The 1960’s and 70’s were a highly influential and exciting time in Italian horror cinema. New techniques, ideas, tropes and subject matter were being formulated and executed in ways that would soon transcend their country of origin. Before long, films with this particular combination of mystery, thriller and horror elements would become known as giallo films. Taken from a series of popular pulp fiction novels, it wasn’t long before the term became synonymous with this very particular style of Italian cinema. While there were a staggering amount of talented filmmakers creating giallo films during this time, Mario Bava remains as one of the most prominent establishing filmmakers of the genre.
Along with many of the sub-genre’s preeminent plot, style and character traits, giallo film music would also come to form it’s own identity. With famous composers like Ennio Morricone, Fabio Frizzi, Goblin, Bruno Nicolai and Riz Ortolani at the helm, giallo scores would simultaneously become intrinsically linked and independently famous. Alongside the previously mentioned maestro’s stands another iconic composer; Stelvio Cipriani. A prolific and gifted Italian pianist and composer, Cipriani was educated in both classical and jazz composition. With an early career dominated by spaghetti-western and other Italo-crime films, the transition to this new giallo type of film was certainly not a far stretch for the talented Cipriani.
After years spent as a successful cinematographer, Bava was able to hone and develop his own personal style and techniques. So, when it came time to direct and create his own films, his approach was fresh, deliberate and confident. Along with his notable style came his appreciation and utilization of strong film scores. His earlier work with composer Carlo Rustichelli on 1964’s Blood and Black Lace and 1966’s Kill, Baby…Kill! would truly help establish Bava’s unique approach to filmmaking. However, perhaps the best example of all the pieces coming together is 1971’s A Bay of Blood and his first collaboration with Stelvio Cipriani.
First, the synopsis:
The murder of a wealthy countess, which was erroneously deemed suicide, triggers a chain reaction of brutal killings in the surrounding bay area, as several unscrupulous characters try to take over her large estate.
From the moment the film begins we get a sonic taste of what Cipriani has in store for us. While the credits roll over the bay’s landscape, the title track, ‘Ecologia Del Delitto‘ plays. Here we are ushered into the film atmosphere with exotica style drums and percussion played by Enzo Restuccia and Mandrake Som. Next, layers of strings are added with slow, atonal chord shifts which create an air of mystery and intrigue. Next, guitar, harpsichord, flute, oboe and more join and alternate their time in the spotlight subtly mirroring the variety of characters that are soon to be introduced. The way in which the instruments are played over the percussion creates a lounge-y, sexy feel tinged with mystery suitable for only the grooviest of cats. And yet, the melancholy trajectory of the melody hints at more traditional scoring while keying the audience in to the story that is about to unfold. In this subtle yet effective approach, Cipriani cleverly introduces several themes, ideas and emotions while establishing his own unique footprint, all in a compact 2 minutes.
Interestingly, following this opening track comes a full 9-minute scene that is dialogue-free. In quick succession, we witness three kills (including the fly POV shot) with only the score and sound design to guide us. The first human death falls upon the Countess Federica Donati, played by the famous Italian actress Isa Miranda. With an impressive 96 acting credits to her name, Miranda was nearing the end of her career when A Bay of Blood was released. With Cipirani’s song ‘Evelyn Theme‘ accompanying the Countess as she maneuvers her wheelchair around her room, the music is dramatic, traditionally orchestrated and overtly tinged with sadness. More than simply setting up the Countess‘ downfall, this was Cipriani and Bava paying tribute to the older generation of film and filmmakers that came before. And just like that, with the appearance of a black glove and noose, this sappy, older style of scoring is cut from both the scene and the film.
“In this subtle yet effective approach, Cipriani cleverly introduces several themes, ideas and emotions while establishing his own unique footprint, all in a compact 2 minutes.”
