By Paul Mavis
It’s Halloween time, so that means horror is inevitably going to dominate my movie-watching hours. Since pro football is now verboten in our house, I had a hankering the other day to binge on the Friday the 13th franchise (I like the way Brenda rolls dem Monopoly bones…) before I changed my mind, opting instead for the original inspiration for Cunningham’s drive-in classic: Mario Bava’s spectacularly gory Italian splatter giallo from 1971, Twitch of the Death Nerve.
When Kino Classics, under their Mario Bava Collection line, released Twitch of the Death Nerve, they opted to use the alternate A Bay of Blood title…but they could have just as easily used Blood Bath…or Carnage…or Chain Reaction…or The Ecology of Crime…or Last House on the Left: Part II…or New House on the Left…or any other number of re-titles Twitch of the Death Nerve has undergone since its innumerable drive-in, grindhouse, VHS, and DVD re-releases.
Starring Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Claudio Camaso, Anna Maria Rosati, Chris Avram, Leopoldo Trieste, Laura Betti, Brigitte Skay, Paola Montenero, Guido Boccaccini, Roberto Bonanni, and Isa Miranda, Twitch of the Death Nerve outraged and even disgusted many critics when it was first released (to less-than-impressive b.o.), but it has since gained quite the cult following, being rightfully acknowledged as the direct inspiration for the rip-off Friday the 13th franchise, which of course was instrumental here in America in starting our own “golden age” of splatter films in the 1980s.
Seen today, Twitch of the Death Nerve is still top-tier splatter: clean, efficient butchery…with a wink and a nod. If Bava didn’t exactly invent modern splatter movies, he certainly was instrumental in defining their conventions, and probably the single most influential entry in the subgenre is 1971’s Twitch of the Death Nerve. Stripped of all pretense, Bava skips any elaborate characterizations or suspense motivations, and gets down to work hacking apart and strangling and spearing his victims with single-minded, dirty-minded, perversely-minded good humor.
Countess Federica Donati (Isa Miranda), wheelchair-bound and alone at her villa on the bay, mournfully takes her last look out her rain-streaked window, before she is savagely strangled by a hanging rope. Her murderer, husband Count Filippo Donati (Giovanni Nuvoletti), impassively views his handiwork, leaving behind a bogus suicide note, before he is unexpectedly set-upon by a knife-wielding killer. Who, then, is his killer?
There are many suspects at hand, right on the bay. Neighbor Frank Ventura (Chris Avram), a real estate developer, is interested in transforming the bay into a resort; did he kill the hold-out Countess? Or did his beautiful girlfriend, blonde Laura (Anna Maria Rosati), do it? What about sultry bitch Renata (Claudine Auger), the Countess’ daughter, who’s forced to live with her family in a squalid trailer on the estate? Maybe it was her weak-willed husband, Albert (Luigi Pistilli)? Maybe it was entomologist Paolo Fossati (Leopoldo Trieste), who lives nearby with his wife, psychic and tarot reader Anna (Laura Betti)? Or how about Simon (Claudio Camaso), the violent, anti-social half-son of the Countess, who lives in a shack on the estate? Did he kill the four sex-loving hippies (Brigitte Skay, Paola Montenero, Guido Boccaccini, Roberto Bonanni) who broke into Frank’s abandoned bayside disco for a little fun and games? Who, indeed, will be left among these suspects, when one by one, they start getting bumped off, as well?
I doubt I can add too much to the reams that have been written about Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve. Hard-core splatter fans have already identified all the tropes Bava helped refine here in Twitch of the Death Nerve—visual, aural, and thematic motifs that have been imitated ad nauseam in countless subsequent horror/splatter outings. To be fair to myself, though… Twitch of the Death Nerve isn’t a terribly difficult movie to dissect, either. As with many of Bava’s movies, his themes are fairly accessible and he doesn’t screw around when revealing them to us (when Bava would openly shoot for “art,” such as in Lisa and the Devil, that’s when he would get into trouble). That’s his great strength: his powerful-yet-playful, relatively straightforward embrace of his own visual and aural conventions—conventions that are palpably, operatically visceral, leaving no mistake for the viewer about what he’s trying to achieve with his horror and suspense efforts. You can intellectualize Twitch of the Death Nerve if you want to (you could start with Bava’s amusement at the audience’s involvement with this kind of mayhem), and you may be right in your theories…but on the same token, who doesn’t understand the simple, primitive visual “poetry,” if you will—the ironic, sick, perverted poetry, of course—of one of Bava’s flamboyantly grotesque “kills”?
