Color, 1973, 83m.
Directed by Corrado Farina
Starring Carroll Baker, Isabelle de Funès, George Eastman, Ely Galleani
Blue Underground (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Shameless (UK R0 PAL), Surf (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Diamond, St. Clair (US R0 NTSC)
Sexy, bob-haired fashion photographer Valentina (de Funès) indulges in a swinging lifestyle of excess and delight with her latest colleague and sex partner, Arno (George Eastman, the Anthropophagus monster himself). One night in a scene reminiscent of Daughters of Darkness, she happens upon a wounded dog in the street and is approached by the chic and mysterious Baba Yaga (Baker), a blonde society woman in a limo. Later Baba shows up at Valentina's apartment during an erotic photo shoot and puts a strange curse on her camera. Faster than you can say Eyes of Laura Mars, Valentina is plagued by strange visions involving a leather-strapped doll that turns into a dominatrix succubus (Five Dolls for an August Moon's Galleani) and finds herself drawn to the house of this bewitching woman, who harbors more than a few kinky supernatural secrets of her own.
An especially odd entry in the line of Eurocult comic book adaptations (also including the likes of Diabolik and Satanik), the sex/horror madness of Baba Yaga (retitled Kiss Me, Kill Me for initial home video releases) must have been an impossible sell in the '70s. Still at the height of her continental exploitation career, actress and Hollywood expatriate Carroll Baker (who was busy in various gialli after Hollywood potboilers like Baby Doll and The Carpetbaggers) serves as the nominal marquee name for what amounts to an extended groovy mood piece, mixing together gothic horror and glossy S&M for an experience unlike any other.
This wild international production doesn't offer its actors much of opportunity to be more than moving mannequins in a string of shots modeled after the original fumetto (Italian comic) by Guido Crepax. That said, Baker - sometimes made up to look older than she really was at the time in a role originally intended for Anne Heywood, who bailed three days before filming - is a compelling presence as always and even dubs in her own voice. Also effective are the film's pop art editing techniques; the credits themselves are interspersed between jagged shots of a swinging party and comic book frames, while Valentina's visions are related by graphic art interpretations of images from the film. The ultimately aimless and nonlinear nature of the storyline is eventually consumed by the film's style, where the visual alignments of the actors' bodies and faces become more important than any kind of rational plotting. Another film based on the same character, the more traditional softcore outing Valentina, was later adapted in 1988 for Italian television and briefly appeared on U.S. home video in a condensed feature as well.
The first DVD on the market back in the late '90s was a bootleg from defunct outfit Diamond which oddly promoted this as an Umberto Lenzi production, perhaps confusing this with Paranoia or A Quiet Place to Kill (which teamed him up with Baker). For some reason Jean-Louis Trintignant's name also appears on the box. In any case, the disc is a wholesale rip of the long discontinued American VHS release from Paragon, right down to the tape dropouts and the sloppy computer generated title card.
A far superior official version came in 2003 with Blue Underground's widescreen presentation, which finally made sense of those frenetic compositions and dark night scenes. That DVD also contains an excellent video interview with the film's director, Corrado Farina, whose only other feature remains the astonishing and sadly underseen vampire social satire, Hanno cambiato faccia. He discusses his disappointment with previous comic adaptations (especially Barbarella), his original casting choices for the film including Elsa Martinelli and Stefania Casini, and his frustration when his approved final cut was chopped up behind his back, a situation which sent him protesting to the newspapers. Eventually the film was handed back to him but with a cut negative, so he had to assemble the third, final release cut in the form we now know it as today. Those unused scraps are presented in drastically inferior quality, in Italian with optional English subtitles. Some of the highlights include a truly mad opening sequence in a graveyard with a guy in a General Custer getup confronting a bare-breasted Indian woman (Marco Ferreri would've been proud) and some surprising deleted frontal nudity from both of the leading ladies. You also get a 12-minute short film about Crepax called "Freud in Color," the European trailer, a poster and still gallery, and a DVD-Rom comic-to-film comparison.
Interestingly, that wasn't even close to the end of the road for this weird little puppy. In 2009, the UK label Shameless unleashed Baba Yaga: The Final Cut, with Farina participating in new extras and integrating the cut footage back into the main feature. It's a pretty jagged experience as the picture quality shifts back and forth between the BU transfer and what essentially looks like a VHS workprint, but it's fascinating to see how it all might have played in its original form. This version runs 85 minutes in PAL, which would put it substantially longer if converted for NTSC. More significantly, the disc also offered the first chance to watch the film in either English or Italian with optional English subtitles; it's a toss up which is preferable, as you get Baker's actual voice in the former but far better vocal performances for everyone else in the latter. Either way, Piero Umiliani's Hammond Organ-laced score sounds great and really, really needs a full soundtrack release someday. Farina pops up for a completely different interview here (and a quick video intro), covering some of the same ground but talking in more detail about the film's distribution history and censorship problems. Also included are a pair of brief Farina-helmed video histories of fumetti, the trailer, a different gallery, and a text commentary track in subtitle form that starts off with very little actual information (mainly commenting on the action and comparing camera angles to TV's Batman), but it improves as it goes along and gets into a nice groove.
Finally in 2012 we reach the Blu-ray era, with Blue Underground surprisingly picking this one for the hi-def treatment way before finishing the Argento or Fulci catalogs. It's a welcome surprise to be sure, and the transfer is a striking example of how much better the same negative can look when transferred twice at opposite ends of a nearly decade-long period. Colors are far more intense, flesh tones look healthier, and black levels are deeper. It's never been the sharpest-looking film in the Italian cult drawer (and some of those scenes in Baba Yaga's lair have always been on the murky side), but it's nice to see it bumped up a few notches in quality. For the most part film grain looks fine throughout (and way more natural than the DVD), though a handful of shots look a little slicked down, like when Valentina first crouches down over the dog in the road. It's definitely on the better side of Italian-sourced HD transfers of late though and marks a substantial upgrade across the board. Interestingly, there's also a sliver more information on the left side of the frame and an equally miniscule amount missing on the right, for whatever reason. You can compare by checking out this frame grab from the Blu-Ray, compared to this frame frab from the DVD.
The audio options are also substantially beefed up here, with both the English and (for the first time in America) the Italian track provided in DTS-HD mono. Two optional English subtitles are provided, one for the English track and another, very different one translating the Italian dialogue; try flipping back and forth between the two for some interesting comparisons. Again, it's really a draw which one you listen to first, as they both have their merits. Additional subtitles are also provided in French and Spanish. Extras are identical to the prior DVD (and standard def), except the comic-to-film comparison is now its own step-through feature instead of a DVD-Rom bonus.
Updated review on February 1, 2012.