(1970) Directed by Mario Bava; Written by Mario di Nardo; Starring: William Berger, Ira von Fürstenberg, Edwige Fenech, Howard Ross, Helena Ronee, Teodoro Corrà and Ely Galleani; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Everyone seems to be waiting for something that’s not happening.” – Trudy (Ira von Fürstenberg)
What were the swinging ‘60s/’70s like? If 5 Dolls for an August Moon is any indication, the days and nights were occupied with swilling ample amounts of J&B, lounging on rotating beds, and trying to avoid being murdered by your groovy companions. Say what you will about this era (at least from a cinematic perspective), but it wasn’t lacking in style. No one ever accused director Mario Bava of lacking in style either, and his giallo offering has a plentiful supply.
Bava shot his low budget murder mystery on location near Anzio, Italy. The ultramodern house featured in the film was a combination of a convincing matte painting (exterior) and sets on a soundstage (interior) in Rome. Millionaire/industrialist George Stark (Teodoro Corrà) invites a group of friends, including two other industrialists, to his remote island estate of for a weekend of debauchery and merriment. The partygoers watch as Marie (Edwige Fenech) shimmies in a skin-tight gold outfit that leaves very little to the imagination, followed by a prank, in which she fakes her own death. But, as the old saying goes, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and greed gets the best of everyone. Each of the three industrialists attempt to woo chemist Gerry Farrell (William Berger), who’s invented a formula for a revolutionary form of resin (who knew resin was so lucrative?). Farrell declines each of their $1 million offers, and the guests start dropping off one by one.
In a genre known for unconventional flourishes, 5 Dolls for an August Moon* further distinguishes itself with inventive camerawork (expect plenty of nutty zooms), splashes of color and plot conventions turned on end. As Bava biographer Tim Lucas points out in his DVD commentary, the film continually subverts our expectations. Of course, this could have been Bava’s way of thumbing his nose at the material (he was reportedly unhappy with the script, a thinly veiled, unauthorized remake of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians). As one character points out, everyone keeps waiting for something that never quite happens. What does happen, however, is an explosion of style and tone.
* Fun Fact: Although the film underperformed elsewhere, it did well in Turkey, where it was marketed as an Edwige Fenech vehicle, under the (roughly translated) title Revenge of the Woman with the Spirit of the Snake. It might have been a boost for Fenech’s career, but didn’t accurately describe her peripheral role (source: DVD commentary).
One of the movie’s greatest conceits is that everyone has an ulterior motive. It’s a foregone conclusion that everyone is hatching a scheme or stands to profit in some way. The only questions are: Who’s in league with whom, and who will be left alive? The closest we get to a marginally likeable character is Farrell, but he’s emotionally distant, a bit of a killjoy (witness the opening party scene), and his motives seem less than pure. The most enigmatic character is the caretaker’s daughter Isabel (Ely Galleani), who flits about the island with reckless abandon. Her apparent carefree attitude is nothing more than a smokescreen, as we suspect she’s plotting, along with the rest of them. With all of these moody, self-absorbed individuals, there’s no one to connect with on an emotional level, but I suppose that’s not the point of this exercise in deceit and subterfuge. In this movie, everybody clearly has something to hide (except for me and my monkey?)*.
* With all due apologies to Lennon and McCartney.
Piero Umiliani’s* lively jazz score keeps us constantly engaged and amused throughout all of the skullduggery. I like to think this is what the late ‘60s sounded like (if you omitted the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, etc…), at least in my idealized view of that tumultuous decade. The score has an impishly playful quality, especially apparent when the victims’ bodies are stored in a walk-in freezer and unceremoniously hung up like slabs of meat, bobbing on hooks to the strains of carnival music.
* Fun Fact: Umiliani is perhaps best known for the famously (or infamously) infectious song “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” which appeared in the Italian sex film Sweden: Heaven and Hell (1968), and later became a Jim Henson staple on The Muppet Show.
According to Tim Lucas, Bava felt 5 Dolls for an August Moon was his worst movie, but that’s selling it short. There’s much to like, with an attractive cast, engaging visuals and a sense of playfulness. Sure, I wanted to enjoy it more (I couldn’t help feeling distanced from the characters), but I enjoyed the ride while it lasted. Is it worth your time? Even casual Bava fans will surely want to check out this oddball giallo. And if you’re not a Bava fan, you still might be inclined to give it a whirl, if only for the pleasure of watching the upper crust destroy each other.