A former painter whose cinematic compositions were often as lush and gorgeous as any portrait, Italian cinematographer-turned-director Mario Bava developed a reputation as a master celluloid illusionist in addition to creating some of the most gothic and haunting films in Italian cinema history. His influence passing down through such directors as Dario Argento and Martin Scorsese decades after his death, Bava's skill at matte painting and camera trickery earned him a reputation as one of the most resourceful directors of his generation.
The son of painter-turned-cinematographer Eugenio Bava (who photographed such silent era epics as Quo Vadis?  in addition to serving as special-effects technician on the same year's Cabiria), Mario spent his youth immersed in film, eventually following in his father's footsteps after serving as his assistant for many years. Instilled with a strong sense of composition and a solid understanding of optical effects, Mario set about directing a series of short films before embarking on a successful career as a cinematographer. Bava Refined his skills for such directors as Jacques Tourneur and Riccardo Freda, and it was Freda who would ultimately give Bava his break as a director while shooting I, Vampiri (released stateside as The Devil's Commandment). Historically significant as the first Italian horror film of the sound era, Bava overtook directing duties following Freda's abandonment of the project after being denied an extension. After filming half of the film's 12-day schedule in a mere two days, Bava received a reputation as the man to call if a film needed rescuing. Though the film only found moderate success, it inspired a slew of gothic-themed horror films and Bava continued to salvage numerous films. Credited with saving Tourneur's La Battaglia di Maratona before once again being called upon to step in for Freda to salvage Caltiki (both 1959), Caltiki's producer was so grateful that he offered Bava the opportunity to make his directorial debut with the project of his choice. A follower of Russian literature, Bava utilized Nikolai Gogol's Vij and his affection for the lavish films of Hammer Studios as the springboard to what would become one of the finest films of his career, La Maschera del Demonio (Black Sunday). The resulting film, with its striking gothic visuals, superb black-and-white photography, and otherworldly beauty of star Barbara Steele, launched Bava's career full force and found international success. As beautiful as that film was, it was in color that Bava would create some of his most painterly and memorable images.
Utilizing primary colors to depict Hercules' journey into the depths of hell in Ercole al centro della terra (Hercules in the Haunted World) (1961) as well as recapturing the gothic sensibilities of Maschera in such films as the controversial La Frusta e il Corpo (The Whip and the Body), I Tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath) (both 1963), Operazione Paura (Curse of the Living Dead) (1966), and Gli Orrori del castello di Norimberga (Baron Blood) (1972), Bava would also gain credit as one of the forefathers of the lucrative Italian giallo film, named after the lurid crime novels that served as inspiration for the films. Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace) once again found Bava inspiring a popular trend in contemporary cinema, though as with Maschera, he would continue to explore new realms of film instead of becoming pigeonholed into one specific genre. Later tackling such genres as science fiction (1965's Terrore nello spazio [Planet of the Vampires]) and pop art (1966's Spie vengono dal semifreddo [Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs]), and 1968's Diabolik (Danger: Diabolik), the beauty of Bava's strikingly visual films could almost be considered paintings brought to life.
Such later Bava films as Antefatto (Bay of Blood) (1971) would predate the trend of American slasher films such as Friday the 13th (1980) by nearly a decade, with Friday and its sequels lifting many elements directly from Bava's film. Bava's last proper film as a director was the 1977 supernatural thriller Shock (released in the U.S. as the sequel to Beyond the Door), a project on which the veteran director offered his son Lamberto the opportunity to develop his skills by directing numerous scenes. Though Bava's style was unquestionably a key factor in inspiring the films of Dario Argento, the two unfortunately only worked together on one film. As an uncredited visual effects artist on Argento's Inferno (1980), Bava aided in creating one of cinema's closest equivalents to a nightmare captured on film.
Long after his death in 1980 resulting from a heart attack, Bava's legacy would live on through both his son and a "lost" film that never saw the light of day in his own lifetime. Though he had completed principal photography on Cani Arabbaiti (Rabid Dogs, later re-edited under the title Kidnapped), the death of one of its financers resulted in a freezing of the funds intended to complete the film and the film being locked away in a vault never to see completion. In 1998 an Italian film company acquired the funding to purchase the film and commenced to edit and release it on DVD to the joy of Bava fanatics worldwide. A nihilistic journey into the dark heart of greed and the grim effects it has on the motivations of humankind, Cani Arabbaiti showcased Bava at his nail-biting best as well as his remarkable versatility by providing a stark contrast to the films that established him as a master of gothic cinema.