Knives of the Avenger (Mario Bava / Italy, 1966):
(I Coltelli del Vendicatore; Raffica di Coltelli; Viking Massacre)

The story goes that, somewhere between Planet of the Vampires and Kill, Baby... Kill!, Mario Bava stepped in after the original director was fired, rewrote the treatment and turned out this grand Viking opera in less a week. Corman might have made it in even less time, although even he could hardly touch the dense, rich trompe l'oeil opening, a sandy Stonehenge that's revealed as a drawing on the beachfront (cf. Karloff on his horse at the end of Black Sabbath). The old seer prophesizes a "black cloud" approaching, the camera pans right to the waves and then left to the shore as the barbarians gallop along: Their leader (Fausto Tozzi) is an exiled plunderer with a need for bloodshed and an eye on the queen (Elissa Pichelli). When the king (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is lost at sea, Pichelli hides out as a peasant in the woods with her son (Luciano Pollentin); marauding bandits are quelled by Cameron Mitchell, a warrior fatigued by all the brutality he's witnessed and committed. The wanderer, tender of touch and handy with knives, is introduced first as a challenge to the heroine's faithfulness and then transformed into a moral quandary during a flashback, as Pichelli's anguished memory melds into Mitchell's appalling confession. Denied long ships, Bava creates miracles elsewhere -- the ornamental Gothic flavor of a knight's helmet as it approaches the lenses, brawls dwarfed by a sprawling vista, a showdown in a cave steamy with primeval lighting out of silent-era Lang. This isn't an analysis of Stevens' Shane (Eastwood's Pale Rider is that), rather it gives an alternate view of gladiatorial spectacle as a string of intimate, Italianate studies of fate, redemption, honor, and revenge ("blinded by pain, pushed by hatred") as a cold dish suddenly reheated by emotion. With Amedeo Trilli.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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