Another intriguing title full of mystery in itself, Five Dolls For An August Moon is not as well-known as a lot of other works from Mario Bava’s oeuvre. The 1970 feature never even got a look in on home video here until Redemption released it in 1994 and unless you picked it up then or on American import DVD from Image Entertainment or Anchor Bay chances are you will not have seen it until now. Of course if you are old as the hills and caught it on original cinema release in 1970 that is. Looking back now it seems as though this could almost be seen as a dry run for Bava’s much more infamous ‘A Bay Of Blood’ which followed in 1971 or indeed you could go much further back and look at Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians as a true source of its age old narrative convention.
Ten people are gathered on a picturesque island and for reasons I won’t bore you with there are no ways off and no ways of contacting the mainland. There are 4 wealthy couples, a houseboy and teenage girl Isabella who is in the care of everyone’s host industrialist George Stark (Teodor Corrà). It is quickly ascertained that there is a motif around this select gathering of people. One of the guests is Professor Gerry Farrell (William Berger) who had thought he was just off for a spot of r & r. however he has invented a formula that in the world of resin is going to be a landmark achievement and one that is worth a lot of money. The other 3 wealthy men intend to group together and get him to sell the formula for a million each. Farrell does not want to sell though, claiming the money is not important to him and is clearly not willing to be coerced into parting with it. Naturally the other three men are all trying to go behind each other’s backs and get the formula for themselves too.
The players are all established as being quite despicable characters, the greedy sort that have too much money and want more and are willing to go to any lengths to get it. The women, an ensemble cast of euro-babes including Edwige Fenech and real life socialite and Princess Ira von Fürstenberg are bored, spoiled and as duplicitous as the men, flirting and having affairs under the unconcerned gaze of their partners. They all do what nauseating over-privileged toffs do, set up theatrical games, lounge around drinking expensive booze in the opulent setting of Starks lovely modernistic designed beach house and are full of tension and simmering jealousy towards each other. Then the bodies start to fall and a game of cat and mouse develops as they are one by one left wrapped in plastic in the walk in freezer. Who will survive and just what exactly is going on?
Five Dolls does not see Bava at his best, the plot is convoluted and confusing and at times makes little sense. That is even after having seen the film prior to this, its UK blu-ray debut, within the last 6 months or so courtesy of that Image Entertainment DVD. It leaves you scratching your head at times and indeed goes all rather Scooby-do on you. Luckily after tying you in knots all the way through it does all unwind but by then you may have found it all just that bit too absurd to care. That aside as a Bava film it contains plenty of magic that viewers of his better films will lovingly pick up on. The attention to detail is of course excellent in each scene set-up. With the blu-ray presentation the film looks all the more dazzling and vibrant too. Everything is richly colourful from the costume design to the garish but not overly violent death scenes (it should be said that this had none of the censorship problems of Bay Of Blood). In one of the film’s most poetic and visual scenes a load of glass spheres of varying sizes are knocked over to flow down a spiral staircase. The scene is a delight to watch and a complete sensual overload especially when you see just what their final destination is, as they reach the end of their journey. The music is great too and you can listen to Piero Umiliani’s score on an isolated soundtrack on this presentation. There’s a psychedelic acid jazz part, some lounge like retro sounding keyboard work and a morbidly mischievous motif each time a fresh body is loaded into the freezer. Acting is also thoroughly convincing, each and every character is played with guile and has you pretty much hating them all, the one exception being the flighty Isabel played by the gorgeously natural Justine Gall who distances herself from the others exploring the island and trying her best to stay out their devious mind games. The proof of Five Dolls is that even when Mario Bava is not making one of his greatest films he still achieves a highly enjoyable one that is well worth seeing.
Considering the amount of Bava films Arrow have put out you would have thought they would be running out of ideas as far as extras are concerned. Here apart from the normal commentary track and trailer we get an hour long documentary ‘Master Of The Macabre’ overseen by none other than Mark Kermode and featuring all sorts of talking heads such as John Carpenter and Tim Burton, filmmakers directly influenced by his work. Kermode points out that although he was not considered anything more than a hired hand when he was making films, now long after his death Bava is considered a great, a cinematic pioneer and visual stylist. A history lesson is given explaining just how this came to be with plenty of people backing up how highly regarded he has become including naturally his son Lamberto who followed in his footsteps. Unlike other fiery Italians it would seem that he was nowhere near as volatile as many of his peers and was a gentle and humorous guy and a pleasure to work with from his early career as cinematographer and onwards. Funnily enough on a bit of a Bava trip myself I had just watched his collaboration with Riccardo Freda I, Vampiri (1957) a few days ago. This was famous for being the first Italian horror films after Mussolini’s effective ban on them and is also well known as Freda losing a bet with the producers on finishing it within a short time period stormed off the set leaving Bava to complete. This was the start of a series of collaborations before Bava finally took the reins to direct his first feature on his own the seminal Black Sunday aka Mask Of Satan in 1960. The rest as they say is history and this paved the way for him making some classic and well-loved films from gothic horror to murderous gialli mysteries, sci-fi, westerns, historic peplums and hard hitting crime dramas. Some of which are still waiting reappraisal and hopefully in time will be got to in new Hi-def presentations. This documentary was a highly enjoyable one with plenty of clips, memories and insights into the workings of the great director. Hopefully it may help a new generation uncover much of his work and will certainly be of interest to those that already know and love them.