Saturday 20 February 2016

Rabid Dogs (Mario Bava, 1974) Blu-Ray/DVD Review

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“You're just crazy! Crazy and cruel!” Italy in the 1970s was a turbulent place and time, rocked by socio-political change and rife with organised crime. Drug cartels, kidnapping schemes, and young gangs left the police scrabbling to catch up and the public locking themselves away. Reacting to this period of fear, the film makers of the era unleashed a series of hard-as-nails crime pictures and hard-bitten 'poliziotteschi' films. Menacing rogue cops modelled on Dirty Harry dominated, but sometimes the violent criminals took centre stage. One example would be Umberto Lenzi's Almost Human (1974), but not to be outdone – even in the twilight of his career – Mario Bava (best known for horror films like Black Sunday or Kill Baby Kill) dived into the fray with Rabid Dogs. However, it was sucked into a nightmarish legal limbo before the low budget production had even finished. The film, which many feared to be lost forever, remained unseen for more than twenty years before, at long last, it was pulled from the ashes and given new life...

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“One step closer and I'll kill her!” Based on Michael J Carroll's short story 'Man and Boy', Bava's foray into the crime thriller genre comes on as a brisk and unshackled rebel yell; his work in the early 70s, much like the nation, was taking some serious knocks. 1970 had seen the troubled inception of Five Dolls For An August Moon (Bava was a late hire and not afforded time to re-write the script to his liking), but 1971 saw the mischievous film-maker's talent better served with A Bay of Blood. His creative endeavours continued to sway in the subsequent two years though, with 1972's Baron Blood proving to be an awkwardly backwards-looking combination of the old and new (exemplified by a Coke machine housed inside a crumbling old castle), while the wild and weird Lisa and The Devil (1973) ran into a series of issues.

“They're shooting at us like we're pigeons.” All-the-more impressive then that, in the twilight of his career (he died in 1980), Mario Bava was able to challenge the young upstarts with a real-time thriller populated by blood thirsty thieves and killers. Shorn of the hyper-stylised lighting schemes and compositions of his horror pictures, the more comic book tones of Danger: Diabolik (1968), or the exquisite glamour of his gialli, Rabid Dogs is strikingly modern and visceral. Further stripped of controlled sets and haunting night-time staging, here Bava – much like his cast of characters – is exposed to the bright, sweltering summer sunshine.

“Would you kill children to save your own skin?” Friday. 11:30am. The payroll for a pharmaceutical company's employees is being delivered by car. In rolls a pokey Fiat 500 – followed by another car, which grinds to a halt and expels a gang of gun-toting, mask-wearing thieves. They hit hard and fast – killing the company's treasurer in the process – and flee with the cops hot on their heels! Scored by Stelvio Cipriani (What Have They Done To Your Daughters?), it makes for a pulse-pounding, teeth-gnashing, window-shattering opener. However, with their fuel tank leaking and their getaway driver dead, Doc (Maurice Poli, Five Dolls For An August Moon), Blade (Aldo Caponi, aka Don Backy), and Thirty-two (George Eastman, aka Luigi Montefiori, Anthropophagus) escape into the concrete jungle of an underground parking structure. Here, in a fraught stand off with police, they kill one woman and kidnap another – Maria (Lea Lander, Blood and Black Lace) – and hijack a new ride, gathering themselves two more hostages: Riccardo (Riccardo Cucciolla) and his ailing young son Agostino.

“You'd be surprised how long people keep fighting after they've been stabbed.” With the cops off their backs they leave the city behind and head into the countryside, slipping free of the police roadblocks – and so begins a sweat-soaked sprint into danger. Like some bizarre family out for a drive, tensions inevitably escalate. Riccardo is the hen-pecked mother, insular and solely concerned with the fate of his son. Doc is the quiet and tactical disciplinarian father (and the brains of the criminal gang). Meanwhile, Thirty-two is child number one: a brutish and overgrown school bully, and Blades is child number two: the psychotic, switchblade-wielding sidekick. Stuck between it all – and the object of Thirty-two's increasingly threatening leers – is Maria, shot-through with fear. As their taut journey continues – the scorching summer heat utterly palpable within the humid confines of the car (focus of much of the film's running time) – things start getting out of hand. Can the hostages get free of the criminal gang, and even if they do, will they manage to walk away unsullied by the experience?

