I got a fair amount of enjoyment out of the recent Helen Mirren haunted house Gothic horror Winchester that most audiences did not seem to share. It’s a critical reaction that did not really surprise me, as the best example of the Gothic horror in recent memory, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, was also met with an unenthused shrug. I suppose it’s a subgenre that’s grown long out of fashion in the decades since its heyday in the Hammer horror & the Corman-Poe Cycle era of the 1960s, but I’m glad there are at least a few minor modern attempts to keep its undead spirit ”alive.” It’s foolish to maintain a tradition without looking back to the heights that make its practice worthwhile, though, which is partly why I felt compelled to seek out Mario Bava’s Gothic horror classic Kill, Baby, Kill for the first time. Like Roger Corman’s intensely colorful nightmare The Masque of the Read Death, Kill, Baby, Kill is an over-the-top stylistic indulgence that plays beautifully into the heightened atmosphere of the Gothic horror template, making the genre appear as ripe for directorial experimentation as any slasher, space horror, or psychedelic subgenre you could name. Bava brings to the Gothic horror the same aesthetic obsessions that helped define the giallo as a medium in films like Blood & Black Lace and carved out the atmospheric space horror vibes later perfected in Alien with Planet of the Vampires. Kill, Baby, Kill is not his first or best-known experiment in the genre; Black Sunday might be the premiere example there. It is likely his most intensely colorful & idiosyncratically personal, though. It also stands as proof that the Gothic horror can be done exceptionally well on a miniscule budget, further encouragement for keeping the tradition alive.
Kill, Baby, Kill was afforded a much smaller production budget than Bava was used to working with by the mid-60s. A critically acclaimed director with most of his best works already behind him, Bava found himself in the unusual position of running short on funding & working with an incomplete script mid-shoot, making it a miracle that Kill, Baby, Kill was ever completed at all. Reportedly, the director’s crew completed the shoot partially unpaid for their efforts, out of respect for his art. You’d never be able to tell anything was out of the ordinary, though, as the Gothic horror template is very forgiving to low-budget enterprises. All you really need to pull one off convincingly is an old, spooky set and creative imagination for how to achieve a ghostly atmosphere. Bava worked around his limited resources through inventive, practical techniques: setting most of the story in an accessible European castle; creating distorted imagery in-camera via panes of glass; employing a seesaw where he couldn’t afford a camera crane, etc. A lesser director on the same time & budgetary constraints would’ve delivered an incomprehensible, glaringly incomplete mess (see: the infamous Roger Corman cheapie The Terror), but Bava pulls through by sheer will. Some of the most violent, jarring details of the film are his intense giallo lighting choices and the rapid zoom-ins & whip-pans to character’s stone-cold faces. He even fudged his ability to properly cast the ghost girl central to the movie’s plot on time & on budget by dressing the son of an employee in femme clothing. You’d never notice that production detail if you were never told—partly because young children are essentially genderless, but also because Bava finds a way to make it work. Kill, Baby, Kill is a kind of low-budget alchemy that turns shitty production conditions into horror classic gold.
Like most Gothic horror tales, Kill, Baby, Kill is a traditional ghost story about a haunted manor. In this case, the ghost of a little girl terrorizes an 18th century European village that’s deeply rooted in Old World superstitions. In a Dracula-style plot, an outsider doctor is called into town to perform an autopsy on the ghost’s latest victim, disregarding the locals’ warnings that the practice will only exacerbate the ghost’s curse. Of course, his rational view of the world is proven to be ineffective as the ghost’s attacks on the townspeople only get increasingly worse and he starts seeing her spooky visage himself. It’s not an especially novel plot and its mysterious twists aren’t nearly as compelling as its aesthetic interests—something the Gothic horror shares with the giallo genre that Bava helped pioneer. Kill, Baby, Kill is less interested in the ghost story’s potential metaphor as an expression of unresolved trauma or even its own premise of New World logic bucking against Old World wisdom than it is in crafting a beautiful image. Delicate child shoes & white lace dangle from a tree swing outside a graveyard to the sound of playful laughter. Creepy doll faces superimpose over twisting spiral staircases. The doctor erotically peers in on a witch’s homeopathic flogging ritual. A silver coin is pulled from a dead woman’s heart. (Is that last one already a giallo title?) Kill, Baby, Kill leaves an impression through intensely artificial lighting & imagery and then rapidly zooms in to single out an isolated detail as a kind of unconventional jump scare. I never fully bought the significance of the ghost girl’s vengeance on her townspeople victims. I did, however, get a huge kick out of watching her play with her creepy dolls and menacingly peer into the villagers’ windows, freaking everybody out. I imagine Bava’s own interests were on a similar wavelength.
The remarkable thing about Kill, Baby Kill’s scrappy resilience as a seemingly doomed project is that it isn’t even a cult classic that was reevaluated after the fact. Critics were willing to gush about Bava’s directorial touch in the film immediately upon its release. You can feel its influence trickling down through projects as varied as FearDotCom (which also features a white lace-dressed ghost girl playing with a white rubber ball) and The Love Witch (which boasts very similar witch costuming, just with better eye makeup). Kill, Baby, Kill is Mario Bava at his best, intensifying the effect of every creepy doll, ghost girl jump scare, and witchcraft ritual as best he can in any given frame. The only things holding the movie back from perfection are a slashed budget and a lackadaisical sense of pacing. It’s genre heights like these that make the efforts of a Winchester or a Marrowbone worthwhile in keeping the Gothic horror tradition alive, even if they aren’t as well appreciated in their time. Any director hoping to visually experiment within an extremely limited budget can look to this film as inspiration for how to establish a memorable atmosphere on the cheap. All you need is an interesting location, a vague story about a ghost, and strong personal aesthetic. Having a crew that’s willing to starve for you is likely also a plus.