5 Dolls for an August Moon

Dir. Mario Bava

Three couples are invited to spend the weekend at the secluded private island retreat of their friend, wealthy industrialist George Stark (Teodoro Corrà). One of the men, a research scientist, has perfected a secret formula for an industrial resin and the others are all keen to acquire the rights for it as it promises to be lucrative. Tempers flare as they vie to obtain the formula. Meanwhile their wives kick back and entertain themselves in various states of undress. The group soon realises that someone is prepared to kill to get the secret formula, and they find themselves trapped on the island with a murderer in their midst!

Gosh – that’s a lot to take in. Truth be told though, as soon as you begin to watch 5 Dolls for an August Moon, it becomes apparent that none of the above plot summary really matters – all that stuff about a secret formula is just a rouse to get these volatile, frisky characters in one secluded location so they can all be bumped off, one by one nonetheless, in what amounts to a highly stylised and uber-kitsch variation on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And therefore Mario Bava’s earlier body-count flick Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve.

After a marvellously kitsch opening, featuring amongst other things a funky lounge-jazz soundtrack, cravats and big hair, a faux human sacrifice, sexy dancing, moody glancing and actors draped over various pieces of stylish furniture like fashionable throws, Bava slams on the brakes and the film all but grinds to a halt. As the couples mingle and re-pair off for extra-marital flings, Bava’s camera stalks their every move; peering at them from behind corners, zooming in on their misty eyes and skulking up behind them on the beach – all courtesy of Antonio Rinaldi’s masterful cinematography - rendering events strangely creepy even though they have no reason to be.

When the houseboy turns up with a knife in his side, the group take it in their stride. Even when they realise their boat is gone, the phones are dead and they are stranded on the island with a killer in their midst, they still seem fairly at ease with it all and continue their sordid, sexy affairs. They have a well stocked drinks cabinet and a groovy record collection to keep them swinging through the night you see. When more people start turning up dead, their bodies are delicately wrapped in plastic and they are unceremoniously hung up in a giant meat freezer amongst slabs of meat – not a very subtle touch, but a grimly humorous one. The cast of most movies like this are essentially fodder anyway – they are only there to be murderlised. At least in this film, Bava pokes a little fun at this.

‘What’s that razor for?’

Unlike many of his other films though, with 5 Dolls, Bava chooses to show only the aftermath of each murder and not the act of murder itself. The script becomes impossibly dense and convoluted and it becomes difficult to tell one character apart from another – except for Marie, who is played by giallo stalwart, Edwige Fenech. All of the affairs between the characters further complicate proceedings.

What 5 Dolls lacks in plot and narrative drive, it certainly makes up for in the visual department. Well what did you expect? This is no ordinary murder mystery film. This is a stylishly orchestrated, elegantly lensed and deliriously kitsch Mario Bava murder mystery film. The director composes his shots like an artist and seats, stands and perfectly poses his actors within the frame of each shot like sitters in a life drawing class, resplendent and chic. The film is hinged on atmosphere, style and particular moments that have been meticulously crafted and executed and are scattered throughout the film as little reminders of why Mario Bava is such an imaginative director. One such moment occurs when two men fighting at the top of a staircase knock over a table full of impossibly ornate crystal balls. As the balls bounce down stairs the camera floats after them as they tumble and roll and flow into a sunken bath with the body of a dead woman in it, swirls of blood coiling around her; a breathlessly melodramatic suicide message in red lipstick on a huge mirror behind her…

Towards the end of the film, when the captain of the yacht returns to the island to pick up the guests, he and his stewards are unable to find a single trace of them. Strangely, they don’t appear to notice the four survivors passed out on the living room floor. Initially it seems as though something supernatural as been casually and belatedly thrown into the mix a la Lisa and the Devil and somehow the characters have become so wrapped up in their own lust and greed, they have passed from one narrative sphere into another and, in the process, become invisible to the captain and his men. This is not the case however, and it is only a matter of moments until a weak narrative explanation is presented, defying all rational explanation and existing in its own absurd logic.

