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OPERAZIONE PAURA (1966)
Director/Cinematographer: Mario Bava
Story: Roberto Natale and Romano Migliorini.
Screenplay: Mario Bava, Roberto Natale, and Romano Migliorini
Camera Operator: Antonio Rinaldi
Editing: Romana Fortini
Music: Carlo Rustichelli and Roman Vlad
Main Players: Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (Dr. Eswai); Erica Blanc (Monica); Giana Vivaldi [Giovanna Galetti] (Baroness Graps); Fabienne Dali (Ruth); Max Lawrence (Burgomaster Karl); Piero Lulli (Inspector Kruger); Giuseppe Addobbati (Innkeeper)
Alternate titles: Kill, Baby... Kill!; Curse of the Dead; Curse of the Living Dead; Operation Fear; Curse of Melissa
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (Matted to 2.1 Panoramico for Italian distribution)
SYNOPSIS:

Dr. Eswai, a coroner, arrives in a secluded Transylvanian village to perform an autopsy. At the inn, he meets with Inspector Kruger, who is investigating the death of a young girl who was employed as a maid at Villa Graps. The inspector has summoned Eswai to the village so that he can perform an autopsy on the girl, much to the dismay of the locals. With the assistance of Monica, who has just recently returned to the village for the first time since she was a child, Dr. Eswai performs the autopsy. They make an incredible discovery, namely the presence of a gold coin imbedded in the girl's heart. Monica reveals that this is consistent with local superstition. "Only with money in the heart," she says, "can one who meets a violent death ever rest in peace." The theme of greed, so central to Bava's work, factors into this film as well, so it is doubly ironic that money should be the only way to insure a peaceful afterlife in this particular narrative.

Following the autopsy, Eswai assists Monica back to her home. He his then attacked by several villagers, who swear vengeance on him for "profaning" the dead girl's body. Only the sudden appearance of a mysterious woman, clad enirely in black, saves the doctor. Before he can thank her, the woman disappears into the fog.

Back at the inn, Eswai receives a note instructing him to join Inspector Kruger at Villa Graps. When the doctor asks Nadine, the innkeeper's little girl, to direct him to the villa she warns him to stay away from the place. She then runs off in terror, begging the doctor to forget that she ever mentioned the place. Eswai then departs, and hen Nadine goes to lock the door behind him, she is terrified by the sight of a ghostly little girl, perring in at her through a window. She then tells her parents what she has seen, and so they send for Ruth, a sorceress who has the power to ward off evil spirits. When she arrives, it turns out to be the same black-clad young woman who had earlier saved Dr. Eswai from the vengeful villagers. Ruth says several prayers over the girl, before giving her a leech-vine to wear around her chest. As long as she wears this, Ruth promises, Nadine will be safe.

Villa Graps is surrounded by an aura of fear and mystery that the doctor is anxious to resolve. Years earlier, Baroness Graps placed a curse on the villagers when her little girl, Melissa, was trampled to death by drunken townspeople during the village festival. Now the ghost of little Melissa haunts the guilt-ridden people, and all who make mention of the Baroness and her child meet with violent ends.

At the villa, Eswai is confronted by the Baroness. Shut away from the outside world in a morbid environment dominated by black lace curtains and remnants of the past, the Baroness appears to be haunted by supernatural apparitions. She curtly tells the doctor that she never receives guests, denies any knowledge of Inspector Kruger's whereabouts, and slams the door in his face. The doctor then sees Melissa, who is dressed in a blindingly white dress and is bouncing a ball. He attempts to talk to her, refusing to believe the superstitions of the villagers, but she seems to disappear into thin air.

Meanwhile, Monica is plagued by nightmares. When she awakens, she finds a doll (similar to one which figured into her dream) laying at her feet. Terrified by this bizarre occurence, she flees from her home and runs into the doctor. Together they return to the inn. Monica confesses her fears to the doctor, who still stubbornly denies the existence of the supernatural. Like the characters of Gorobec and Kruveian in LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, Eswai places his faith in logic; like them, also, he will soon be forced to abandon these pre-held beliefs and notions when the supernatural forces become too tangibly real to explain away.

While Monica is shown to a room by the innkeeper, Eswai is distracted by moans coming from Nadine's bedroom. He goes in and sees the girl writhing about in the bed, apparently suffering from a fever. Pulling back the sheets, he discovers the leech-vine. Though her mother assures him that it is there for her own protection, the doctor removes it, angrily pointing out that Nadine would bleed to death if she kept it on. His care for the girl does no good, however, and later that night the ghost of Melissa reappears, compelling the girl to stab herself to death.

