HCF REWIND NO. 260: RABID DOGS AKA CANI ARABBIATA, KIDNAPPED, SEMAFORO ROSSO, RED LIGHTS [Italy 1974]
OUT NOW ON DUAL-FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 96 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A bungled heist by four crooks results in three deaths, one of them the driver of the runaway car of the criminals, and a bullet hitting the gas tank. The car runs out of gas and the trio is forced to run to the parking lot of a mall where they kill one woman and kidnap her friend Maria and use her car to escape from the police. They are still puesued by the cops until they carjack the car of the middle-aged Riccardo, who is driving his unconscious ill son to the hospital for an emergency operation. They force Riccardo to drive them out of the city using secondary roads to escape from the blocks in the highway….
Doing so many reviews for this website, I struggle to keep to what I promised a while back and review a Mario Bava film every month, so this week I’ve tried to make up for it and written two Bava reviews, this particular film being picked because it came out on Region B Blu-ray and DVD just over a week ago from Arrow Video, who seem to working their way through Bava’s oeuvre and providing what appear to be the definitive versions of the great filmmaker’s movies, and you’ll probably know by now that that I consider Bava a truly great filmmaker. It’s kind of appropriate to follow Danger: Diabolik with the very different crime thriller that is Rabid Dogs as both films are not the kind of movie we tend to associate Bava with and show what a versatile director he was while still retaining some of the same themes and interests, but Rabid Dogs really does show him trying something new and seems more like the work of a first-time filmmaker, full of energy, passion and loving the freedom being given by a tiny budget. It’s less stylised than usual for Bava, the director going for a far more realistic feel than normal that’s entirely appropriate considering the story and the world in which it takes place, but a striking film nonetheless that deserves to be ranked up there with his better known Gothic titles. Featuring a small cast of characters and with around two thirds of it set in a car, it’s a masterpiece of tightly-wrapped tension, and in fact it gets so incredibly tense that you can’t take your eyes of the screen for a moment.
Sadly the story behind this movie is even sadder than that of Bava’s Lisa And The Devil [reviewed last month] which at least got released, if mostly in a bastardised version. It was based on a short story called Man And Boy by Michael J. Carroll which appeared in the April, 1971, issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and aside from adding some characters, there were no major changes and even much of the dialogue is the same. Originally shot under the title Semaforo Rosso [Red Light], it had a budget so low that Bava had to fire the cinematographer and photograph it himself, while Al Lettieri, cast as Riccardo, turned up on set blind drunk and so was replaced by Riccardo Cucciolla. The shooting was problematic all-round, from the main car interior set heating to an almost unbearable degree to wage cheques bouncing. Eventually the film was seized by the courts when it was near completion because the producer went bankrupt, was never seen in cinemas in Bava’s lifetime, and wasn’t shown anywhere until 1996 when one of its stars Lea Lander bought it and released to a few festivals and DVD, essentially leaving the unfinished film as it was aside from adding a shot of a mysterious silhouetted woman at the beginning which was later removed. In 2002, producer Alfredo Leone bought it from Lander and got Bava’s sons Lamberto and Roy to shoot the few scenes from the script that Mario didn’t film, but this new version, entitled Kidnapped, also controversially altered bits and pieces, most notably the score, and even removed some footage. It’s considered by most Bava fans to be inferior even if it’s more polished. Unlike Kino Lorber’s Region A Blu-ray which sadly only included the Kidnapped version, Arrow Video’s superb package includes both versions to compare and contrast.
In fact, I beg you to watch Rabid Dogs before you view Kidnapped. Though you will find a few words about Kidnapped at the bottom of this review, and much of what I say relates to both versions, my review is largely based on Rabid Dogs. Now Rabid Dogs is unfinished, but to be honest it pretty much seems like a finished film. Yes, it looks and feels a bit rough around the edges, but this helps give it its rawness, while you wouldn’t notice there are scenes from the script un-filmed unless you were told what they were. It also seems very modern – in fact aside from certain unavoidable details it could have been made today, unlike with many of Bava’s other films where , as wonderful as they often are, you can easily tell when they were made. The opening action hurls the viewer into the film with quick cuts, odd angles and perhaps some missing shots, but it’s actually done in the manner in which many modern directors would shoot it [thankfully no early ‘shakycam’ though]. The headlong pace is maintained for quite a while until the film settles down when our three crooks have their three hostages, but it still never once lets the tension subside.
There are a few bloody scenes, in particular an early throat stabbing of a woman which is most shocking because ‘Blade’ seems to kill her almost by accident but still not give a damn, and one truly uncomfortable one when Blade and ‘Thirty Two’ humiliate Maria which is one of several moments which perhaps show the influence of The Last House Of The Left [ though there’s no jarring comic relief in Bava’s film!], but, while it seems like you’ve watched a shockingly brutal film afterwards, it’s actually more the constant threat of violence, some of it sexual, that is more prevalent. Bava was often brilliant in leading the viewer to believe he or she has seen more nastiness on the screen than there’s actually been, and Rabid Dogs, which is undeniably sometimes uncomfortable to watch, is superb evidence of this skill, aided immensely by the fact that it’s so incredibly suspenseful and claustrophobic, Bava using lots of sweaty close-ups and tight framing to cram its characters into the picture during the many sequences set in the car. For these scenes, they put the main bulk of a car on a trailer and dragged it along, using a fully functioning vehicle for the exterior shots. It’s also, and this is what makes it so powerful, thoroughly nihilistic. Rabid Dogs is consistent with Bava’s downbeat view of the world, but he never went as far as he did here, right down to its rotten, horrid and downright brilliant ending, which really is a punch to the gut. It’s also a twist ending which plays totally fair, because the second time you watch the film, you notice things which lead up to it, even visual clues like the way Bava frames one guy with another.
The screenplay by Alessandro Parenzo and Cesare Frugoni is well constructed and gives the cast genuinely rounded characters to play, especially from the bad guys, who are thoroughly evil and nasty, yet are still sometimes allowed to have some humanity. When one of them is dying, you almost feel sorry for him and his grieving friend and get a sense of their love for each other, the latter’s feelings oddly visualised by shots of a pinball machine in the only really visually ‘strange’ moment. Rather than being a dangerous attempt to get us to like repellent people, it’s more just depth of characterisation. These two guys are rapists and killers, but to be honest they’re also much like children, seeing everything as a game, and the film tells us that, in this world, it’s the more intelligent, ‘mature’, less obviously villainous people you should worry more about. Familiar Bava themes abound in Rabid Dogs, from ‘outsider’ protagonists to the deceptive nature of appearances to the all-consuming attraction of greed, and it really doesn’t have much ‘nice’ to say about the world, making it cruelly ironic that the film was shelved just before completion, something which must have hurt Bava deeply coming so soon as it did after the ruination of his artistic masterpiece Lisa And The Devil. Rabid Dogs almost seems like the beginning of a new phase for its director, and who knows what Bava would have gone on to make if the film had been released?
Lea Lander, who was attracted to the project because it allowed to display extremes of one emotion – fear – plays the victim very well, but it’s the crooks who really shine. There are times where Luigi Montefiore [aka George Eastman The Anthropophagous Beast] and Aldo Caponi seem to overact, but it’s not inconsistent with their characters. Stelvio Cipriani’s score is largely comprised of variations on one sad, compelling theme which helps drive themovie along, though it sometimes seems to placed in scenes where it doesn’t need to be, while it’s been said that another piece is a blatant rip-off of a previous piece of music, Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, though to me it’s very similar to a Cipriani track from his Bay Of Blood score [maybe they both copied the earlier piece?]. There are a few clumsy things in Rabid Dogs which are entirely understandable, as its basically a rough cut, and I do have to say that the quality of Arrow’s Blu-ray varies somewhat. They were unable to locate the original negative to do a HD version of Rabid Dogs, but found one for the re-edited Kidnapped cut. Rather than not put Rabid Dogs out on Blu-ray at all, Arrow did the best with what was available, using the Kidnapped cut as the basis for their version but occasionally having to resort to source material of lesser quality for the bits and pieces that Kidnapped cut out. Frankly I don’t think it matters too much. Kidnapped looks terrific with tremendous detail throughout, and kudos for Arrow in putting together a Blu-ray version of Rabid Dogs anyway, though some may find the DVD version slightly more enjoyable to watch overall as it’s more consistent in quality. In any case, Rabid Dogs is a stunning piece of work, compelling, compulsive, exciting and fresh as any new film, and as good evidence of Bava’s skill as a filmmaker as you can get, wringing so much out so little. And yes, this is a 70’s Italian thriller, so the obligatory bottle of J & B whisky is present, Thirty-Two buying one in a shop to drink in the car.
The new footage, largely of a nervous woman on the phone, her identity unclear until the end, is good, genuinely looks like it’s part of the film, and adds an extra dimension to the story and its conclusion, but dilutes the claustrophobic tension. More damaging is the new score that Cipriani was asked to write, which along with the tighter editing in many places and removal of some car footage, notably two occasions where characters sing, give the impression that Leone and co. were trying to make a 70’s film into an 80’s one. Worst of all though, it trims the twist ending and removes its horrifying final shot, leaving us staring at a freeze-frame of the wrong character, and follows it with a syrupy ballad over the end credits which is clearly not the effect Bava would have wanted. Leone may say in the documentary on the Bly-ray that he finished the film as Bava would have wanted, but I can’t agree with that considering some of the decisions he made. Kidnapped, which I saw for the very first time the other day, is worth seeing, but to me it’s in no way the definitive version of the film, and I will always return to Rabid Dogs in future.
*High Definition (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of two versions of the film; ‘Rabid Dogs’ – Bava’s original version posthumously completed from his notes & ‘Kidnapped’ – the re-edited, re-dubbed and re-scored version, supervised by Bava’s son and assistant director Lamberto Bava, and producer Alfredo Leone
*Original Italian mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
*Newly translated English subtitles
*Audio commentary with Bava biographer Tim Lucas
*End of the Road: Making Rabid Dogs and Kidnapped – Featuring Lamberto Bava, Alfredo Leone and star Lea Lander
*Bava and Eurocrime – An interview with Umberto Lenzi
*Alternate ‘Semaforo Rosso’ opening title sequence
*Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Stephen Thrower, Peter Blumenstock on the history of the film’s first distribution and more!