Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
Whenever horror geeks decide to engage in discussion of the slasher genre, and especially when they try to determine what truly was the first real “slasher movie,” discussion inevitably turns at some point to Mario Bava’s deeply influential giallo film A Bay of Blood. At once a twisty murder mystery and a showcase for gore-streaked special effects that would come to typify American slashers in the decade to follow, it’s easy to see why A Bay of Blood has been cited by so many as a true slasher, especially if you’re only looking at the substance of its kills. When viewed from a wider perspective, however, it still doesn’t quite make it there—as we concluded in our own investigation to determine the first true slasher, A Bay of Blood is in “close, but no cigar” territory. It stands out as an important innovator, but is ultimately its own, strange beast.
Better known abroad under the (admittedly awesome) title of Twitch of the Death Nerve, A Bay of Blood represented a shift in the oeuvre of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, and an evolution of his country’s horror genre in a far more lurid and shameless direction. Bava’s earlier works, such as Blood and Black Lace, had been instrumental to creating the tropes of giallo, the crime/suspense films that proliferated in Italy in the 1960s/1970s in particular, and his additional work on supernatural horror flicks like Black Sunday and Black Sabbath would inform the supernatural horrors of directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci to come. Bava was, in effect, the godfather of Italian horror in this period, and one of the greatest cinematography talents in Italian history, but A Bay of Blood saw him pushing the boundaries of good taste in a direction that was frankly shocking for the era. It was exactly that kind of tasteless exploitation of violence that would eventually be enshrined within the slasher film, and beloved by fans to this day.
In terms of structure, A Bay of Blood is most definitely giallo—it begins with an aging countess and her husband being murdered, immediately establishing a mystery killer, which is an indispensable aspect of the genre. Unlike many other giallo, though, we aren’t following a police investigation here, or a falsely accused everyman—rather, the cast of characters are primarily a bunch of local kooks who all have a vested interest in the ownership of the titular bay, which will be passed down as an inheritance from the murdered countess. As estranged and greedy relatives come crawling out of the woodwork and begin clashing with locals, it begs the obvious question: Who wants the bay badly enough to kill for it?
This sort of down-to-earth, rational motivation for the subsequent slayings is one of the factors that ultimately disqualifies A Bay of Blood from coming off as a true slasher, in which the killings are almost always committed thanks to straight-up psychopathy or generic possession by evil. There’s also no real example of a “final girl” to be found—as in Bava’s own Blood and Black Lace, this ends up being a film about a bunch of self-destructive, greedy people, without so much as a true protagonist. Instead, Bava is spinning a parable about the disgustingly duplicitous behavior that greed so easily produces in the human soul.
With that said, there are so many individual elements here that would go on to become staples of the slasher genre that you really have to call them out. Most of these elements revolve around a group of four horny teens who traipse into the story after hearing about the initial murder and wanting to “check things out,” just so they can be colorfully dispatched by the mystery killer before they’ve lingered on screen for too long. These kids truly do feel like prototypes for the myriad horny teen victims of the 1980s, and their just desserts could have been suffered by any of their brethren in the Friday the 13th series in particular. For the 20 or so minutes that these characters are involved, A Bay of Blood is almost indistinguishable from a Friday movie, as we see the killer’s first-person perspective prowling around the cabin as he gruesomely picks them off one by one. Slasher comparisons focus heavily on these kills, and rightly so—two of them were ultimately stolen verbatim by Friday the 13th Part 2 a decade later, including the billhook to the face (it becomes a machete wielded by Jason) and the instantly iconic impalement of two lovers mid-coitus. Believe it or not, A Bay of Blood actually renders both of those kills in a slightly more grisly manner than the more infamous series to come.
Those brief spurts of inspired mayhem are what will likely stick in the mind of the viewer long after taking in Bava’s A Bay of Blood, rather than the scheming local eccentrics or corrupt real estate developers who are willing to go on a killing spree in order to inherit a nice piece of waterfront property. Buoyed by top-notch blood effects and an ending so absurdly amusing that you can’t help but laugh your way through the credits, it set the stage for gory masterpieces from the likes of Lucio Fulci that would continue to push Italian horror toward the outer edges of extremity in the 1970s and 1980s.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.