Color, 1970, 81m.
Directed by Mario Bava
Starring William Berger, Ira von Furstenberg, Edwige Fenech, Maurice Poli, Howard Ross, Ely Galleani, Helena Ronee
Arrow Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC),Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC), Cecchi Gori (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Image (US R0 NTSC) (1.85:1)
Italian horror legend Mario Bava's oddest thriller, Five Dolls for an August Moon was more often discussed than actually seen for decades. Shot under rushed and discouraging conditions, barely released, and dismissed by the director himself, the film has enjoyed a much sunnier reputation in recent years thanks to its gaudy parade of eye candy and easygoing lounge atmosphere. This is more of a tasty bon bon for seasoned Euro fanatics than a suitable entry into Bava's cinematic universe, so don't necessarily expect to fall in love with it on first viewing... though many have, and with good reason.
The circuitous (and largely irrelevant) plot follows a group of people isolated at an ultra-modern beach house on an island, where the well-to-do guests revel in jazzy, twisted party games when they're not too busy trying to wrench a secret new chemical formula from its inventor, Gerry Farrell (Keoma's Berger). Though everyone is ostensibly paired off with a partner, flirting and infidelity become the order of the day until someone decides to resort to murder... and one by one, the guests' bodies wind up stashed in plastic wrapping and hung in the meat freezer. As the body count rises, tensions and distrust lead to fist fights, suicides, and an ironic final twist.
The dreamy tone of Five Dolls can be a strange sensation at first as the film bizarrely avoids graphic violence and lurid sex (though there is some blood and bare flesh) and instead presents the corpses as tableaux discovered by the characters; whether sprawled on the beach, floating in a bathtub, or most memorably lashed to a tree and transfixed with a knife, each body becomes a mounting black joke as the soundtrack glimmers with Piero Umiliani's delicious, feverish beat score. Though each actor is basically cast as a familiar "type" (the scheming wife, the snotty businessman, the swarthy gigolo), everyone looks terrific and seems to be having a good time. Chief among these is frequent giallo muse Edwige Fenech, who steals the opening party sequence by dancing with wild abandon, slurping down cocktails, and generally kicking off the proceedings with an air of wicked good humor. Though his heart was supposedly not in the project, Bava nevertheless invests the Ten Little Indians-inspired narrative with some terrific flourishes, such as the kinky shots of lovers passing cigarettes with their toes in bed and the oft-admired, astounding sequence of a dish of glass balls clattering down a flight of stairs until they reach a bloody bathtub.
The first widely circulated English edition of Five Dolls came on British VHS courtesy of Redemption, with an American DVD from Image appearing in 2001. Vibrantly colorful and well framed at 1.85:1 but sadly not anamorphic, the transfer features both the English-dubbed soundtrack (sometimes in sync with the multinational actors but rather tinny sounding) and the more poetic Italian dialogue track, complete with newly translated, optional English subtitles (plus an isolated music and effects track for good measure, but the fantastic soundtrack is more satisfying). Furthermore the print contained an extended end credits sequence omitted from all previous video transfers along with the familiar play out music following the end credits, which has since become the standard for subsequent video releases as well. Obviously supplements for this barely distributed film are limited, but the disc does come with liner notes from Tim Lucas filled with some amusing anecdotes, as well as other Bava trailers and filmographies for Bava, Fenech, and Umiliani.
The film was given a complete overhaul in 2007 when Anchor Bay acquired it for their second Mario Bava collection, strangely paired up on the same disc with Bava's stylish sex comedy Four Times That Night. It's completely no frills, and while the transfer was finally anamorphic (with the English and Italian audio options again), it was an overall disappointment with boosted brightness and a blue tint slathered over most of the film, sapping away some of the other colors completely. Yes, there is some significant use of the color blue for mood purposes, but not that much. The same box set also contained Bava's groundbreaking gore masterpiece the following year, A Bay of Blood, for which this film could be seen as a more genteel test drive.
Flash forward to 2013, and the film finally got a little more respect as a standalone release again from Kino Lorber in separate Blu-ray and DVD configurations. Thankfully the third time's charm as far as the transfer goes; the colors are better than ever and finally look like the riotous cinematic candy jar the film really is when seen in 35mm. Along with A Bay of Blood, this is at the top of the label's Bava titles in terms of A/V quality. (It's worth noting that a small handful of exterior night shots have a scratch running through them; this is how the film has always looked, and this flaw was apparently in the original negative based on its history.) The English track is presented in LPCM mono and sounds solid as well, better than past releases though still a bit flat and sometimes slightly damaged; while that's the more legitimate option in terms of the actor's performances, the Italian track is dropped this time which will probably annoy some fans and give this release its one minor strike. On the other hand you get a brand new audio commentary track from Tim Lucas who goes into great detail about the strange circumstances under which this "misunderstood" project originated (with the giallo craze suddenly kicked back into gear by the arrival of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage). Among the other tidbits, you'll learn that this was the only film Bava edited himself, he managed to mimic a Steadicam years before it was actually invented, the name on a crucial check in the film actually belonged to one of the crew members, and the striking Ely Galleani (Baba Yaga) now works as an accountant. There's also a nifty interpretation of a Kandinsky painting seen in one of the bedrooms, too, as well as use of the great phrase "salmon pink Buddha," which deserves to find a place in common conversation. As with their other Bava titles, trailers are included for Black Sunday, Baron Blood, Lisa and the Devil, and House of Exorcism.
Nearly three years later in early 2016, Arrow Films took its own stab at the film as a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition sporting a very similar HD transfer obviously from the same source. (Frame grabs seen in the body of this review are from the Arrow release.) Color timing is identical (as are the in-camera anomalies we've always had), and the framing matches up as well. However, the mild letterbox bands are more evenly distributed on the Arrow, while the Kino Lorber has a very slight horizontal squishing that wouldn't even be noticeable if you didn't look at both side by side. The usual LPCM English audio is presented here along with SDH English subtitles; more importantly you also get, at last, the Italian audio in lossless LPCM with optional English subtitles. Directly translated from the Italian dialogue, these are the most accurate to date and even go the extra mile by translating that catchy Balletto di Bronzo song at the end, "Ti Risveglrai Con Me." The Italian version sounds really robust, far more so than the English track, with the music in particular having a lot more dynamic range and presence; definitely the way you'll want to go with a first viewing, but both are worth checking out. The very elusive English trailer pops up here for only the second time (after bowing on Arrow's Black Sunday Blu-ray), and the excellent Lucas commentary is ported over here as well along with the isolated music and effects track. Also included is the familiar Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre documentary, a very solid intro to the master's work and a regular fixture on past Bava sets and standalone DVDs. Admirers like John Carpenter, Tim Burton, and Joe Dante do a fine job of explaining the director's creative resourcefulness and influence, which should be enough to encourage anyone to seek out more of his titles. The usual reversible sleeve showcases new artwork by Graham Humphreys and the original poster design, while the insert booklet features a new essay about the film by Glenn Kenny and an Adrian Smith piece about the Fancey family who brought this and other exotic exploitation imports to UK shores. A real kick, this undervalued film may be an acquired taste but it just keeps getting better with age.
KINO LORBER BLU-RAY
Updated review on February 8, 2016.