If you find yourself endlessly clicking through the entertainment fare being piped into your home by Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Now before ultimately deciding that—to paraphrase something Bruce Springsteen once sang—there’s 57,000 channels and nothin’s on, have I got an amazing, little-heralded practically unknown cult film for you!
1973’s stylish Italo-French quasi-giallo Baba Yaga—there’s very little blood or violence so let’s call it instead a “supernatural erotic thriller”—stars American actress Carroll Baker (best known for her younger roles in Giant and Baby Doll) as the oddly named Baba Yaga, a sexy lesbian witch who wants to take control of Valentina (Isabelle De Funès), a Milan-based Marxist fashion photographer and photojournalist, both body and soul. Their apparently fated meeting occurs when Valentina, walking home alone late one night after a party with some left wing intellectuals, saves a stray dog from being hit by Baba Yaga’s Rolls Royce. When Baker—who was then still an absolutely stunning 43-year-old beauty—steps out of her car and the camera pans up from her boots to her incredible pasty white face, well, it’s quite an entrance.
The plot, which comes from Guido Crepax’s “Valentina” fumetti—one of the first instances of the modern graphic novel—has been called confusing, but I don’t think that’s true at all. There are some weird artsy avant garde dream sequences throughout (complete with naked chicks in leather bondage gear and Nazis) intended to indicate how Baba Yaga was haunting Valentina’s dreams with images of sadomasochism and perversion, but other than that it’s pretty straightforward stuff, scarcely more complicated than an episode of Scooby-Doo or a story on Night Gallery. Basically Baker’s eerie sapphic sorceress casts a murderous spell on Valentina’s Rolleiflex camera so that wherever she points it, bad things happen. There’s also an amazing doll that’s dressed in something like Cosey Fanni Tutti might’ve worn in 1973, but I don’t want to spoil that bit for anyone.
Aside from Baker’s unique female villain and commanding onscreen presence—-there are many, many reasons to recommend Baba Yaga (aka Kiss Me, Kill Me as it was retitled for VHS video release in the US). First off, it looks freaking amazing. Gorgeous eye-candy from the first frame to the last. The director, Corrado Farina—who died last month at 77—had previously made a documentary on the “Valentina” comics and used not only comic panels drawn by Guido Crepax but also “animated” black and white still photos to keep his adaptation very much in sync with Crepax’s highly stylized vision of Valentina’s fashionable world. Isabelle De Funès, a French singer and actress, is large-eyed and totally foxy, not unlike a young Liza Minnelli and her goofy but memorable hairstyle comes straight from the comic character’s coif (which was based on Louisa Brooks). She’s the perfect “Valentina” in the flesh (and we see a lot of hers in it).
Farina really knew how to move a camera and his framing (and fantastic use of color) recalls Jean-Luc Godard; the claustrophobic interiors remind one of Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s moody Performance; and the overall “mod” production design puts it closer to a film like Danger: Diabolik or Modesty Blaise—even the Batman TV series—than a Dario Argento film, but fans of his movies would most certainly enjoy Baba Yaga, too. Another way to describe it is like Antonioni’s Blow-Up meets Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers. Baba Yaga straddles quite a few genres nimbly, and for this reason I’d rate it a “crowd pleaser” (among certain very specific crowds, I suppose).
Baba Yaga is not a particularly erotic (or violent) film but it’s tres creepy, extremely atmospheric and genuinely gripping. The film wasn’t a success upon its initial release—the production company went bankrupt—and was simply dumped on the VHS market at some point in the 1980s under various titles. I can’t imagine such a visually appealing film coming across that great with a VHS “pan and scan” cropping on an old TV set, but lemme tell ya, on Blu-ray and a large flat screen, Baba Yaga is pretty spectacular (and big fun). And the soundtrack! The ultra “modern”-sounding jazz soundtrack (heavy on the Hammond organ) was a product of the remarkable Italian composer Piero Umiliani (best known for writing “Mah Nà Mah Nà”) and adds much to the proceedings.
It’s been said of Carroll Baker that she was simply just too sexy for her own good and that this held her career back in the US forcing her to base herself in Europe if she wanted to work. Make no mistake about it… how do I put this tastefully: she is inspiring in this role. The biggest let-down about Baba Yaga to my mind is that Baker—who got naked quite a lot in her films—doesn’t get naked in a film full of gratuitous nudity (although they did shoot a full frontal nude scene with her, it was sadly cut from the final edit).
More after the jump…