Time to expose the greatest conspiracy of contemporary cinema: Although film historians and critics have spent decades trying to conceal the truth, the auteur theory was really invented for the vindication of Mario Bava, an Italian maestro of the macabre, who mostly made disreputable yet genial genre pictures on a budget for which mere mortals like us couldn’t be bothered to videotape our brother’s wedding. Born in 1914, the year his father, Eugenio, was cinematographer of the silent classic Cabiria, Mario first followed his dad’s career path. By the late 1950s, Bava did directorial clean-up duty on troubled productions, notably Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959), a cheap yet typically stylish and ingenious Italo answer to The Blob, before debuting officially — and masterfully — with Black Sunday (1960). Up to his death (from a heart attack in 1980), the shy, modest Bava hardly thought of a celluloid afterlife. Rather, he assumed his films (around 20) were heading for the trash heap of cinema. But Bava’s allure has only grown and has spawned a sizable cult. The aptly titled Cinematheque series “Mario Bava: Poems of Love and Death” offers ample proof why: Born with a painter’s eye, Bava was (almost) incapable of framing an uninteresting shot, and he clearly believed in his threadbare tales — a necessity for great horror filmmaking. Although he ennobled any genre — his sex comedy Four Times That Night (1972) is something of a pop-art Rashomon; his only big-budget effort, the comic book spy fantasia Danger: Diabolik (1968) is worthy of the silent French master Louis Feuillade — Bava belongs foremost to the niche of nightmares, which he imbued with distinctive, otherworldly color schemes and a romantic sense of doom. His is a world where (in 1966’s metaphysical masterpiece Kill Baby, Kill!) one child impales itself at the behest of another’s vengeful ghost, and where (in 1963’s sadomasochist apotheosis The Whip and the Body)the incomparable Daliah Lavi writhes in ecstatic agony under the lashes of lover Christopher Lee. In passing, Bava invented the “giallo” horror-thriller (starting with 1963’s nimble Hitchcock parody, The Girl Who Knew too Much) and the slasher flick (with 1971’s A Bay of Blood). But when necessary, he could make do with a few papier-mâché rocks, as in the impoverished supernatural space opera Planet of the Vampires (1965): With his endless capacity for visual invention and crafty tricks, Bava still fashioned an atmospheric entertainment — and a philosophical inquiry into the possibilities of cinema and space so profound that one wonders if Kubrick would even have bothered with his pompous 2001 had he only seen it in time. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre; through Sun., March 23. www.americancinematheque.com)
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