Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - Twitch of the Death Nerve

Twitch of the Death Nerve, Bay of Blood, Bloodbath, whatever you call it, Cody checked it out for the Final Girl Film Club.

Things start out innocently enough. Following the title sequence that plays over images of the tranquil, wooded bay that is this film's setting and the center of its conflict, the first character we meet is a little old lady in a wheelchair. For minutes we just watch this woman wheel herself around in her home on a peaceful, rainy evening while pleasant music plays on the soundtrack. She looks out the window, raindrops run down the glass. Thunder rumbles harmlessly in the sky over the body of water near the house.

The woman rolls herself through a doorway... then gasps at the sight of something we don't see ourselves. Black-gloved hands wrap a noose around her neck, her assailant kicks her wheelchair out from under her and the woman is hanged there in the doorway. She has become the first victim on this film's bodycount of thirteen.

Her killer is revealed to be a middle-aged man, who removes his gloves and casually strolls around the house, looking around to make sure there were no potential witnesses around. He plants a forged suicide note and appears satisfied that he has committed the perfect murder. He doesn't get away with it for long. Mere minutes have passed when someone else, unseen by us, attacks him with a knife, stabbing him to death. He dies directly beneath the dangling corpse of his own victim. Two down, eleven to go.

That's basically how the entire running time of this giallo from director Mario Bava (Planet of the Vampires) plays out, as a series of murders sewn together over the barest skeleton of a story. The drawing point is not so much the twisty, twisted mystery at the base of everything, the reason why everyone is getting killed hardly matters at all. Certainly, Bava and his team of four co-writers/story developers do their best to provide motives and answers within a plot of scheming heirs, unscrupulous realtors, and land development ideas that enrage conservationists, but it's really all just an excuse to get to the kill scenes with award-winning effects by Carlo Rambaldi (Possession '81). It's unimaginable why it took so many people to get the screenplay assembled, unless credits were given for suggesting murder methods or something.

The film is populated with characters that are crooked, greedy, and strange. You will not care about a single one of them, they're just there to be slimy and get knocked off. One questionable woman is played by Bond girl Claudine Auger (Thunderball), another who reads tarot cards and predicts doom is played by Bava's Hatchet for the Honeymoon star Laura Betti. It was Bava and Betti's desire to work with each other again after HFTH that led to this movie being thought up.

Though I'm often up for watching a good bodycount picture, this one doesn't do all that much for me. The absence of any likeable or entertaining characters is a detriment to my enjoyment, and eventually the film felt to me like it just devolved into a bunch of people stumbling around in the dark and killing each other. I was not engaged, I didn't care what was happening or who it was happening to, my attention wandered.

A sequence that did fully capture my attention is the one for which this film is best known. It's the reason why I first heard about it and why I wanted to see it for years before I finally got the chance to watch it. It's a sequence that has caused many viewers to consider this film to be a grandfather to the slasher subgenre.

Running roughly twenty minutes, the proto-slasher stretch is a clear forerunner to the sort of movies that would be very popular in the '80s. It centers on four fun-loving youths who come driving into the bay area and immediately get up to no good, breaking into an abandoned, waterside resort and proceeding to skinnydip and have premarital sex while someone lurks around, watching them. There is imagery that will be quite familiar to fans of the slasher genre, the camera takes on the stalking prowler's P.O.V. as the partying young people are spied on from behind objects such as trees.

One shot in particular, a P.O.V. shot from behind trees and twigs as we watch a naked girl walk down a dock to go skinnydipping, could have come straight out of a Friday the 13th film. And that's how this movie first appeared on my cinematic radar, as I would often read articles about the F13s in which the writer would draw comparisons between my beloved slasher series and this older Italian movie. The Friday the 13th installment that most often gets compared to Bava's film is Part 2, and it's easy to understand why when you watch them both. The 1981 F13 sequel has a murder scene that is identical to a murder scene in this 1971 film. It's a moment of two kills for the price of one, in fact. In both, a young couple is making love in bed, the female on top, when the killer enters the room and slams a spear straight through both of their bodies, through the bed, and all the way down to the floor, sticking the young lovers together as they die and pinning them to the bed. Like bugs on a board, you might say.

The fact that there's a victim in a wheelchair also draws comparisons to Friday the 13th Part 2, as does the setting, which is similar to most of the movies in the F13 franchise. There is another kill, in which one of the youngsters gets a billhook slammed into his face, that is compared to an F13 Part 2 kill involving a machete, but it actually reminded me more of an axe kill in the first Friday.

So of course I like that bit, because it reminds me of F13s. The youth slashing sequence of this film has gotten so much attention that its marketing has sometimes been entirely based around it, with synopses focusing on the "pleasure-seeking teenagers" and tag lines like "They came to play, they started to die" and "They came seeking pleasure, they found death." There's a lot more to the movie than that sequence, it just happens to be the most entertaining part, with the best kills.

As for why I couldn't refer to this film by its title throughout this sequence, that's because it's known by several different titles. The most popular ones are Bay of Blood (or A Bay of Blood) and Twitch of the Death Nerve. It's called both among horror fans, and though the title on the print I watched for this write-up was A Bay of Blood, I prefer to call it Twitch of the Death Nerve. That's just cool and weird. Other titles that have been tossed around for it over the years include Bloodbath, The Odor of Flesh or The Stench of Flesh (the inspiration for Scott Phillips's The Stink of Flesh?), Before the Fact, The Ecology of Crime, Chain Reaction, Thus Do We Live to Be Evil, That Will Teach Them to Be Bad, and even, nonsensically and unofficially, Last House on the Left Part II, or New House on the Left.

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