Baba Yaga: le recensioni

BABA YAGA (DVD - Blue Underground)
Reviewed by SCOOTER McCRAE
Da Fangoria

A woman clad in black undergarments is led at gunpoint to a bottomless hole in the earth by uniformed Nazis; she undresses and jumps in. A half-naked woman knocks out a man with a single punch in the boxing ring of an empty arena. A nude, bound and blindfolded woman is walked into the surf as a firing squad shoots her from behind. These are the stylized dreams of Valentina, who is sometimes the victim and sometimes the aggressor, which punctuate and comment upon the hyperstylized reality of Corrado Farina's supernatural erotic adaptation of the works of Guido Crepax, BABA YAGA (1973).

Trying to synopsize the plot of a film like this is akin to capturing smoke in a silk kerchief, and just as frustrating to attempt. World-famous fashion photographer Valentina (Isabelle DeFunes) is accosted by a woman, Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker), who is definitely a very interested lesbian and may also be a witch. But Valentina is not interested, though she is intrigued by this mysterious woman. Baba Yaga fondles, and puts a curse on, one of Valentina's still cameras which, when aimed and snapping a photo, jams a motion picture camera and eventually causes one of her regular models to collapse during a photo shoot. It is this last incident that compels Valentina to pay a visit to Baba Yaga at her home, under the guise of wanting to take some pictures there. As Valentina photographs the various antiques and curios in the dusty attic, she discovers a strange, long-haired doll with piercing blue eyes wearing a bondage outfit which she is given as a gift to "protect her from harm".

Nothing terribly innovative by the film's halfway point, eh? Well, it's the execution and the accumulation of small details that make the film compellingly watchable. It successfully blends the supernatural and erotic in numerous moments that suffuse BABA YAGA with a miasma of disorienting pleasures. And even the most explicit moments leave enough to the imagination to be categorized as erotica, not pornography.

Also along for the ride is Euro-fave George Eastman as Valentina's boyfriend Arno, a director who vacillates between political activist films and TV soap commercials. As a character, he seems closest to the heart of director Farina, who stocks this film with all the elements that make BABA YAGA an exploitable product, but also has each of his characters at some point act as a mouthpiece for feminism, racial equality and tolerance toward political and sexual dissidents. One gets the impression, of course, that it's all in good fun, and the film is playful enough to laugh at itself occasionally without making fun of the material. All the performers look just right, and are so well cast that just standing there and looking off to one side conveys a world of comic-bookish inner workings on the other side of a page waiting to be flipped over. DeFunes resembles a much healthier version of Barbara Steele with a Louise Brooks wig, while Baker is borderline miscast, yet somehow manages to make the role work.

The film is also refreshingly free of the kind of tropes that alert viewers that something "weird" is happening; instead, the fuzzy logic of an erotic fever is achieved via the seamless link of one moment to the next by visual connections or incidents. BABA YAGA has all the visual trappings of a giallo, but none of the shock-generating concerns. A black-gloved hand rings a doorbell, a subjective point-of-view shot prowls toward a potential victim", bizarrely disorienting camera angles interrupt an otherwise standard dialogue scene in a cafe and Valentina even obsesses over a (possibly) half-remembered detail after scouring over some of her photos with a magnifying glass, amongst many other familiar elements, but these visual trappings are not (for the most part) played for their potential to horrify. In fact, the scene that generates the most unease comes late in the proceedings, when Valentina develops a roll of film from the cursed camera that were taken in the dark, apparently by the camera itself. The processed photos, when splayed out on the table, present a comic-book tableau of what happened in the impenetrable darkness that is at once both arousing and frightening.

When all is said and done, BABA YAGA is a visually fascinating film that questions whether the motivations of its protagonist are guided by a fear of the irrational or irrational fears (as related to the fear of being a lesbian). Like Radley Metzger's THE IMAGE and Just Jaeckin's THE STORY OF "O", it is a tale of the control, even mastery, of a situation a person can achieve by giving themself over to absolute submission and emerging transformed from the experience.

If all this sounds familiar, you're either a habitual illegal substance abuser or perhaps the owner of the previous Diamond DVD, which, besides sporting a hideous bootleg-quality transfer, eloquently retitled this flick KISS ME, KILL ME. If you own that disc and have any interest in this film whatsoever, please throw it away and give Blue Underground your hard-earned cash for their exemplary efforts. Letting gray-market scumbags like Diamond eat into the viewership of a legitimate release, which has been beautifully restored and adorned with cult-loving supplements like the ones provided here, is a sad alternative to supporting the legitimate conservation efforts that have been displayed on this disc.

First and foremost, BABA YAGA has been blessed with a 16x9-enhanced 1:85 transfer that is so good, it actually highlights a couple of flaws that are inherent in the film's original photography. There are a number of shots that exhibit brief "flashing", and in his interview segment (more on that in a moment), director Farina reveals that after his final cut was delivered, the film was re-edited by his producers, after which he was given a final-final cut. But since the negative had already been trimmed, he was limited in what he was able to restore. This leads to at least one jump-cut in the middle of a shot toward the film's climax, and the excision of even more nudity than was probably originally intended (restored for the first time, one supposes, in the supplements).

The extras begin with a fairly comprehensive 22-minute video interview with director Farina, in Italian with English subtitles. This is a well-edited monologue that manages to sneak in the brief Baker and DeFunes full-nude shots that were censored from all release versions (Baker's twice!). He talks candidly about his frustration with viewing the previous attempts of other directors to adapt comic-book characters to the cinema, which is what led to him tackling the labor himself in earnest with this, his second of only two feature-length projects. There's a refreshing honesty on display as he evaluates his film and its merits, while also giving very interesting insight into his casting decisions (including, in one important case, a decision he was barely allowed to make).

The interview is also a good primer for those unfamiliar with the 1960s comic-book scene and Crepax in particular, who is covered in slightly greater depth in Farina's documentary short from that period, FREUD IN COLOR, which Blue Underground has also graciously supplied on the disc. While analyzing Crepax's drawn frames and comparing them to their film counterparts (including a storyboard-to-clip comparison from Tinto Brass' COL CUORE IN GOLA that predates a common DVD function by about 30 years), the short also gives a quick historical overview of how comic art had been absorbed into the Italian zeitgeist.

One of the most eye-opening bonuses is 10 minutes of deleted and censored footage (yes, the brief full-frontal nude shots are here yet again) that appears to have been salvaged from a videotape transfer of a workprint. The first four minutes are a fully deleted scene that defies politically correct description out of context, but -if you like the film- will be a welcome inclusion. The rest is snippets of various lengths and substantiality from already existing scenes. There's also the standard photo and still gallery, which includes a comic book-to-film comparison that's a bit too small to appreciate on a standard-sized monitor (this extra is also offered as a DVD-ROM feature which, while probably more successful and substantial, I was unable to test out). An entertaining trailer plays as a condensed version of the film that simultaneously shows everything and gives away nothing.

In summary, with BABA YAGA, you've got a great, underappreciated film with a wonderful transfer and just enough supplements to properly illuminate the material and place it in historical and artistic perspective. It's highly recommended to anyone with more adventurous tastes and ideas of what a horror film is capable of offering.


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