Boasting a groove-tastic score courtesy of Piero Umiliani, more zooms than a Jess Franco movie and a plethora of beautiful actors hanging up inside a meat freezer – 5 Dolls for an August Moon won’t be to everyone’s taste – hell, even Bava considered it his worst film. What it never is though, is boring. Whilst it is not in the same league as Black Sunday or Kill Baby Kill, or even Blood and Black Lace or The Girl Who Knew Too Much, it is still a curious and quirky underappreciated Bava film, and one that admirers of his work should seek out.


Matthew Coniam said…
God, I remember watching this at university with some friends who were all addicted to Argento and expecting something similar... in fact we'd already seen Bay of Blood so were expecting more of the same, a really great fun, scary gorefest - but no!
All I remember really is the fact that we never get to see a murder, and that it keeps cutting to the bodies hanging in the bags, with the same barrel-organ type tune playing each time, yes?
Ah, you take me back...
Franco Macabro said…
Ive been leaving Bava behind for some reason...gotta get down to start watching his films! I have not seen one of them!
Aaron said…
I've only seen this once, but I remember it being kinda hard to follow along with at the time. But like you said, the visuals more than make up for it. This is one of my least favorite Bava films that I've seen so far, but it's still pretty good in comparison to a lot of other shit out there.
James Gracey said…
Yes, Matthew. This film is choc-full of those shots of people hanging up in the freezer as barrel-organ music warbles on the soundtrack. Glad to have provided the nostalgia!

Connoisseur, you simply must check out some Bava movies this weekend if you can. I recommend you start with Black Sunday... A masterpiece. And perhaps you'd like to accomapny this with a fine Merlot... ;o)

Agreed Aaron, this is one of Bava's lesser films, but still much more interesting and imaginative than many other things out there. Waiting to be watched... ;o)
Im always surprised to hear that people didnt enjoy this one, it may be lighter than many of his other efforts and isnt even close to Bavas best, but I always find it to be a ton of fun and I love the jarring music in the freezer! I find it to be far superior to the similarly theme DIE SCREAMING MARIANNE, and it is my favorite entry in this type of thriller
Damnit.. computer froze and lost my post. Summary: really like this one, better than it is given credit for, like it way better than DIE SCREAMING MARIANNE. Just insert bigger words in between and thats basically it lol..
James Gracey said…
Don't get me wrong, Carl - I loved this film. I mean, the opening scene alone has some of my favourite things in it: funky jazz music, big hair, sexy-sexy dancing, Edwige Fenech and her fellow actors as furniture. What's not to love? ;o)
Seriously though - it says so much about a director when even their 'lesser' films are still so damn good.
Unknown said…
I was damned lucky when it came to this film. I watched it once to review it for Classic-Horror.com and I really didn't like it at all. Then some matter came up and I had to shift focus for a bit, so that when I came back to my 5 Dolls review, I had to rewatch the film.

And then I watched it again. And again. And again. I discovered that beneath the veneer of a stale plot and staler acting was a director doing his best to keep himself interested in a project he had no desire to do (as documented in Tim Lucas's Bava biography). So much visual awesomeness came about because Bava allowed himself the freedom to completely ignore the awful script (which he had almost no hand in) and focus on preparing a visual symphony in blue.

Now 5 Dolls for an August Moon is one of my all-time favorite films to watch when I need a pick-me-up or some background noise. I can pop out and pop back in and there's always something cool to watch and great jazz to go with it.

Also, a point of correction: 5 Dolls actually predates Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve.
James Gracey said…
Thanks for dropping by Nate - I'm a big fan of Classic Horror.com

Are you one of the people I need to make friends with so I can borrow their copy of All the Colours of the Dark?? ;o)

Thanks for your comments - don't be a stranger.
Unknown said…
You'll get my All the Colors of the Dark when you pry it from my cold dead hands. And maybe not even then.

I've made a lot of expensive purchases in my time that I've regretted. The Bava Book isn't one of them.
James Gracey said…
I can completely understand that, Nate! Meanwhile... sleep with one eye open, etc. ;o)

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