Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Corrado Farina, 1973
Starring: Carroll Baker, George Eastman, Isabelle De Funes

Valentina is a party-loving fashion photographer in Milan. One night she decides to walk home from a party, partly to escape the aggressive attentions of filmmaker Arno. She has an accidental run-in in the dark with a Rolls Royce driven by the older, wealthy, and mysterious Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga may or may not be a witch and seems to have put a curse on Valentina's camera. She also has a bizarre sway over Valentina and a disturbing obsession with her that seems to be sexual in nature. Soon Valentina discovers that her beloved camera has the power to wound or kill and she is determined to find out the truth. Events quickly spiral out of control and propel the film into a surreal, dreamlike world. Of course, as we can all guess, Arno persistently ignores Valentina’s rebukes and must save her from a horrible, lesbian, sadomasochistic fate.

A cross between Eurohorror, erotica, and exploitation, I'm not really sure what genre Baba Yaga officially belongs to, but that's part of its charm. This is a love-it-or-hate-it Italian film in the same neighborhood as Lisa and the Devil, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Blood-Spattered Bride, or Daughters of Darkness. Loosely based on the Valentina comic strip by the late, great Guido Crepax – known for his erotic comics, particularly
 Histoire d'O – it is not quite a faithful adaptation, but remains a highly underrated, forgotten entry in European horror.

I can understand why Baba Yaga has not become a popular favorite. It has a slow pace, a difficult plot to follow, and an unclear conflict and resolution. I'm not sure that this will bother fans of ‘60s and ‘70s Eurohorror, but it is definitely not as well-known as something like Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, because it lacks explicit gore, highly stylized death scenes, or a suspenseful plot with plenty of twists and red herrings. For fans of Crepax, Baba Yaga doesn't really manage to capture Valentina, though I think it’s better to only consider the comics a loose inspiration.

Personally, I think this is a lovely film. It's perhaps best appreciated alone, on a dark, stormy night, when your mind is free to wander along with Valentina’s fantastic journey and appreciate the surreal dreaminess of the film. There are a lot of beautiful visuals, ranging from Valentina at work as a somewhat erotic fashion photographer, to a disturbing dream sequence where she is forced by a group of mutated Nazis to jump into a foreboding-looking hole in the ground.

Everything about Baba Yaga has a kind of confused quality that, for whatever reason, adds to its surreal charm. The casting is a mixed bag. Giallo actress Caroll Baker (So Sweet, So Perverse, Knife of Ice) is not old enough or frail enough to play an aging witch, though this adds to the surrealism of the film and she does manage to impart alternating currents of sexual attraction and menace. The inexperienced Isabelle de Funes seems vaguely unsure of where she is or what role she is playing, which ties in neatly with Valentina's larger issues of identity and sense of disorientation that pervades the film.

And though I LOVE (love love) George Eastman (you should know who he is if you consider yourself a horror fan), his character Arno represents my biggest qualms with the plot and writing. Initially Valentina asserts her sexual and emotional independence by turning down his advances and his desire for a relationship. She lives alone and seems content with her lifestyle and career ambitions. The film begins to walk the line of subversion when Valentina is clearly attracted to Baba Yaga, particularly her lifestyle of lesbianism, mysticism, and sadomasochism. But George Eastman has to come in and ruin everything, saving the day and reinstating heterosexual normative values into a film that seems so anxious to get away from them. However, if someone was going to start kicking down doors, taking names, and rescuing damsels in distress, it probably would be the multi-talented, 6’9” Eastman.

I would recommend this for fans of Italian cinema and Eurohorror, particularly if you like any of the films I mentioned above. If you're going to watch any version, make sure it is the Blue Underground release, which has a cleaned up print and includes the previously cut scenes of frontal nudity. There are also two documentaries, including a particularly good one about fumetti (Italian comics) and Crepax.

Note: Don’t confuse Baba Yaga with the Russian fairytale figure of the same name. While the tale always terrified me as a child and would have made an excellent horror film, it has no relationship to this film. But if you are at all interested in horror-themed folklore or fairytales, do read the tale and the Wikipedia entry linked above. 

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