A few weeks ago, I nattered on about how Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace differs markedly from the very slasher genre it helped create. The same is true of Bay of Blood, though the comparison is rather more complicated.
The connection between Bay of Blood (AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve) and the slashers is one of the purest examples of superficiality one could think of. Many of the murders in Bava’s film were lifted holus bolus by the first couple of Friday the 13th films (machete to the face, love-making couple speared in bed, and so forth). However, the fact that the films have near-identical murders turns out to be as irrelevant as the fact that they both take place in similarly sylvan environments. For the uninitiated, Bay of Blood does not offer one killer, but many. Everyone is killing off everyone else in a battle to possess a valuable lake-front property. There is no motivation so pure as revenge here. Greed is what is driving the characters.
If Blood and Black Lace gave us characters that weren’t characters, but rather mere objects to be killed, and thus dispensed with even the pretense of characterization that the slashers would engage in, then Bay of Blood jettisons the moral universe of the slasher. And by “moral universe” I don’t mean the old song about the films reinforcing Old Testatment morality by visiting death upon promiscuous teenagers. As Carol Clover has shown in Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the picture is rather more complicated than that, and that is also a discussion for another time. No, what I’m thinking of here is another trend. Most (though not all) slasher films are revenger tragedies of one kind or another. The most common narrative has the killer acting (however disproportionately) to right some real or imagined wrong. There are exceptions: the original Halloween and Stagefright (AKA Bloody Bird) have completely motiveless killers, though in the case of Michael Meyers, the sequels show how difficult it is to resist the temptation to give the killer some kind of motivation.
Bay of Blood is different again. There is no justice to the killings, but neither are the killers motiveless and borderline-supernatural. These are just greedy, nasty, but profoundly ordinary human beings. The universe Bava’s film postulates is one where ghastly murders are little more than a matter of course. It is a completely amoral universe. One might read some judgement in the fact that (spoilers ahead) what goes around emphatically does come around, and each killer is bound to be killed by someone else, but the film offers nothing by way of alternative. The few characters who aren’t murderers are just as doomed as those who are. Violent death spares no one. If there is a god in this reality, it is one of Lovecraft’s, but the sense the film leaves one with is of utter void. Everything is meaningless, everything is pointless, and every effort leads to the same result. The enormous charge the murders provide, however, suggests great glee on the part of the film as it rubs our faces in an existential abyss. This suspicion is confirmed by the ending, as perverse a wrap-up as any in horror film history, and where a completely incongruous happy little track plays over the final images.
A deliberate paradox then: the pointlessness of the murders, their incredible gratuitousness, is precisely the brilliantly vicious point. A context sorely lacking when those murders would show up again.