Mario Bava, who died in 1980, believed in the image more than he believed in life. His name still conjures a dream of cinema. His liquid, glowing set pieces have their own internal life and logic, to which the laws of the real world are irrelevant. Each Bava film — eight of them, including three of the best, will show at the Brattle in its current Thursday series — creates a miniature landscape for a sick fairy tale, where cats clamber over old ladies’ corpses, little girls possess powers of life and death, and faces appear reflected upside-down in pools of blood.
A brilliant cinematographer and a master of optical effects, Bava graduated to direction with 1960’s Black Sunday (August 1 at 3, 5, and 7:30 p.m.), which made his reputation and remains his most famous film, partly because of the presence of cult icon Barbara Steele in a dual role as vengeful witch and beleaguered ingénue. A hope chest of Gothic conventions, Black Sunday shows off the range of Bava’s low-budget inventiveness: the Moldavian forest dreaded by coachmen hardly exists except as a few twigs and shadows arranged for the camera, and later, an unseen force upsets chairs and suits of armor as the camera glides by. Bava loves the outrageous and the excessive. The witch’s face, in the unforgettable opening sequence, is destroyed by a spiked metal mask and a huge mallet. And when she returns to life, her tomb doesn’t creak open, it explodes.
The short narrative form of the three-part Black Sabbath (1963; August 22 at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.) frees Bava to describe narrow situations in visual terms, without the obligations and alibis of plot. The first and second episodes — a cool study in contemporary terror and a bleak 19th-century vampire story — are merely solid, but the third, in which a woman makes the mistake of stealing a ring from the finger of a corpse, is a relentless essay in horror that by itself justifies Bava’s entire career. It’s followed by a funny and touching epilogue in which host Boris Karloff confesses, in his way, that it was only a movie.
In Kill, Baby . . . Kill! (1966; August 22 at 5:30 and 9:45 p.m.), a little girl’s ghost terrorizes a small Central European town. Her appearances are heralded by a disembodied giggle, zooms into frozen space, and a white ball running away across the frame. Probably Bava’s most sustained film, Kill, Baby . . . Kill! generates a futile and evanescent intensity, as the hero and heroine rush around town trying to answer unformulated questions while the director pushes the decor more and more toward fantasy. The vertiginous scene where the hero runs repeatedly through the same room, only to realize that he’s chasing himself, is both a confession of and an artful triumph over Bava’s habitual poverty of means.
The later films become increasingly restless and ferocious, as if Bava felt trapped by his own mastery. Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970; August 8 at 3, 5, and 7 p.m.) has to do with an island party that turns murderous, but the plot vanishes with the first flourishes of Bava’s wide-angle lens and for most of the film is either a vague memory or a sophisticated in-joke. The cast of cigarette-ad models drape themselves around the furniture in stylized groupings that disperse with casual humor (A: "I’m going out for a breath of air." B: "Not a bad idea." C: "I need a shower").
Lisa and the Devil (1972; August 15 at 3 and 7:45 p.m.), a sexy and macabre Alice in Wonderland, is this director’s self-conscious attempt at making a completely lyrical, oneiric horror film. All Bava’s films are repetitious and minimal, but they work better when he can use repetition and minimalism to kill plot; the plotlessness of Lisa becomes an excuse for a lot of rococo ornamentation, and the result is languid and cloying. As for Baron Blood (1972; August 15 at 5:15 and 10 p.m.), this Coke-machine-in-haunted-castle romp is the kind of movie that makes viewers wonder, "Did people back then really think of this as entertainment?" But it’s a heartfelt film done with a certain morose dignity and featuring moments as piercing as any in Bava’s work: the monster chasing the heroine (Elke Sommer) through multicolored shafts of fog light, and an outdoor magic ritual that Bava views with some kind of austere longing.