Mario Bava is known to have referred to Rabid Dogs as his favorite of all his works. How discouraging it must have been to see its fate: The production company went bankrupt while it was still in the editing process, and the film went unfinished and unreleased during Bava's lifetime. It was only through the efforts of actress Lea Lander that it was completed, twenty years later, and given a European release.
Alfred Leone, Bava's US distributor, noted this. He had the film re-edited, re-dubbed, and scored with a contemporary soundtrack. This new version, which includes some additional scenes shot by Bava's son, Lamberto, is the one titled Kidnapped. The good news is that the currently available DVD includes both versions, so there's no need to choose.
The best news is that the thing's available. We tend to agree with Bava's opinion of this as his favorite. It occupies an unusual place in his oeuvre for a number of reasons. As varied a set of titles as he'd worked on, this is his only crime drama. This is also harder than his previous work. It doesn't have the gore of Bay of Blood, but it nevertheless ventures further into Last House on the Left territory. And finally, it doesn't have the look of his earlier movies. There are no Gothic settings, dark shadows, or spacious mansions here: Most of the film takes place in the claustrophobic confines of a car interior. The camera is pressed right up into the actors' faces.
The film begins with a robbery. Four bandits go after a company's payroll, but the heist is messy and people are killed. Security guards fire shots that cripple the getaway car and kill its driver, and the police are not far behind. Ducking into a parking garage, the thieves take a hostage and change cars. The police know about the new car, so the thieves must change again. Riccardo, played by Riccardo Cucciolla, is the luckless guy who is sitting at a red light when the gang pulls up, and his schedule is about to get cleared out for the day. He had a pretty important errand, though: His passenger is a sedated young boy who was being taken to the hospital for emergency surgery to save his life. Riccardo pleads with the gang to let him go, but they refuse. They have already lost one of their own number, and they don't care who else dies. Just in case anyone forgets, they emphasize this repeatedly.
The film up to this point has been a fast-paced action movie. Now the pace chills, and the film turns psychological. A tense atmosphere is further fueled by paranoia as the gang is suspicious of Riccardo's calm in the face of danger. Riccardo is cool-headed and pragmatic and complies with their requests and directions, but his subtle criticisms and refusal to fall for their psychological tactics infuriate the three. Maria, the hostage (Lea Lander), meanwhile panics dangerously.
It is a race against time for all involved. The safety of Riccardo, Maria and the boy Tino depends on Riccardo's ability to cooperate and get the thieves past the manhunt and roadblocks. This issue is complicated by Tino's condition and by Maria's status as the lone woman in a car full of cold killers. The two younger bandits, Trentadue, or "Thirty two" (George Eastman), and Bisturi, or "Stiletto" (Don Backy), punctuate their "Royale with cheese" conversations with cruel threats.
The group escapes to country roadways. Once the immediate threat of capture disappears, the robbers start to relax and turn their attention toward Maria, who now is in even greater danger. Rape looms as a distinct possibility. Doc (Maurice Poli), the gang's leader and the eldest and most clear-headed of the three, struggles to keep the two hotheads from attracting undesired attention.
That's a tall order. At a highway rest stop, Trentadue picks up a bottle of scotch and meets Marisa, a friend of Riccardo's. The combination of the booze and the sight of Marisa's ample cleavage sends Trentadue out of control. This increasingly unstable situation divides the gang, and an irritating, Kathy Griffin-like character is unfortunate enough to wander into the mix.
The script makes the most of its limited setting and pulls a lot of drama out of a minimalistic plot. Tension builds as the robbers indulge in increasingly cruel mind games. The situation is like a box of dynamite that needs only a tiny spark to be set off, and Stiletto and Trentadue find hilarity in throwing lit matches at it.
The robbers, especially the younger two, engage in a sort of animal cruelty reminiscent of The Last House on the Left. They humiliate Maria, psychologically torment their hostages, and laugh lustily over the whole thing. Remorse is not part of their skill set, but they do have a sense of horror at some of their own actions, as though they get caught up in the moment and only later realize what they've done.
Eastman and Backy play their roles with fearsome gusto. Backy gives the film a level of depth by hinting at a hidden tortured side to Bisturi, even as he does his share of the torturing. Riccardo and Doc are both strong-willed and level-headed leaders who are evenly matched opponents, except that Doc has sidekicks and a gun. Lander brings unpredictability to her role. There's always a threat that Maria could do something unexpected, like jump out the window. Maria is complemented by the two younger thieves, who seem perpetually on the verge of erupting into violence.
General opinion is that Rabid Dogs is the better of the two versions, but there's little difference. Rabid Dogs sets a tone with a better title sequence and a soundtrack more suggestive of jangled nerves. Both soundtrack versions apparently were done by Stelvio Cipriani. There is a slight difference in translation, as the subtitles are slightly more vulgar in Rabid Dogs. Kidnapped includes additional footage that amounts to a few short, unintrusive scenes that set up the surprise ending. They're not necessary, and they slightly disrupt the film's flow, but they're otherwise not objectionable.
The ending is the cruelest blow of all. It's truly unexpected, and it changes the nature of everything previously seen. Few conclusions could be blacker or more pessimistic than this. If Bava's 1970s output tends toward a bleak view of mankind's violent nature, the ending of Kidnapped is the grimmest resignation to that nature in all of his work.