A Bay of Blood has drawn attention in recent years as a major influence on the slasher genre. It includes scenes that clearly were ripped off by inspired Friday the 13th, and it includes a "party in the cabin in the woods" scenario. I have to admit that I've never liked this film as much as others seem to but, now that I've seen it a few times, it's grown on me. One has to respect a film that can be this pessimistic and fatalistic. Plus, it racks up an impressive body count before most films have finished breakfast.
"Impressive" also describes the number of names by which this movie is known. The main title, at least on the edition reviewed, says A Bay of Blood. It is commonly referred to as simply Bay of Blood. The original Italian title is Reazione a catena, or "Chain Reaction." American releases generally go by the name Twitch of the Death Nerve, although the movie was at one point released as The Last House on the Left, Part 2. That last is unfortunately typical of the kind of treatment Mario Bava's work got.
The opening scene is long and leisurely. It tracks a wheelchair-bound woman as she rides through her large, well-appointed house. Stately background music combines with elegant furnishings to create a sense of class and to draw a picture of the elderly lady's quiet dignity. Then she is suddenly and horribly murdered, and all this comes to a crashing halt.
This is what to expect from A Bay of Blood and, in general, from Bava's work in the 1970s. His move away from Gothic horror is accompanied by an increase in cruelty and grim irony. He had no qualms about depicting gore and explicit violence, but neither could he be accused of glorifying it. No sooner does he allow the audience to build an emotional bond with a character than does he swiftly and coldly punch "delete" on them. This quality is rarely seen in the slasher films that owe so much to this. In those films, the victims tend to have distasteful personalities or simply to be characters that have not been developed to where they can be strongly identified with.
Character development is almost absent from A Bay of Blood. It's easily possible to sit through the entire movie without having learned a single character's name. The characters are merely functional and are there to drive such plot as there is. This may be related to the film's pessimistic viewpoint, as the characters are broadly drawn and are more or less all evil. Only those who come to party in the cabin seem reasonably sympathetic. Some are missing for most or all of the film: Others speak of them but no one can find them.
Mystery elements are dispensed with. Plot is dispensed with. Something about an inheritance and somebody doesn't want commercial development around the bay. The plot has several threads, but they're all very simple. There is an inheritance dispute involving the duchess slain in the opening scene. Resistance to development adds a layer of political intrigue. Some of these elements turn out to be red herrings, but more than one killer is at work, so there's no mystery to be solved: It's only live or die as several factions vie to kill each other off.
Bava creates shock through unexpected juxtapositions of images. One scene cuts from a shot of a beautiful woman to an extreme close-up of an octopus being bitten to death by a fisherman. The suddenness of the kills has a similar jarring effect and eliminates the "survivor" aspect common in slashers. The ironic murders create a sense of futility, as though survival is a pointless exercise. This is especially true at the surprising conclusion, in which the creepy little redhead from Deep Red appears.
Few victims even have a chance to flee, so there's little opportunity for dramatic chase scenes or stylized set-pieces. Murder here tends to be a quick snuffing out. Maybe that's why the film gives the impression of having a lower body count than it does. The murders are gruesome, but they're not lingered over.
A Bay of Blood lacks the beautiful cinematography so often seen in Bava's work. It may be that the edition viewed was just a poor-quality print. The picture is not very crisp and the colors sometimes appear washed out. Hopefully, that's a problem that will be corrected in more recent or future editions.
A wicked sense of poetic justice accompanies Bava's irony. The elderly lady's killer is himself done in, within seconds, by an unknown assailant. Fossati is rightly criticized for killing animals under the pretense of scientific research; Fossati himself dies, while other characters are pinned like the insects he studies.
I find this movie's fatalism quite endearing. One exchange in particular seems to sum up the attitude expressed by Bava in this film and his later works:
Fossati: "We have centuries of civilization behind us, you know."
Simon: "No, I don't know. I wasn't there."
Bava seems to take a dim view of the idea that mankind has evolved. It's as though we're barely removed, and perhaps not at all removed, from cavemen who brain each other with clubs. No doubt this is why medieval-style weapons are used in some of the murders. This may also reflect in the way that his earlier Gothic works typically used a plot in which some ancient evil has returned to terrorize present-day denizens. It's as though Bava wants to remind us that our violent history is never far away and is always ready to strike.