Film historians and critics generally agree that the golden age of Italian horror cinema occurred between 1957-1966. The timeframe suggests that as the Swinging Sixties came to a sobering end film audience’s lost interest in baroque Gothic thrillers. This was undoubtedly due to several factors including increasing familiarity with repetitive genre devices as well as the widespread consumption of television that projected tangible horrors, such as the Vietnam War and the public assassinations of admired political figures, into everyone’s home.

Mario Bava’s KILL, BABY… KILL! aka OPERAZIONE PAURA (‘60) is often singled out as one of the last masterworks produced during Italian horror’s golden age and you can currently catch it on FilmStruck as part of the streaming service’s “Directed by Mario Bava” theme. The film’s reputation is largely due to its early recognition among critics and its widespread influence among many highly esteemed directors including Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg, Roman Polanski, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese.

Beginning with the grisly death of a young woman who appears to impale herself on the sharp spikes of an iron fence during a deadly fall, KILL, BABY… KILL! plunges viewers into a macabre nightmare that defies logic and embraces ambiguity. Was she murdered by an unseen assailant or was it suicide? These questions plague the residents of a small Carpathian village, none more so than Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) who requests the help of a coroner (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) and a medical student (Erika Blanc) to help him investigate the women’s suspicious death. During the examination, they confront superstitious locals who suggest supernatural forces are at work but as they attempt to discover the truth they are pulled deeper and deeper into the mystery surrounding a witch (Fabienne Dali) and a ghostly little girl (Valerio Valeri – a young boy dressed as a girl).

Bava’s dazzling color photography and creative special effects afford the film a more sumptuous look than its $50,000 budget and 2-4 week shooting schedule would suggest. The director creatively framed the small sets borrowed from other low-budget Italian productions (TERROR-CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE [’65] and BLOODY PIT OF HORROR [‘65]) in a way that creates the illusion of an expansive space filled with mountain ranges and hidden valleys. The fictitious Carpathian village, with its rustic buildings, crumbling church towers and fog-shrouded cemetery, has an otherworldly look and feel but it is grounded by the archaic cast of characters that inhabit it.

The film was based on a script by Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale and inspired by classic Gothic literature including Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe who enjoyed describing the psychological horrors inflicted on his protagonists in similar dilapidated settings. Film historians and critics such as Roberto Curti (author of Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1957-1969) and Tim Lucas (author of Mario Bava – All the Colors of the Dark) have also suggested that KILL, BABY… KILL! was influenced by previous films including Fritz Lang’s M (’31), Roy William Neil’s THE SCARLET CLAW (’44), Mervyn LeRoy’s THE BAD SEED (’56), Wolf Rilla’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (’60), Brunello Rondi’s IL DEMONIO (’63) and Fellini’s JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (’65).

My own research, which I first documented six years ago in a review of VOICES (’73), has led me to believe that the work of Richard Lortz may have also been an influence on KILL, BABY… KILL! as well. Lortz is an undervalued American author and playwright who wrote a number of inventive paranormal tales and was employed by CBS television in the 1950s. One of his first teleplays was for the CBS series SUSPENSE (’49-’54) titled THE OTHERS (’53) and it told the story of a young couple named Claire and Robert who visit a recently purchased country estate during a blizzard and discover that it is occupied by ghosts. Lortz developed his teleplay into a popular stage play which he retitled Voices and it was performed by international theater companies including London’s Strand Theatre during the 1960s before it was finally adapted for the screen in 1973. Information about Lortz is scarce but his work has been published in France so it’s possible that the film’s writers or even Bava himself was familiar with it. One particularly relevant scene in THE OTHERS/VOICES describes an encounter with a young female ghost wearing a Victorian period dress:

CLAIRE: isolates the voice and sound (of a bouncing ball) coming from the exit door, R(ight). She crosses fearfully, pushes door open, backs away from what she sees, stopping far L(eft). The thudding suddenly stops, and a large grey ball bounces from inside the door across the stage.

JESSICA: enters in search of the ball. She is a little girl about nine to twelve, entirely grey or colorless. She finds the ball, bounces it twice, pauses, looks out the window, begins to recite a poem to herself aloud.

If you’ve seen KILL, BABY… KILL! this scene from Lortz’s play will be very familiar. One of the most recognizable and iconic images Bava conjured up in this benchmark of Italian horror cinema is of a young female ghost named Melissa Graps (Valerio Valeri) who is also deathly pale, dressed in period clothing and carries a toy ball. She similarly enjoys peering in and out of windows.

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In KILL, BABY… KILL! the spectral fair-haired child is a vengeful phantom that haunts the inhabitants of the village who refused to come to her aid after she was trampled by horses. At the dead girl’s home her eerie portrait, which resembles a 17th-century Spanish painting or Dutch vanitas, suggests that she may have had occult knowledge. This is further implied by the villager’s unspoken fears reflected in the face of Melissa’s grieving mother (Giovanna Galletti) who mourns her daughter by keeping the girl’s cobweb-covered room intact and watched over by a harem of spooky dolls.

The image of a demonic, pale young girl with long fair-hair or more simply, the ominous toy ball she carries with her that seems to evoke death with its skull-like shape, have become synonymous with horror cinema. They have reappeared frequently in some of the genre’s best and most celebrated films including Fellini’s TOBY DAMMIT (’67), George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (’68), Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW (’73), Roman Polanski’s THE TENANT (’76), Richard Loncraine’s FULL CIRCLE (’77), Peter Medak’s THE CHANGELING (’80) and Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (‘80).

There are many reasons to appreciate KILL, BABY… KILL! but the impact of Bava’s mysterious little Melissa Grapp shouldn’t be underestimated. She has been called Bava’s “greatest monster” and her ghostly apparition continues to terrify audiences and inspire filmmakers around the world.

by Kimberly Lindbergs

Originally written for FilmStruck.com