Mario Bava Directs This Viking Cowboy Roman Revenge Pic With Stylish Flair
DIRECTED BY MARIO BAVA / 1966
KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
STREET DATE JANUARY 15, 2019
The Italian director Mario Bava is best known for the gruesome horror movies he made spanning from 1960’s Black Sunday to 1977’s Shock. His movies helped launch the Italian giallo genre, a gothic blend of thriller, horror and eroticism that would influence the American slasher films of the 70’s and 80’s. Bava wasn’t a one-trick pony, however. His work spanned a wide range of genres, including science fiction, westerns, crime capers, comic book adaptations and… viking films? Yeah, for… reasons, viking movies became a thing in Italy in the 1960’s, and even a director like Bava wasn’t immune to their charms. Hence we have Knives of the Avenger, one of Bava’s multiple forays into the genre.
Like Bava’s previous Viking movies, Erik the Conqueror and The Last of the Vikings, Knives stars Cameron Mitchell, an American actor who struggled in films, but found success on television in the early 60’s on the Western series The High Chaparral. From there, he went on to star in numerous Italian genre films- a career path that paid off for other American actors in big ways. In Knives, Mitchell plays a stranger with a mysterious past who rides into a small village that has been overrun by a bandit chief. The village’s king, Arald, has vanished on an expedition along with most of the town’s warriors, and is believed to be dead. The bandit, Hagen (Fausto Tozzi), wishes to force the king’s widow, Karin (Elizza Pichelli), to marry him in order to legitimize his rule. This Hagen is a seriously bad dude. He’s so bad, dogs whine and slink away at his approach. Mitchell’s stranger arrives in time to save Karin from some of Hagen’s goons, and he decides to stick around to keep an eye on her and her young son, Moki (Luciano Pollantin).
For a Viking movie, this has all the set-up of a really good Western. Indeed, on the commentary track that comes with Kino’s Blu-Ray release, film historian Tim Lucas goes as far as to call Knives a straight-up remake of Shane. Watching the film, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from with that. Mitchell forms a strong bond with the young Moki, teaching him archery and (Mitchell’s speciality) knife-throwing. The young boy hero-worships the grizzled veteran and even gets himself into some tight spots because he wants to watch his new mentor kick butt and chew spekesild. Beyond that, the connections to Shane grow thin. The Alan Ladd Western may have heavily inspired Bava, but the Italian director puts enough of a spin on the material as to differentiate it.
Remake of Shane or no, Knives does have strong connections, stylistically, to the Western that go well beyond all the horseback riding. Mitchell doesn’t use guns, obviously, but his consummate skill at quick-draw knife throwing and his shady past link him to countless movie gunslingers- especially those of the spaghetti-western variety that were becoming increasingly popular at the time of Knives’ release (Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was wrapping up with 1966’s release of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly). The violent band of outlaws taking advantage of a town’s lawlessness is a staple of the Western genre. Though Viking-flavored, the costuming and set-design aren’t that far off from what you might find on the American frontier. There’s even a saloon where you can get a beer or whiskey poured by a slovenly barkeep. No bets as to whether or not a brawl breaks out there.
The production of Knives was reportedly a troubled one. Bava took over directing duties and rewrote and reshot the film in six days. Given that, it’s not surprising the film feels a little shaggy, even given its brief runtime of 85 minutes. Still, overall Knives is a solid piece of action-adventure filmmaking. Bava’s not aiming for high art here (if indeed he ever was), but he’s doing more than just cranking out cheap schlock. Even for such an implausibly quick production schedule, the photography (Bava frequently acted as his own cinematographer) and the stunt work show some signature style. If he had to lean heavily on Western tropes to do so, that doesn’t take anything away from Knives. If anything, it adds to the movie’s character turning what might’ve been just another Italian Viking movie into one worth checking out.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release comes with the aforementioned audio commentary by Lucas. It also has an alternate English dialogue track (for this review, I watched the Italian track, with English subtitles), a theatrical trailer and trailers for other Mario Bava films.