“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.” – King Lear
This week’s film for the Mario Bava film fest was the 1971 Twitch of the Death Nerve (a.k.a. Reazione a catena, Carnage, Last House on the Left 2, Bay of Blood, and a dozen other titles). This is arguably Mario Bava’s most influential film, often cited as the prototype for the 1980s slasher/body count film like the Friday the 13th franchise. You can see this influence on the slasher genre right down to the settings and increasingly ridiculous murders, Friday the 13th Part 2 quotes at least two of the stylized murders from this film shot-for-shot, namely the billhook to the face of an unassuming manboy and the skewering of a young couple making love with a spear.
In many ways the thirteen stylized murders are the sport of this film. Story has it Bava and Laura Betti, who worked together previously on Blood and Black Lace (1964)—arguably Bava’s first body count film, were looking for an excuse to work together again and came up with a ludicrous script that was the genesis of this film. Bava, as usual, had next to no budget and shot this on an insanely tight schedule at the producer’s lake house. The plot is easily the most convoluted and absurd of all of Bava’s films , and that’s saying somthing given plots are not his specialty. That said, more than a few Italian film luminaries worked on this film: the aforementioned Laura Betti, special effects legend Carlo Rimbaldi (best know for designing E.T.), b-movie Italian horror movie scriptwriter [Dardano Sacchetti]], and b-movie actor Luigi Pistilli—one of my personal favorites.
But returning to my poit about the stylized murder as the sport of this film, it seems Bava was having fun with Twitch with no real concern for the plot. He seemed to be truly making sport of hyperobolic murder scenes in this one. And unlike Tim Lucas who argues that the gore holds up as realistic in this film, it seems to me far more ridiculous and over-the-top than any of Dario Argento’s skin slashing gore fests. For me, the quote from King Lear above seems to summarize Bava’s approach in this film. It’s as if he’s a twisted boy treating actors like flies, and the body count is a kind of playful torture of the audience. All of which comes into sharp focus with the shot of the Entomologist’s impaled beetle.
But the idea of playful torture is important here, because I think every murder is more like a wink and a joke than a shot at one’s sense of decency. As Paul Bondnotes in the video, the above GIF scene with the anguished insect kept Bava up all night, wracked with guilt. [As an aside, if you want a nice reading of intertextual guilt in this film, check out Paul’s post on this one.]
Beyond that, the Twitch continues to play on both the generational tension and youth culture revolution themes we’ve seem recur in his late 60s films like Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) and Danger:Diabolik (1968). Despite the fact the plot is a mess, the ending of this film is still a total shocker, and is one of my favorite endings of any film ever. [Spoiler alert!] After the distributed murders seem to be finished—another interesting note about this film is there are numerous murderes working against one another, not one pyschotic slasher—the final depicts the murderous couple who seem to have emerged victorious from the carnage only to be shot dead by their young children with a shotgun. Again, I can’t help read this as Bava’s utter disdain for the hippie movement (one of the children is wearing a tiedye t-shirt) and its presumed innocence and purity ignoring the deep generational violence thye remain part and parcel of. [I also linked this to the failure of the Baby Boomers more generally and the rise of the adjunct nation in higher ed more specifically in the video 🙂 ] The ending of the film has the children noting how their parents “play dead good” and running down to the lake to frolic on the beach. An idyllic scene that seems irreconcilable with the blood bath that has led up to it—which in many ways are the two narratives of the 1960s in the U.S. at least.