What works so well, so differently for Twitch of the Death Nerve, is Bava’s insistence on stripping everything down to the absolute essentials of a murder mystery suspense thriller. There are no attempts to create fully dimensional characters, no attempt to create complex plotting, while mechanisms for suspense are pared back to their crudest, simplest expressions. Instead of elaborating on these elements as most suspense directors strive to do, Bava does the opposite here: paper-thin motivators with an almost clinical obsession put on depicting the actual killings.
That isn’t to say Bava doesn’t have fun linking all these grotesqueries together. My favorite is when Rosati bares her breasts for Avram—a sight we unfortunately don’t get to enjoy—right before Bava cuts to Camaso biting into what looks at first to be a repulsive, veiny breast…but which turns out to be an octopus. Setting up the first kill of the movie, Bava gives Italian movie legend Isa Miranda the full Douglas Sirk treatment, with swirling, overripe music courtesy of Stelvio Cipriani as she mournfully wheels around her opulent mausoleum of a mansion. Imagine, then, the shock Italian audiences in particular had when Bava then yanks the chair, literally, out from under them and hangs Miranda in a most horrifying manner. Primed for Sirk, they’re given sickness instead, as Bava lingers over the strangulation, with Miranda’s eyes bugged and tongue lolling, her guttural voice grunting and grasping. The amusing editorial links continue: when Boccaccini and Rubens are harpooned during coitus, Bava cuts to an anthropomorphic dune buggy, complete with big Disney eyes and a smiling bumper; when Betti gets her head chopped off, Bava cuts to Auger’s kids breaking a ceramic head.
Quibbling about how Bava gets to his kills seems beside the point (I’ve read a few reviews that chide Bava’s languid first act, as well as his leisurely montages). The point of Twitch of the Death Nerve is the kills and nothing more. I rather like how the screenplay—credited to Bava, Giuseppe Zaccariello, Filippo Ottoni, and Sergio Canevari, from a story by Dardano Sacchetti and Franco Barberi—creates a ducks-in-a-shooting-gallery feel as each character is shown to be fairly loathsome in their venality. In other words: who cares if these creeps get it in the neck (you can take the four kids as either innocent victims caught in the crossfire of the bay’s murderers…or callow hippies who deserve to die because they’re interested in only their sexual appetites)? Unlike the imitators who came afterwards, particularly the fun but ludicrous Friday the 13th series that introduced an increasingly silly supernatural element to the slice-and-dice, Bava’s kills here are “human” at their most blankly base and terrifying (the money element here reminded me of William Castle’s insistence on undercutting his villains’ fake supernaturalism with good old-fashioned greed).
I’ve never seen anything in one of those 1980s American copycats (and I went to all of them…) that compares with the primitive, animal impact of the faceless killer prying that billhook out of still-blinking Bonanni’s face, or with the simultaneously hilarious/deeply perverted death throes of nearly-decapitated Skay, who obligingly shoots the camera a sultry look while she assumes a calendar pin-up pose—she even crosses her ankles—right before she expires. After Boccaccini and Rubens are speared during sex, Bava lets Rubens continue to grind Boccaccini until she perishes/climaxes…and then we get to sort out for ourselves how sick that is that we noticed that final detail. You don’t see that kind of playful intelligence and audience put-on in too many of Bava’s imitators.
By the end of Twitch of the Death Nerve, SPOILER ALERT! Bava yet again surprises us, reserving his best kill for last—”best” not because it’s the most gruesome but because it’s the most hilariously perverse: Auger and Pistilli’s neglected children shotgun them down like something out of Looney Tunes, and then laugh at their silly game (their game…or the parents?). Did the kids do it by accident? Or have they inherited their parents’ murderous disregard for human life? Who cares…with Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve, it’s the “kill” that counts here. And only that.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.