Michael Seymour Blake talks movies
If you’re familiar with Bava, you already know the deal—good, bad, or ugly, it’s gonna be done with style. Ceilings stretch to the heavens, shadows lurk like chasms to another world, and bold fashion choices are made in this giallo oddity. It’s a psychological exploration of a killer, a suspenseful slasher, and a supernatural thriller rolled into one flawed-but-interesting package.
Meet John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth). He’s the head of a successful fashion house focusing on bridalwear. John’s got a problem. Well, two problems. One: his wife Mildred (Laura Betti) won’t give him the divorce he so badly wants. And two: he’s obsessed with uncovering the mystery surrounding his mother’s death, and the only thing that jogs his memory (a little at a time) is murdering brides-to-be. John is a self-proclaimed “paranoiac” and madman. His weapon of choice? If you guessed hatchet you’d be wrong. It’s a cleaver. Real shiny one, too. His favorite technique for getting rid of bodies is the incinerator located in his hothouse. Wanna spend some time with John? Suspicious Inspector Russell (Jesús Puente) sure does.
The opening credits are some of the coolest I’ve ever seen. A lovely orchestral piece plays as an animated montage of faces appear. Everything looks slightly corroded, like old photographs. It’s all blues with splashes of red like fresh blood spilling across the screen, stop motion style. Bava himself created this moody sequence.
We open on a train. A figure in black wearing a chain link belt (style, baby!) creeps through a corridor. We see a motionless boy further down. A hand slinks to a door handle, pauses. The figure’s meditative face is revealed—a clean shaven and well-kept man. We’re hit with a hazy flashback of a stairway and ascending footsteps, click clack click clack. Cut back to the man’s face, then to an over-the-shoulder shot of the boy looking out a dark window, his grim visage reflected like a ghostly omen. All the while a subtle, dissonant tune plays. Next thing ya know we’re on the other side of the door where a couple is making out, unaware of the intrusion. The woman’s wedding dress sits near some luggage. (By the way, these two are making out in a really stilted manner, almost as if they’re posing for a picture.) The man surprises them...
After the slaughter, another hazy flashback. This time we see a woman who seems to be in trouble. She calls out a name: “John. John. John.” Our man’s name is John.
Back in the present, John wipes a bloody cleaver on the woman’s wedding dress (loved that), puts a “do not disturb” sign on the door, and leaves.
What a way to start! Intrigue, gothicy atmosphere, awkward kissing, weird little boy, bloody cleavers!
Hatchet for the Honeymoon’s central mystery doesn’t end up being all that compelling, but it hardly matters when you have scenes like the one where John, having just introduced himself as a dangerous maniac, fishes a drowning fly out of a glass of water.
“Poor little fly,” he thinks in his vivid blue button up and yellow ascot. “Why are you so daring? You’re so fragile, and yet you’re born, you reproduce yourself, and you die like men. The difference is that you don’t think, and you don’t need to remember. You don’t fear death because you ignore it.”
The fly’s life, he thinks, is simply a mere biological accident. Utterly without meaning. He looks at something off camera and approaches it. “But death exists I can assure you,” he continues.
We see what caught his eye now—a pet parrot whose bold colors are like an expansion of John’s outfit. “And that,” he says, feeding the fly to the parrot, “is what makes life a ridiculous and brief drama.”
It may not be profound, but it suits the mood well. It also sets up some interesting stuff later—is death as final as John seems to think?
Forsyth plays our man like a raptorial bird, allowing the character to become undone/vulnerable only when necessary. Our gentleman killer tells himself (and us) that he only takes life to shake loose the buried memories haunting his mind. However, there’s more going on than just that. For example, he’s got a chamber full of mannequins that he sometimes smooches. All of them are decked out in wedding gowns. And the faces on these things, let me tell you, are very chilling. Unsmoochable, really. The tension amps up whenever we’re in that room with him. It makes for some really fun imagery too. I do wish there was a bit more going on with this room. More scares/weirdness could have unfolded in it.
There’s still some humanity left in this creepo. It’s buried deep beneath his ego and his monstrous need to piece together the fragmented images tormenting him. This is especially apparent when he meets Helen (Dagmar Lassander), a young woman looking for a job. He seems to take an earnest liking to her despite, well, the urge to murder her. Will Helen end up in the incinerator, or will John overcome his homicidal compulsions?
John’s wife Mildred is reading a book titled Mediums and Spiritism when we meet her—this comes into play in a few ways, one of which being when she supposedly channels the spirit of John’s mother, totally freaking him out. Their first interaction tells us everything about their relationship—bitter, spiteful, and illusionary. And it only gets worse. She’s a constant annoyance, deriving pleasure in haunting him. Underneath all the sadistic joy, though, is the pain of ignored and abused love. Betti does a great job with this character, hinting at her woe but overlaying it with an amusingly smug impudence. Because of John’s proclivities, I couldn’t help but root for her the whole time. She was an unexpected favorite, an aristocratic specter relentlessly looming around John and making the movie all the better for it. One of my favorite moments is when she informs her fashion-forward husband she’s leaving on a short trip, taunting him that she’ll be back before he knows it. She’ll always be back. While goading him, she takes a small bite of a grape. She places the grape on a mirror-like tray and smashes it with her finger. We linger there with the reflection of her warped, overturned face. Ahh, cinema!
I can’t say too much more about Mildred without spoiling a major plot point, but let’s just say Bava takes her in a surprising direction. It feels a bit disjointed (I believe it was a last second decision in the creative process), yet I think she’s a big part of what makes this movie memorable. The couple’s darkly humorous battle for dominance was the most enjoyable part of the whole thing for me.
The score, by Sante Maria Romitelli, ranges from loungey to psychedelic to orchestral to fuzzy electronic. I liked it a lot. The camerawork is alive, sitting at unexpected angles, hanging low at a child’s height, or high up like a floating spirit. There’s a cool moment when Inspector Russell shows up with the husband of a missing woman at John’s mansion. John has just butchered someone who is still on the stairs above. Her hand slips off the baluster as she expires. Had either one of the uninvited pair simply looked up, they would have seen the hand, now dripping with blood, hanging over the steps (I wanted John to be caught, yet somehow felt nervous by that prospect). The camera cuts close to the hand as they’re talking, then zooms out until it’s as if we’re lying on our back at the men’s feet. Bava knows how to keep things visually engaging. (John’s watching a Bava movie--Black Sabbath--during this sequence too. Ya gotta love it!)
Hatchet isn’t generally considered Bava’s biggest or best, but it’s got enough going for it to make it worth your while. And if you’re already a Bava fan this is a no brainer. The kills aren’t all that exciting, so don’t expect a gorefest. This is more of a character study with a morbid, opulent flair. You’ll at least appreciate the aesthetic choices. How ‘bout John’s loungewear? You know the one. I’ll take two please.
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