If Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and Powell’s PEEPING TOM can be considered as 60s revisionist takes on the depiction of screen maniacs; replacing the conventional mad scientists, ugly murderers and deformed hunchbacked assistants, with shy, sensitive, outwardly normal but seriously disturbed young men, then Mario Bava’s A HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1969) is a delirious mutation.
Bava had previously drawn on Hitchcock and Powell’s groundbreaking thrillers in his 1966 masterpiece BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. He borrowed from PEEPING TOM the use of fashionable, self-contained settings (the film studio becomes a fashion house), and inflated Powell’s occasional use of bold artifice. On the other hand, Bava’s trump card was to outdo PSYCHO - which presents two spectacular murder scenes - in both the quality and the quantity of its set pieces. Despite these similarities, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is a murder mystery; filled with corrupt characters, in which anyone could be the killer, and Bava uses this premise as a springboard for impressive displays of carnage and cruelty. Kim Newman has suggested that the mystery is antithetical to the psychotic thriller, which focuses on the extreme mental state of a disturbed central character.
A HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON continues the use of fashionable settings (another fashion house), and crucially focuses on the insane mechanics of a sick mind, but this concept does not go without some major modifications and expansions. The protagonist John Harrington is not a sickly weakling but rather a blank faced blue-eyed beefcake.
There is, however, another fundamental change. PSYCHO presents Norman Bates from the outside, through the actions of its seeker protagonists, whilst PEEPING TOM withholds the true extent of Mark Lewis’ madness until the shattering denouement. Polanski’s REPULSION, too, with its female protagonist, charts a gradual slide into psychosis. With HATCHET, Bava concentrates events from the killer’s perspective, and not only is John Harrington insane from the outset he is aware and even amused by it. He is a self-professed paranoiac, and "must go on wielding the cleaver", by murdering beautiful brides to systematically restore his fragmented memories. By beginning his film upon a note which most psycho films finish, Bava allows himself to expand upon previous horror genre conventions and surpass audience expectation.
Many viewers consider PSYCHO to be a sick joke - the heroine is killed off near the midway point by a transvestite, and at the end the incarcerated Bates, taken over by his mother, smiles at the camera - and at us - because he has fooled the doctors into thinking that "he wouldn’t harm a fly." We share the joke.
HATCHET develops this strain of macabre humour. After John kills his screaming wife, an interfering co-worker and a police detective pound on his front door, demanding to know what’s wrong. John lets them, turns on the TV, and convinces them that the noise came from a broadcast of Bava’s own Gothic masterpiece BLACK SABBATH! "Very interesting," the officer replies, "Do you like horror films?" The scene is genuinely hilarious in its use of intertextual humour, and acts as a perfect compliment to the skilfully mounted tension.
As well as utilising humour, Bava transposes a strong supernatural element in his film. He develops a long-standing device - stretching from Henry James’ novel THE TURN OF THE SCREW through to Bava’s sluggish WHIP AND THE BODY (1967) - of depicting a mentally strained character who sees paranormal manifestations. These stories retain an ambiguity, as events fail to explain whether the ghosts are real or the characters merely deluded. Instead of synthesising this Gothic tradition into the psycho movie, Bava produces a truly inspired twist - John is the only person who cannot see his dead wife! This wayward logic is foreshadowed by an earlier sequence in which John and Mildred contemplate divorce. Mildred eats the seed and spits out the grape, telling her beloved that she will never leave him. Bava’s late masterpiece SHOCK plays an interesting variation on this theme - the film is initially ambiguous and then the supernatural takes over in the poetic epilogue.
Bava, who also photographed the film, as always demonstrates that he is a wonderful visual stylist. In the early stages of the film, he charts the breakdown of John and Mildred’s marriage by means of deep, angular compositions, and at times recalls Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Just as Xanadu hides the secret of the title character’s childhood and the meaning of his life, John’s fashion house hides the source of his mental illness - he killed his mother in her bedroom on the night of her second wedding. Not only does the film succeed in its use of depth, but also, conversely, in its use of the telephoto lens. Bava incorporates many out of focus shots, giving a wonderfully intangible quality to the images of an androgynous young boy who represents John as a child, and enhances the scene in which Mildred’s apparition reveals herself to her husband. Bava has often received unjust criticism for his frequent use of the zoom, as well as for favouring style over content, but here we can see that Bava’s visual skills are perfectly suited to his subject matter. He juggles the ethereal with the physical, and juxtaposes present situations with past memories - in purely visual terms - and displays remarkable finesse in the process. This is one of Bava’s finest, and if the final revelation - another psychotic who killed his mother - seems a little arbitrary, it has been a perfect excuse for taking the psycho thriller to imaginative new levels.
This French release by One Plus One presents the film in a remarkable anamorphic transfer, far superior to the generally poor Image Entertainment version. Picture quality is crisp and colourful, and is instantly recognizable as a Bava film. The other crucial feature to the DVD is the English language option, and unlike Image’s otherwise brilliant release of the wonderful TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, you can even hear the dialogue clearly! Throw away your old version, and buy this film now.
Directed by Mario Bava
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES
Region 2 Pal / Dolby Mono
A HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON