash of mysterious deaths has the superstitious townspeople fearing for their lives, increasingly turning toward the advice of the local witch Ruth (Fabienne Dali) for protection from a supernatural force that has seemingly compelled many in town to commit gruesome acts of self-harm and suicide. To achieve the sense of remote, isolated decay, Bava shot exteriors on location in the largely abandoned medieval towns of Calcata and Faleria in Italy, infusing the film with a tangible sense of history. As a coroner from the outside world arrives in the town—a modern man with a distaste for superstitious dogma and questionable folk healing—we can feel the inherent danger of this place’s powerful local tradition stacked against him.
And that’s what Kill, Baby, Kill is really all about, a very traditional sense of atmosphere, as one might have also seen in the Universal horror films of old, or contemporaneous Hammer horror productions featuring the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Every classic gothic horror trope is present—you have crumbling castles, coffins and desultory gravediggers, deserted city streets wreathed in fog, yowling stray cats, flickering candlelight, heavy cobwebs, ancient four poster beds, spooky oil paintings and more. Visually sumptuous, Bava breathes new life into the classic tropes with an active camera that glides through the decaying manors like a prowler in search of hidden treasures. It feels like the cinematic equivalent of a haunted mansion amusement park ride.
At the same time, however, the film does invert a few of the expectations of the genre, especially in how it frames its characters and plays them against archetypes. The dark-haired witch, for instance, turns out to be a force for good who is doing her best to help the townspeople resist the corrupting and ruinous influence of the town’s evil past. The specter of a blonde, angelic-looking little girl, on the other hand, is instead a creature of pure hatred who is invoked by her ancient mother to carry out bitter revenge against the town. Carrying a bouncing ball and played with bug-eyed intensity by male actor Valerio Valeri, the ghostly girl became an icon of the era in Italian supernatural horror, her image frequently recycled as it has echoed through half a century of subsequent ghost stories. Like Patty McCormack’s manipulative “Rhoda” in The Bad Seed, this feels like a modern reframing of which archetypes can be allowed to fall into evil—a tacit admission that there are no remaining “innocents.”
Watching Kill, Baby, Kill today may feel somewhat rote to horror fans who have immersed themselves for decades in classic gothic ghost stories, but it’s just as likely to strike the viewer as reassuringly familiar, like a well-worn sweater. It venerates the elemental power of a classically spooky atmosphere with its grandiose visuals, being easy to admire even as it draws you in and raises the occasional goosebump.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.