Eswai and Monica begin to delve even deeper into the mystery. A mysterious light appears in the cemetery, and when they go to investigate, they discover the body of Inspector Kruger, who has been shot in the head. Eswai brings the crime to the attention of burgomaster Karl, who reluctantly agrees to shed some light on the situation. After telling them the story of Melissa, the burgomaster then reveals that Monica is actually the dead girl's sister. Unfortunately, before he can produce Monica's birth certificate, he is driven to suicide when Melissa's ghost appears to him in the attic.

Monica then disappears, and Eswai returns to the villa in the hopes of finding her there. His suspicion is correct, though she is already in grave danger: the Baroness, her mother, has set Melissa's ghost against her. Yet, it is Ruth who puts an end to the Baroness' schemes. Spurned on by the death of the burgomaster -- her lover -- Ruth confronts the crazed Baroness, who mortally wounds her nemesis by plunging a poker into her ribs. With her last ounce of strength, Ruth stranfgles the countess to death; upon her death, Melissa's spirit is set free. Eswai and Monica are then free to leave the villa, and all of its unpleasant memories, behind them.


CRITIQUE:

OPERAZIONE PAURA is truly one of the last -- and best -- subtle pieces of horror filmmaking. In this case, Bava sets out to chill the audience instead of shocking them, and he does so admirably. The atmosphere he creates is so powerful that the film seems to exude a hypnotic, hallucinatory effect.

The elements of sex and sadism -- so central to SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO and LA FRUSTA E IL CORPO -- are down-played in favor of concentrating on supernatural dread. The villagers' guilt and fear are readily apparent from the beginning. The attempts of the coroner to shed the cold light of reason on the supernatural events is totally useless. The ghost is terrifyingly real and, though she never comes itno physical contact with her victims, her mere presence is enough to drive them to their deaths.

One of the most interesting things about this film is the way in which Bava inverts the conventional symbols of good and evil. The monster here is an angelic-looking little girl, clad entirely in white. The mere sight of this figure is enough to send the characters (and the audience) into a state of fear and anxiety. In this way, Bava is again able to delve into his obsession with the nature of appearances. The film is certainly not without sympathetic characters (in fact, one could argue that this is Bava's most humane horror film), but the actual hero is not the doctor -- likable he may be, but his actions have little positive effect, and he is actually responsible for at least one death -- but rather the black-clad witch. This clever inversion of conventional archetypes succeeds in giving the film a complexity that is quite beyond the simplistic narrative conventions of LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO.

Bava is sometimes criticized for depicting women as weak, even deserving, victims. This is an accusation which is commonly based on conjecture rather than objective observation, as a single viewing of this film makes readily apparent. More so than any of his other films, OPERAZIONE PAURA is driven onward by strong female characters: the vengeful spirit of Melissa, strong-willed medical student Monica, the witch, the Baroness, etc.

Like Freda's I VAMPIRI (1956), this film provides a brash commentary on the aristocracy. In I VAMPIRI it is the aged and selfish Duchess Du Grand who instigates the murders of various "commoners" in order that she can retain her beauty. The message is clear, and it provides a telling portrait of what privilege/social standing can breed when combined with moral bankruptcy. Bava uses much the same idea in this film, though his treatment of it is more complex and expansive. Baroness Graps is not only "bleeding" the poerty-stricken villagers dry, but she is using the enslaved spirit of her "favorite" daughter to act as an avenger. The little girl was accidentally killed by the drunken villagers, but the Baroness never explains where she was when all of this was happening; it was the neglectful parenting of the Baroness which made the accident possible. When Monica returns to the villa, the Baroness acts like the perfect mother, urging her to flee before the "evil" Melissa decides to kill them both -- the truth, of course, is that Melissa is powerless to act on her own, and only does what her demented mother tells her to do. Greed and insanity have totally distorted the Baroness's mind -- an idea rendered visually by Bava's use of fun-house imagery -- and she is even willing to kill her only surviving daughter in order to hold onto her power and authority. Locked away in a crumbling and decrepit mansion which symbolizes both her physical appearance and moral degradation, the Baroness punished innocent villagers from a crime they had no part in. The crimes that she commits through her daughter's ghost are symbolic of a tyrannical aristocracy struggling to keep their hold over an under-privileged populace.

OPERAZIONE PAURA is a masterful film in every respect, but perhaps Bava's greatest achievement is the way in which he makes the supernatural goings-on seem totally believeable. The characters have no particular depth, but the viewer genuinely cares about what is going to happen to them. The bleached colors of the landscape, the dead trees, swirling mists and creeping camera movements (all achieved in a mere 11 days of shooting!) help to create a powerfully morbid and unsettling atmosphere. It is as if the entire film is set in a graveyard in the middle of the night. Though seldom seen today (like most Bava films, one has to look for it), OPERAZIONE PAURA is nevertheless a masterpiece of its kind, and a textbook example of how to make a subtly scary horror film.


Review © Troy Howarth


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