Monday, February 20, 2012

Blu-ray Review: BABA YAGA (1973)

BABA YAGA (1973) 

Release Date: February 28, 2012
Label: Blue Underground
Region Code: ALL
Duration: 83 Mins
Rating: Not Rated
Video:16:9 Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: English, Italian DTS-HD Mono
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, English for Italian version.
Director: Corrado Farina
Stars: Carroll Baker, George Eastman, Isabelle De Funes

Synopsis: Legendary sex symbol Carroll Baker (BABY DOLL, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS) stars as a mysterious sorceress with an undying hunger for sensual ecstasy and unspeakable torture. But when she casts a spell over a beautiful young fashion photographer (the gorgeous Isabelle De Funes), Milan's most luscious models are sucked into a nightmare world of lesbian seduction and shocking sadism. Are these carnal crimes the result of one woman's forbidden fantasies or is this the depraved curse of the devil witch known as BABA YAGA?

Comic book adaptations have been a regular feature in the multiplex's this past decade, everything from Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of Daniel Clowes' edgy indie GHOST WORLD to the Marvel's juggernaut X-MEN franchise has been plastered on the silver screen but comic-to-film translations aren't exactly a new idea, nearly forty years ago director Corrado Farina's adapted the revolutionary comic strip VALENTINA by Guido Crepax into the surreal supernatural fantasy BABA YAGA (1973).

In this surreal tale of witchery and soul possession Valentina (Isabelle De Funes) is an erotic-fashion photographer whose chance encounter with a mysterious, older woman by the rather bizarre name of Baba Yaga (Carrroll Baker) thrusts her into a strange journey that threatens to claim her very soul. The witchy Baba Yaga takes an unnatural interest in the nymphish fashion photographer and it's not long before Valentina falls under her lesbian-tinged thrall, plagued by trippy nightmares involving Nazis, sadomasochism and a eerie bottomless pit.

It's a quirky film for sure and there's no shortage of weird shit transpiring on screen as Valentina slowly loses her mind as her strange dreams begin to bleed into her waking life. Things really start to turn towards the bizarre when Baba Yaga curses her camera which results in the bizarre death of anyone Valentina photographs and it gets even a bit odder yet when Baba Yaga gifts Valentina with a weird leather-clad porcelain doll which acts as Yaga's super-hot ginger-haired assassin but not in a Puppet Master sorta way, the doll transforms into an actual woman played by super-vixen Ely Galleani, it's wacky stuff.

On the plus side the film is dripping with early-70's atmosphere helped along by a creepy piano score which occasionally veers off into groovy jazz freakouts but it's also hamstrung in my opinion by a barely coherent plot that at times gives into a bizarre dream-logic that some might find hard to swallow epsecially when administered with such a deliberate pace, it's a definite slow burn and I'm not sure it makes for the most appreciative narrative for the uninnitiated.

Threadbare plot aside there's no arguing this is a gorgeously shot arthouse film which at times brought to mind the opulent eroticism of classy soft-core porn director Radley Metzger (SCORE, THE IMAGE). Farina utilizes Fumenti style over-exposed film frames to capture the film's comic origins which at times is striking but also a bit distracting.

The performances not unlike it's narrative are not exactly a strength of the feature. Isabelle De Funes is serviceable as the gorgeous, wide-eyed photographer but there's little depth to her character or anyone else's for that matter, it's all surface. Carroll Baker, still quite a beauty here, is cold and detached, probably owing more to Farina's direction than anything else. George Eastmen as Valentina's love interest just feels tacked-on in a thankless role and everyone else just sort of drifts through the picture.

The film might be a hard sell to the horror crowd with it's near lack of bloodshed or gore, it creeps along on atmosphere and eroticism but not much in the ways of actual chills.

Blu-ray: Blue Underground's transfer of BABA YAGA (1973) is derived from pristine vault elements and looks pretty great all around with a wonderfully crisp image with plenty of fine detail and nice deep, inky blacks. This being my first viewing of the film I can't tell you how superior it is to either of the Blue Underground or Shameless Screen Entertainment's DVD editions but this is a pretty spectacular HD image. 

Audio options include both English and Italian DTS-HD Mono options, both sound quite good if not overly dynamic and both suffer from minor hiss throughout with the Italian fairing slightly worse. There's also a selection of subtitles including French, Spanish, English SDH and a separate English subtitle for the Italian version.

Blue Underground have supplied fans with typically generous amount of bonus content beginning with a 21 minute interview with director Corrado Farina whom talks about his love of Crepax's VALENTINA comic strip, the difficulties translating the revolutionary comic into the cinematic format, trouble casting the feature, the film's censorship and subsequent failure at the box office. It's a fairly comprehensive interview and will surely be a treat for fans and newbies like myself. We also get a mini-doc about Guido Crepax's work beginning with a brief history of the comic strip format in Italy featuring many vintage comic panels, great stuff and a great introduction to Crepax's  work for someone like myself whom knew very little before diving into this film. The deleted and censored scenes features a few extended scenes of Valentin's nightmare sequences as well as full-frontal nudity from both Carroll Baker and Isabelle De Funès which was censored upon the film's release, these scenes are sourced from lesser quality sources than the feature but are nonetheless intriguing. The remaining features are rounded out by a theatrical trailer, comic-to-film comparison reel and a poster and stills gallery. Overall a very well-rounded package that with the exception of a commentary leaves little to be desired.

Special Features:
- Farina and Valentina - Interview with Director Corrado Farina (21:40) 16:0
- Freud in Color - Guido Crepax Documentary (12:06) 4:3
- Deleted and Censored Scenes (10:01) 16:9
- Theatrical Trailer (3:33) 16:9
- Poster and Still Gallery
- Comic Book-to-Film Comparison

Verdict: As a witchy thriller BABA YAGA is less than successful but as a a slice of lesbian-tinged arthouse Eurotrash erotica it manages to weave a spell that's hard to shake even though it's not quite eerie enough to illicit a scare and not nearly erotic enough elicit a, err, you know what I mean. Either way it's a interesting watch that's well worth a rental or perhaps even a buy for the euro-cult enthusiast, weird stuff. 3 outta 5