5 Dolls for an August Moon (1970)
5 Dolls for an August Moon is perhaps the most curious of Mario Bava's horror films. As with 1963's The Whip and the Body, Bava was hired on after the script and much of the rest of the production had already been set. Luck wasn't with him this time however, and he was stuck with a script he despised, his request to rework it denied. The resulting film is a whodunit that doesn't care who did it, a thriller lacking in actual thrills. It is also a strangely affecting experience that improves upon repeated viewings.
The story – what there is of a story, anyway – takes place in an art deco villa on a secluded island, where four couples have come for a little business and relaxation. There's some nonsense about a secret formula held by Professor Farrell (William Berger) and sought by a trio of businessmen (Jack, George, and Nick, played by Howard Ross, Teodoro Corrà, and Maurice Poli, respectively), but it's merely the MacGuffin – important to the characters, but wholly unimportant to us. The houseboy is discovered murdered and the radio to the mainland sabotaged. The rest of the film is a variation on Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians"; the suspect pool decreases as the body count increases.
After 5 Dolls' original director dropped out1, Bava reportedly promised to do the film if he was paid upfront. According to the biography "Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark" by Tim Lucas, Bava promptly forgot about the commitment and was surprised when the producers called him into their offices with a check, a contract, and an almost immediate start date two days hence. As Bava would later recall, "I put the check in my pocket, signed on the dotted line, while saying the script was a joke, that they owed me at least ten days to rework it … but nothing doing!"2 Although Bava was able to make a few alterations – he devised a new ending and it was his idea to wrap all the corpses in plastic and stick them in the meat freezer3 – ultimately, he was stuck with filming most of Mario di Nardo's mediocre script as-is. Rather than try to overcome the poor writing with bombast and over-the-top shocks, he took the opposite route, pulling his punches by showing very little real violence. Even his suggestions of violence are largely limited to showing us a dead body with a knife in it.
I can see why Bava might have considered 5 Dolls his worst film4. During the first viewing, it is incredibly difficult to get a bead on which character is which, especially since some of the actors also look similar to one another. One character, Isabelle (Ely Galleani), seems to hang around the island for reasons that are never made clear – the film's opening firmly establishes her as an outsider to the group who is staying in the villa, but her presence is simply accepted. Only by reading other reviews of the film have I been able to determine that she is meant to be the game warden's daughter. Once the who's who is established, the Gordian knot of character relationships needs to be untangled, a task which has additional complications since there is no small amount of bed-hopping, clandestine meetings under moonlight, and brazen intermarital come-ons. By the time you have managed to figure out each person's identity and with whom they're sleeping and/or married, the movie is half over. In that time, only two people have died, and we have missed both murders (although just barely with the second one, but that is later shown to be not quite what it seems). Bava continues in this mold until the finale – we see only the dead, never the deaths. It's almost disappointing that so much work had to be put in sussing out the interpersonal details only to see the characters sent off without even the courtesy of a thrilling chase sequence or bloody on-screen murder. The lackluster climax gives us the identity of the culprit (someone who could not have possibly committed one of the murders) and ramps up the on-screen violence during a double-cross lifted straight from Blood and Black Lace. Bava's new coda adds an interesting spin to the preceding events, but it seems like a case of too little, too late.
If I based my analysis purely on that first screening, this would be a shorter, more negative review. I was very much prepared to write that drubbing, too, but a doubt gnawed at me. Something ached in the pit of my stomach, telling me that there was more to the film, something really interesting. I don't know which part of the film lodged these thoughts into my nervous system; maybe it's that electric opening sequence, with the hot jazz and hot women and nary a word spoken for over five minutes. Or possibly it's the way Bava fetishizes eyes, especially their gazes. It could just be that the movie is so goddamn blue, like someone just absconded with the color yellow. I don't know and I don't care. Whatever it was, I did, in fact, look again – and again – and again.