One of the underlying subtexts throughout the entire film is the idea of nature and the effects of development on the landscape. In fact, one of the many titles the film went by was Ecologia del Delitto, aka Ecology of Crime. Bava plays with the idea that nature and its beauty remains constant despite the horror perpetrated by man. Not only does he do this through the dialogue, but also in the way his shots interact with the action and the score. For example, when young Brunhilde (Brigitte Skay) discovers a body floating in the bay she understandably panics. Quickly, she finds herself being chased by an unidentified predator. This is where the track ‘Inseguimento E Uccisione‘ kicks in. Frantic drumming and strong, motivated piano chords create a melody that sounds perfectly placed while simultaneously tense. Quietly and slowly, oscillating synthesized tones grow in both volume and intensity. These three components when punctuated with sparse but strong electric guitar creates an atmosphere of immense suspense. While Brunhilde‘s stalker is never revealed to us, her fear is palpable. On top of typical modern drums, we have bongos and tumba. These types of drums are played with the performers hands and that skin on drum-head contact is perceptible. While slight, these subconscious auditory cues convey a primal, innate type of fear infused with adrenaline and physiological response.
One of the incredibly rewarding things about watching A Bay of Blood is the variety and multitude of cold-blooded killers. Bava gives us example after example of what greed and anger can reduce humans to. While most of the killers in the film casually take lives for temporary, materialistic reasons, the character of Simon is slightly different. Therefore, it makes sense that when it came time for Cipriani to score scenes involving Simon (Claudio Camaso), his accompanying music would be slightly different as well. Motivated by sadness and revenge, Simon finds his personal body count climb in a bloody and unfortunate Chain Reaction (another title which the film went by). However, Simon ultimately becomes a victim himself in one of Bava’s best and surprising kills. As Simon squirms and suffers at the hand of his attacker, the score is silent. And then, once his murderer has left, we get the beautiful track ‘Solitudine di Simone.’ Here we have Cipriani imbuing such emotion, such sadness in a way that one can’t help but feel empathy for this man, this murderer. Very similar to the previously mentioned ‘Evelyn Theme‘ (for plot driven reasons), slow and subtle strings accompany an intensely beautiful piano melody. This moment could have been scored a variety of ways. But by imparting such an emotionally evocative piece, Cipriani helps the audience separate Simon‘s personal motivations from that of the other monsters in his midst. Tim Lucas, author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of Dark calls this Simon‘s ‘angel in the wreckage’ moment and this interpretation is largely helped and reinforced by Cipriani.
In conjunction with Cipriani’s incredible work on A Bay of Blood, Bava is at the top of his game here. Thanks to his love for movies, his writing credit and his years of cinematography experience, Bava had a deep and palpable connection to the film and its material. All of this translates into a unique film that is able to both honor and inspire at the same time. While Bava was initially paying homage to Robert Siodmak’s 1946 classic The Spiral Staircase, Bava would soon get a tribute of his own with the Friday the 13th franchise. Classic Bava transition and sequence shots are all present here in intensely enjoyable form. There’s multiple reasons why Bava is one of the founding giallo fathers and A Bay of Blood is one of them.
While the film was the first collaboration between Bava and Cipriani, it would certainly not be their last. Quickly following A Bay of Blood‘s release, the two would go on and work together on Baron Blood in 1972 and Rabid Dogs in 1974. Due to his incredible ability to churn out quality work, Cipriani would soon become one of the most prolific and diverse working film composers. Even though his works have included everything from comedy to drama, television and more, his work in the horror genre helped establish and define the giallo sound. Along with his work with Bava, Cipriani also worked on such iconic giallos as The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, The Bloodstained Shadow, Death Walks in High Heels and What Have They Done To Your Daughters?. By integrating and experimenting with sounds both new and old, Cipriani was able to strike a fascinating balance of emotion, modernity and effectiveness.
“There’s multiple reasons why Bava is one of the founding giallo fathers and A Bay of Blood is one of them.”
Surprisingly enough, the score for A Bay of Blood was not available on vinyl until Cinedelic Records released it in 2017. With a limited run of only 500, hand-numbered copies, these records might be tough to come by in the wild. However, prices for used copies on Discogs range reasonably from $20-$40. If CD’s are more your thing, check out the 2016 release from Chris’ Soundtrack Corner that includes a 16-page booklet and a variety of previously unreleased tracks. Copies for that release typically range from $20-$30.
What are some of your favorite giallo scores? Let us know over on Twitter, our subreddit, or at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And if you’re looking for more of horror’s best scores, make sure and check out my other installments of Terror on the Turntable!