31 Days to Scare ~ Twitch of the Death Nerve (Reazione a catena)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An elderly heiress is killed by her husband who wants control of her fortunes. What ensues is an all-out murder spree as relatives and friends attempt to reduce the inheritance playing field.

Stars: Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Claudio Camaso, Laura Betti, Isa Miranda

Director: Mario Bava

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’m sometimes asked what attracts me to certain films.  Is it the stars?  Maybe it’s the genre?  A solid production team?  These are all valid selling points and they all have influenced me in one way or another.  With this early Italian horror film, the title alone had me yanking it off the shelf and bringing it up to the counter for a rent (yes, rent…I’ve been going to my local video store, Filmzilla, for all my horror needs).  Even though it also goes by the name Bay of Blood, Twitch of the Death Nerve just sounds better and may be one of the best horror titles ever.

Now you can’t judge a film by its title alone because that can only go so far.  While Twitch of the Death Nerve doesn’t knock it out of the park it’s still a more than respectable entry into the giallo genre.  For those unfamiliar, giallo is Italian for “yellow” and stems from the origin of the genre in Italy as a series of cheap paperback mystery novels which all had trademark yellow covers.  The giallo genre was a major influence in the development of the modern slasher film…with US films like Psycho being an example of such work.

Italian directors had the market cornered on giallo films through the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s with auteurs such as Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, and the godfather himself Mario Bava making names for themselves almost exclusively with these films.  Around 10 years into the movement he started, Bava directs Twitch of the Death Nerve.  Bava is really the grandfather from which all things flowed so you’re viewing the work of a master craftsman if you a taking in one of his films.

These films all have similar elements and Twitch of the Death Nerve is emblematic of the best work of the era.  Saturated with color, uneven performances and convoluted plot elements, it’s not all about the gore but in tying to fashion a deeper story around the blood.  That sometimes works and for a while the film putters along nicely with several well staged kills but ultimately it starts to fall apart…almost as if Bava handed off directing responsibilities to a second unit director.

For 1971, the make-up and bloodletting are pulled off in a pretty spectacular fashion and I noted more than one killing that was imitated in one of the Friday the 13th sequels.  Make no mistake, this is a violent film with the traditional too-red blood spewing from various wounds but it’s presented to us almost as an art exhibit with each drop in its specific place and each skewering drawn out to maximum effect.

For a short film the body count is high but each killing is given some grander purpose.  It’s clear that Bava didn’t just use his actors as props to dispatch without note…I was surprised that many of the murders committed were filmed with a (gasp) tender edge that showed empathy to the dying victim.  Bava was trying to get across that death can be violent and, bad guy or not, a life is a life and there is sadness involved.  When the camera lingers on the newly deceased, I didn’t take it that Bava was rubbing our noses in the gore but that he wanted for us to take what has just occurred. 

Aside from the grandiosely epic murder sequences, there’s precious little plot to develop so it’s best to just sit back and watch the film for its technical elements.  Though not badly acted, the dubbed actors (including Thunderball Bond Girl Claudine Auger) don’t have a lot to work with and therefore don’t make much of an impression.  While it does have a few nifty twists and surprises, it ultimately falls victim to its own soft set-up and can’t quite justify its bizarre ending.

If you’re new to the Italian horror genre, you may want to go back a few years to a time when the giallo films weren’t quite so bloody (I greatly enjoyed Bava’s Blood and Black Lace from 1965 with its kinky theme and groovy 60’s style).  If you’re well versed in horror and want to see a true master at work, track this down for some nice rewards.  Just don’t read too far into it.