Knives of the Avenger: The Mario Bava Collection [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Robert Segedy (13th February 2019).
The Film

Mario Bava’s "Knives of the Avenger" is in reality an Italian version of the western "Shane" (1953), but set centuries ago, disguised as a Viking saga. The setting is in the 8th Century in Scandinavia and the film opens with an aged oracle on the Baltic shores praying to the Norse god Odin; surrounding her are drawings in the sand of a mysterious foretelling. Standing witness before her is the Viking princess Karin (Elissa Pichelli) and her son, Moki (Luciano Pollentin). The ancient( and uncredited) woman tells the princess that her husband Aralad (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), who has been gone for three years, is not dead and shall return to her soon, but for now she must flee her homeland because there’s a menacing force on the way and they are both endangered. Sure enough, we are shown the return of warrior Hagen (Fausto Tozzi) and his warriors to their place of exile. Hagen declares that he intends to have Karin as his bride and that she shall be his one way or another. Entering into the film is Rurik/Helmut, a displaced warrior, magnificently portrayed by frequent Bava collaborator Cameron Mitchell, he sporting a head of blonde hair. Rurik wanders onto Karin’s hiding place in a secluded hut outside the village and he tells her that he is simply looking for food and shelter. She directs him to a nearby stream where he displays his ability with a knife, easily catching a fish which he gnaws on hungrily. He is surprised to hear the cries of Karin in distress and he heads straight to the cabin where he easily dispatches two of Hagen’s henchmen, who have been sent to kidnap the princess, with knife and an axe. However before we get the wrong impression of Rurik, Bava presents us with a flashback that reveals the truth about the warrior. Back in the day, Rurik was a fierce warrior from an opposing tribe and while invading and pillaging Karin’s village, he had raped her. Karin did not know the identity of her assailant because he wore a helmet that carefully kept his face hidden and so she is not aware of the visitor’s true identity; this also explains why the visitor and her son have similar features and the telltale blonde hair. Heady stuff for 1966, but Bava discreetly uses the material to lay out his story.

The real beauty in this story is that Bava was not the original choice for director of this film; he was brought in on short notice after Primo Zeglio’s company ran out of funds and what is truly amazing is that he recycled some footage that had already been shot and he wrapped production in a mere six days. Tossing the original screenplay written by Alberto Liberati and Giorgio Simonelli, Bava rewrote the story using the shot footage and the results are pretty darn good. Bava was no stranger to Viking epics having directed "Erik the Conqueror" (1961) six years prior to this, but he did know how to work on a small budget and still produce an excellent product. Shooting the majority of the film on location, he utilized the familiar sea coast of Tor Caldara near Anzio, one of his favorite locales and it is seen in several other Bava films. The great majority of the film takes place in the village of Monciana near Rome with an excellent climatic ending in the caves nearby. Bava was a master craftsman and he produced many films in a multitude of genres; his use of moody, but colorful lighting is a well-known trademark of his and can be witnessed in both the cave footage and the suspenseful barroom brawl that features the use of knives instead of revolvers. The past and its considerable weight feature highly in Bava’s storyline; Rurik was once a feared warrior but he has aged gracefully and he is now somewhat reformed. Just like in "Shane", the former outlaw now finds himself on the other end of the stick as a protector and good guy. Rurik realizes that Karin and her son were the victims of his cruel wrath and that Moki may possibly be his own son has caused his heart to soften. After living with the former queen and her son he gets a taste of tranquility and domesticity, teaching Moki the proper use of weapons and how to trap and fish. Meanwhile Hagen is encamped in the village and he continues to dispatch his men to find and kidnap the boy until the night that Rurik decides to seek out the outlaw and have it out with him, face to face, with his favored weapons of choice: knives. The two men have an extended brawl, partially shot in the darkened tavern, both men throwing knives at the other, until Hagen barely escapes. The scene is an exquisite example of Bava’s intense and moody lighting with menacing shadows, eerie greens and yellows highlighting the action.

The next scene shows the earlier prophecy coming true as King Aralad returns from his three year sea voyage back to his village and its people. Former queen Karin is torn between the promise that she made to her husband and the man that had entered their lives in the form of Rurik. Karin is aware of the feelings between herself and the stranger, but she is a faithful wife and adheres to her promise to the King. Hagen has sent three men to kidnap the boy, but Rurik manages to kill two of the oppressors and Moki is safe for now. Hagen decides that a direct approach is necessary and he invades the queen’s hut in order to kidnap the boy. The King holds a meeting with his men and confronts Rurik who was sleeping in the tavern. The two men engage in some swordplay but it is clear that Rurik’s heart is not in it and although a better swordsman than the King, he spares his life. The two continue to brawl and
have an extended fight sequence that shows them crashing through the tavern’s wall and fighting down to the beach. Bava’s use of Vistavison is apparent in the framing of the shots with the incoming ocean behind the characters. Karin appears on the scene and is overjoyed at the appearance of her lost husband and she informs the King that Rurik has helped them considerably and that they need to find her son. The two men put aside their differences and head off to the sacred cavern where they find the old prophet as she is near death, caused by Hagen, of course. With her last breath she pleads the men to find Moki.

The two men team up to save Moki and they enter the cavern. Moki shows some cunning as he uses a rock to severe the ropes that bind his hands while the men search for Hagen’s lair. Bava’s use of mood lighting is again apparent and these scenes are beautifully shot by cinematographer Antonio Rinaldi. The men surprise the villain and Moki makes Hagen vulnerable to Rurik’s dagger because he has removed a metal breastplate from his chest. The men are triumphant and the King and his family are happily reunited together again. Rurik mounts his stallion and rides off along the coast as if there was going to be a sequel. The credits roll….

Even though this is a period piece there is a limited budget at hand and Bava shot a great deal of the film outdoors using natural lighting. For a Norse saga there is an absence of brooding castles, the cast is pretty small, and Cameron Mitchell literally steals the show. The score by Marcello Giombini is rousing at times and helps accent the action scenes. Visually this is a very good print and the colors are bold and distinct. I advise watching with the Italian language track on with the English subtitles for added authenticity.

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 widescreen HD 1080p 2/fps mastered in AVC MPEG-4 compression, this is an excellent presentation from Kino Lorber yet again. The landscapes are lush and green, the coastal footage is striking, and flesh tones are correct and eye pleasing.

Audio

Two audio tracks are included, one a dubbed English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track and the other an original Italian LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack is used and is fairly utilized, with dialogue being very clear. The soundtrack is interesting and non-evasive. Optional subtitles are included in English.

Extras

An audio commentary track by Tim Lucas, the author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark is included and Lucas is the man when it comes to Bava’s importance as a director. Fact filled and insightful, Lucas’ commentary adds to making this a must have for collectors.

The film's original theatrical trailer (1:26) is also included.

A selection of bonus trailers are featured for:

- "Baron Blood" (2:23).
- "The Evil Eye" (2:09).
- "Kill, Baby…Kill!" (2:31).
- "Hatchet for the Honeymoon" (2:37).
- "Lisa and the Devil" (3:14).

Packaging

Packaged in a standard Blu-ray keep case.

Overall

Bava makes use of a familiar storyline and injects some new life into it. The film clocks in at a brisk 84 minutes and there are some well-staged fight scenes. Cameron Mitchell is very good as the stranger with the many knives.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: B Overall: A-

 


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