“Human skin's a completely different story – it peels off just like a banana.” While the claustrophobic space of the car, and the real-time approach, can at times draw things out, the film is constantly in motion with a few fingernail-bothering set pieces layered in-between. An attempted escape leads to an unflinching scene of humiliation (Wes Craven's Last House on the Left – 1972 – might very well have inspired screenwriters Alessandro Parenzo and Cesare Frugoni), while further detours engender a stifling sense of paranoia as the yearning for escape becomes desperate and the mania of violence begets a 'nothing left to lose' attitude. When the stakes are this high, who would need a shot of espresso to keep them wide-eyed and on the edge of their seat?

“I can't take this any more! You're disgusting! You're pigs!” In the words of Bava's son Lamberto (who worked on the film as Assistant Director), Rabid Dogs is “bitter … taking cynicism to the maximum level”, producing a tone that is tough, bleak, and laced with razor-toothed wit. The director encourages his viewer to simultaneously be the victim and the tormentor – we suffer with Riccardo, and particularly Maria – while a vulgar, motor-mouthed, self-obsessed hitch-hiker gets us rooting for the thugs to snuff her out and toss her in a ditch pronto. This jagged schism underpins the film's vicious tone, which is nothing short of energetic and feverishly vibrant. Far from pretty, the events are captured by Bava – who took over cinematography duties from Ennio Varriano for budgetary reasons – in an array of meticulously framed wide angle views inside the cramped car. He captures every seething glance, every twitch of a trigger-happy finger, and every rolling bead of sweat.

“Guys, there's loads of cash here – we're rich!” Arrow Video's 2014 three-disc Blu-Ray/DVD release of Rabid Dogs also includes the alternative cut of the film – Kidnapped – which features additional scenes (shot by Lamberto Bava), a new score, new sound, and with different editing choices. However, considering that it's usually best to watch the version intended by the director, Rabid Dogs wins out – indeed, even just for Stelvio Cipriani's never-shredding score alone, it is the superior incarnation of the film. Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen with the original mono audio (Italian language with optional English subtitles), the movie boasts a generally high quality HD restoration. That said, taking into account the film's troubled inception – and decades lost on storage room shelves – missing elements lead to the employment of disparate sources with varyiable quality. At numerous points in the film – but mostly in the early stages – the picture quality flips back and forth between High and Standard Definition sources, the latter being used to plug various gaps. The changeability is noticeable, but Arrow have sought to match them as best they can – and frankly it's astonishing that they were able to actually complete this project. Arrow, Lamberto Bava, and Alfredo Leone – but chief amongst them all, the film's star Lea Lander – should be commended for their work in bringing about this release.

The entire and complex tale of the film's rescue is detailed in an excellent booklet (which also features the original 'Man and Boy' short story) included inside the case, and in a 2007 featurette ported over from a previous Anchor Bay release. Also included is an audio commentary from Bava biographer Tim Lucas, and an interview with Umberto Lenzi, which provides brief but fascinating background on the state of organised crime in Italy during the 1970s. This isn't a features-packed and flawless release, but its existence in itself is remarkable and clearly much effort and attention to detail has been spent.

“I should have known that someone like you can't be trusted.” Bolstered by a uniformly on-top-of-their-game cast (Lander in particular), this late entry for Mario Bava could have been a revitalisation of his career if the cruel hand of fate (and the legal troubles of a bankrupted production company) had not intervened. It made for an ignominious, long-winded delay for what is a superb crime thriller, but even with a release far behind its creation, Rabid Dogs is entirely capable of standing beside present day thrillers. Consider this a highly recommended viewing experience – a once-lost gem given the resurrection it deserves.

N.B. Screenshots are taken from the DVD copy of Rabid Dogs.

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