It turns out that "too little" isn't the film's problem, but its most precious asset. Bava underplays all the standard genre elements: he doesn't show the murders, and he establishes the primary suspect and then banishes them to the periphery of the plot. Death is treated as an unpleasant distraction – the villa guests wrap the corpses in plastic and hang them in the meat freezer, partially to keep them fresh for when the police eventually arrive, but mostly, I believe, to put them out of sight (and by extension, out of mind). By de-emphasizing all that we would expect emphasized in a thriller, especially since the status quo for a good director with a bad script is for style to run amok over substance, Bava forces us to consider the film almost as free jazz, randomly weaving in and out of a set template and letting the audience find their own points of interest.5 If you just relax, go with the flow, disregard silly things like plot, and soak up the masterful cinematography by Bava and long-time DP Antonio Rinaldi, you'll find a lot worth revisiting.
For me, it's all in the eyes. In the opening sequence, Bava introduces us to each character in turn as Piero Umiliani's pounding jazz score obscures any spoken dialogue. The camera either starts with the character's face and moves to the eyes or vice versa, but invariably the person shifts their gaze and (with a few exceptions) the camera cuts to the person receiving the gaze. Adding another layer to this mélange of looks is the fact that we're watching from the point of view of Isabelle, who is spying on the party from the outside. Throughout the rest of 5 Dolls, we get every way a person can look at someone or something else – longing looks, drunken leering, furious glares, stealthy peeping, furtive glances, lecherous ogling, incredulous stares, gazing into space, the Big Hairy Eyeball, long contemplations of the bottom of a whiskey glass, and bedroom eyes. There is a terrible irony here; everyone is seeing all the dirty details of the interpersonal and business relationships, but nobody is seeing the murders, not even us. It almost seems like Bava's little morbid joke – your life is intriguing and important to behold, but your moment of death is inconsequential, a fleeting occurrence that is superseded in importance by secret formulas and sexual dalliances.
Bava and Rinaldi use the zoom lens to great effect when they make a character's eyes fill the screen. Zoom has a tendency to flatten the image, dilute any sense of perspective, and dull compositions; it's frequently used not for artistic purposes, but for expedience. Here, however, I believe the choice to use it is an aesthetic one. As the bodies pile up, the surviving characters tend to express their concern in terms of self-preservation or emotional inconvenience. The men keep wheeling and dealing, and when they do start making their accusations, it's like a business tactic rather than an earnest search for the truth. Therefore, there's a certain appropriateness in the fact that the eyes of each character (viewed through the zoom lens) have a certain soulless quality to them.
Holding 5 Dolls together in its delightfully loose configuration is the musical score by Umiliani. I'd love to say that the jazz simile from earlier is wholly mine, but I was inspired by Umiliani's compositions. I'm not a jazz fan – not through lack of preference, simply lack of experience – but I know what I like, and I like this. A few cues feature minor chords to emphasize tension, but for the most part, Umiliani's work is upbeat, with a good mix of the vibrant and the mellow, with only the calliope tune from the "corpses in the freezer" scenes coming off as particularly morbid. Such musical cheeriness would seem to undercut the atmosphere of murder and mayhem in another thriller, but there isn't any such atmosphere in 5 Dolls, because Bava's already done away with it. As such, the music works in concert with Bava's direction to set the mood for the viewer's laidback meander through the film's sublimities.
It is probably to the benefit of 5 Dolls for an August Moon that it's now available as part of Anchor Bay's Mario Bava Collection Volume 2 (obligatory Amazon.com purchase link, because supporting your local horror website is just a damn good idea). A number of Bava's fans who might avoid this one for its frequently bad press can now give it the time and patience it deserves. You have to watch it at least twice to really let it soak in, but that's not asking too much for an 81-minute film. I've seen the film five times in the last four days; I can attest that every minute spent with 5 Dolls for an August Moon is worth it.
This review is part of Mario Bava Week, the last of four celebrations of master horror directors done for our Shocktober 2007 event.
- Tim Lucas surmises the previously attached director might have been Guido Malatesta (Fire Monsters Against the Sons of Hercules, Revolt of the Barbarians). See Lucas, Tim. Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. Video Watchdog, 2007. Page 812.
- Ibid. Page 812.
- Ibid. Page 820.
- Ibid. Page 813.
- Since most of it was shot with some sort of blue filter on the camera lens, it might be more appropriate to think of 5 Dolls as a blues film. I kill myself.