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“It looks like we'll all wind up in this damn freezer.” Heavily indebted to Agatha Christie's 'Ten Little Indians', Five Dolls For An August Moon – scripted by Mario di Nardo – is a project, with director Mario Bava's own confession, that he made 'under protest'. Denied extra time to rework the script, and never fully investing in its making as a result, the Black Sunday filmmaker nevertheless crafted a lush vision of privileged degenerates on an island retreat allowing their greed and blood lust get the better of them...
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“Did you ever think about how many things you could buy with a million dollars?” On a coastal cliff-face there sits a modernist abode – home to affluent businessman George (Teodora Corra), his wife Jill, and their equally stylish and moneyed friends. Hanging on to the dream of the summer of love, the beautiful people drink and party to excess – Marie (Edwige Fenech, The Case of the Bloody Iris), in her sparkling gold outfit and wild raven hair, indulges most of all. Spied upon by the young, naïve, and ever-so-materialist Isabelle (Justine Gall), their hip-swinging good time seems to take a devious turn, only for them to laugh it all off as only the worst of the wealthy can.
“If only you hadn't married such a beast.” However, when the yacht is sent away, the avarice of millionaire tycoons George, Nick (Maurice Poli), and Jack (Howard Ross, The New York Ripper) quickly becomes apparent. Among the guests is Professor Gerry Farrell (William Berger), whose formula for a revolutionary resin – which he refuses to sell – has them all drooling. As if there wasn't enough trouble on the island – with threats over the formula laid on the table – simmering libidos keep things swirling. Gerry's wife Trudy (Ira Furstenberg) has the hots for George's wife Jill (Edith Meloni), while Marie – married to Nick – is having it away with Charles the houseboy (Mauro Bosco), of which he disapproves simply because he deems the servant to be 'beneath her'. All the while, lurking about on the peripheries, are Jack and his wife Peggy (Helena Ronée), their cards pulled tight to their chest.
“I can't figure out if you're dangerous or just stupid. You forget I like men, but I like them to be alive!” Things start getting out of hand when Charles is found dead – stuck with a knife – but with no means of leaving or contacting the outside world, they opt for storing him in the freezer. The rich folks – arguing over sentimentalism versus industrialism – hang up their member of the proletariat like a side of beef and think little of it. With loaded glances fired in all directions and distrust on the rise, the body count begins to escalate – and the meat locker becomes evermore crowded.
“House boys come and go, but there's always a bottle.” Spun with a barbed sense of humour – look no further than the music, much like the punchline of a twisted vaudeville act, that plays every time another body gets hung up in the freezer – Five Dolls For An August Moon is a mixed affair. The plot, as filled with intrigue as it is, ultimately makes little sense come the increasingly convoluted reveal (prepare to rewind, replay, and listen intently). On the other hand, Antonio Rinaldi's cinematography is strong, as he and Mario Bava make full use of every beautifully lit frame with a sense of staging that boasts an impressive use of depth of space within the camera's roaming eye.
“And now tell me who's the dirty whore, you bastard!” The film's biggest flaw though, is an almost complete lack of any set pieces, which – coming from Mario Bava – is disappointing. Few murders happen on screen, with the violence rendered almost entirely in after-the-fact tableaux. Their painterly style pleases, but the lack of tension, suspense, and bravura theatricality seen in other examples of gialli (and Bava's own work) is sorely absent. That said, Rinaldi's camera regularly pans and zooms with whip fast brio, between more carefully staged moments that show off the gleefully groovy set design. There is plenty of gloss, but the intricacies are muddled.
“Take a look, you're sure to lay your hands on something nice.” Arrow Video's 2016 Blu-Ray/DVD of Five Dolls For An August Moon is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen with mono audio. There is a choice of Italian or English languages – each with optional English subtitles – as well as an Isolated Effects/Music track. Extras wise you get a commentary from Bava expert Tim Lucas, reversible sleeve art, a collector's booklet, trailer, but the main highlight is 'Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre'. Narrated by Mark Kermode, this hour long documentary provides an informed overview of the director and his work, featuring interviews with film makers such as Joe Dante, Tim Burton, and John Carpenter, among others. There are moments of print and audio damage throughout, but these are minimal; towards the end the dialogue track tends to drift in and out of synchronisation – however this seems to be more of an issue dating back to when the film was originally made.
“Everyone seems to be waiting for something that's not happening.” Troubled inception considered, Bava's film proves to be one of his weaker outings with a lack of storytelling flair. However, the visuals are superb while the mystery twists and turns (albeit to the point of narrative incoherence). Light on violence and more cheeky than sexy, Five Dolls For An August Moon – otherwise known as 'Island of Terror' – is far tamer than comparative gialli of the period, but Bava's sardonic bite that lies beneath the surface helps paper over some of the cracks. Some of the ideas were later reworked in the following year's A Bay of Blood, and while not a patch on the genre-defining The Girl Who Knew Too Much – or seminal Blood and Black Lace – this 1970 giallo works as an early vehicle for Edwige Fenech and a decent, middle-of-the-pack murder mystery.
N.B. Screenshots are taken from the DVD copy of the film.