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RETROSPECTIVE: COMIC BOOK EROTIC HORROR IN “BABA YAGA” (1973)

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 | Retrospective

BABA YAGA (1973)
Starring: Carroll Baker, Isabelle De Funès, George Eastman
Directed By: Corrado Farina
Written By: Corrado Farina
Cinematografica Productions

Finally made some time to catch up with this 70s Italian oddity, one of the many attempts at the time to adapt comic book/graphic novel source material into a live-action film. Was it a success? Well, it certainly was different!

Valentina Rosselli (Isabelle De Funès) is a free-spirited, liberated woman who works as a fashion photographer (and occasional photojournalist). On a late night walk through the city (“3 a.m., the foggiest time of night”) she runs into a wealthy older woman calling herself Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker) who seems to take a romantic interest in her (“our meeting was preordained”), borrows a garter clip from her, seems to cast a spell on Valentina’s camera (“the eye that freezes reality”) when she visits her studio, and eventually gifts her with a strange doll garbed in fetish gear and named “Annette”. As people she photographs begin to suffer accidents and deaths, Valentina and her current lover Arno (George Eastman) enter Baba Yaga’s strange mansion Villa Villini, in search of clues…

“like BARBARELLA but with Gothic imagery instead of SF”

Based on the erotic adventure comic series VALENTINA by Guido Crepax, the best way to understand this film is that it’s something like BARBARELLA (1968) but with Gothic imagery instead of Science Fiction (or 1968’s DANGER: DIABOLIK with sexploitation horror instead of anti-hero pulp) . The shots are frequently composed to mirror comic panels, and Valentina’s dream sequences and erotic fantasies are often inter-cut with Crepax’s own panels (“even funnies can be revolutionary” we’re told, “even Snoopy, in his way, is anti-establishment”) and there are other graphic art references (like an Expressionist Film Festival scene with clips from DER GOLEM from 1920). Those expecting a deep story (or even traditional storytelling), should be warned ahead of time that BABA YAGA is (like a lot of European cinema) more interested in artistic images, surfaces and dream-like psychology (there’s a very nice sequence of a discussion initially framed with shots of food and cigarettes) than the traditional set-’em up and knock ’em down plotting. Having said that, I found this quite enjoyable.

Baba Yaga obviously has bad intentions from the start, but the film has an almost fable-like quality (while still remaining grounded, at least in discussions and imagery, in the political reality and situations of the time – Valentina is pro-Revolution) that makes such assumptions on the audiences part feel like playing along with the game, just as we understand that creeping around an old mansion is supposed to be “scary”. Baker (whose voice often has a subtle, echoing audio treatment) is good as the witch woman, De Funès is a dead-ringer for the illustrated Valentina (whose look was modeled on silent film star Louise Brooks) and Eastman is stolid as the reliable Arno (in the comics, Valentina started out as the lover of superhero character Neutron!). The whole presentation is well-served by a wonderfully funky and percolating Piero Umiliani score. Is it “scary”? Not really, falling more on the fun and eerie Gothic end of things, but there are lots of great atmospheric details, like the creepy “Annette” (whose eventual dispatch is another great scene) and a bottomless hole in the floor of the mansion. Besides: “Witches don’t exist…if it’s anything, it’s the world we’re living in…”

Shawn Garrett
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD, the premiere horror fiction podcast, and is either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious – be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer – he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and watching movies.