Friday 20 August 2010

Crepax’s Valentina Rendered Celluloid Flesh

Baba Yaga aka Baba Yaga: Devil Witch
aka Kiss Me Kill Me aka Black Magic
1973 US Directed by Corrado Farina
Shameless Screen Entertainment
DVD Region 0

You know... in the history of cinema there have been comic strip movies... and there have been comic strip movies. That is to say there have been some fairly entertaining pop-corn fodder like the recent Spider-man, Batman and X-Men movies. There have been some hugely interesting or sometimes quite faithful entertaining versions like the original Flash Gordon serials, the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial, Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella (although I suspect that last one isn’t exactly faithful to its source material). And then there are a few movies either adapted from or inspired by comic strips that really give it a go at understanding either the structure or the intent of the source material and are straight out masterpieces in their own right... two I could think of are American Splendor and Ghost World (and if you haven’t seen these you really ought to do yourself a favour and take a look at them).

One of the more interesting movies from this popular genre which exists in a hinterland somewhere between completely entertaining but not quite masterpiece is director Corrado Farina’s excellent movie Baba Yaga, which is inspired by the much loved Valentina character created by Guido Crepax. Crepax is probably best known in this country (UK) for his graphic novels based on such erotic classics as The Story of O, De Sade’s Justine and Emmanuelle... but for people everywhere else, Valentina is an important character. I remember being a teenager in the 80s and reading what few tales of Valentina could be translated into English without being heavily censored in serialised form in the US translation of the Heavy Metal comics which were imported into the UK. Valentina was amazing and helped lead my mind into the strange, erotic quagmire that it is today. Valentina, after the initial early tales, was always big on nudity (including, of course, Valentina herself, who was based on the visual image of Louise Brooks) with a hefty dose of sado-masochism (a term which seems to have evolved into BDSM these days... or just dumbed down, not sure which) and my mind was always erotically charged whenever I’d see those very clear, crisp ink drawings reproduced on the page.

A while ago now, a US company released a DVD of Farina’s movie version of the Valentina strip, Baba Yaga, and it was a great watch... up until now. On that original DVD there were a whole load of deleted scenes which the director rightly bemoaned was cut from his movie by the producers without his agreement. In 2009 Shameless Screen Entertainment, who seem to be doing a amazingly good job with their releases up until now (but I’m bound to find something I can grumble about sometime) have released in the UK a Region 0 (that means you can all play it whatever country you’re from, whether you have a multi-region machine or not) DVD which, with the help and approval of the director, restores those scenes back into the movie... and boy, does it make a difference.

Little bursts of eroticism and politically charged outbursts against violence and the establishment are back into the mix, including a fascinating pre-credit sequence which gives the film, in my humble opinion, even more of a lift and a more direct access into the kind of surreal cultural stew that permeates the remainder of the film and which leads directly into the credits sequence which utilizes Crepax’s wonderful line drawings from Valentina in its make-up.

As you may or may not know, Baba Yaga is a mythical witch character from Slavik folklore who kidnaps children and, well, does witchy things to them. In the movie she is played by Carrol Baker who you may know from such films as Baby Doll, The Big Country and How The West Was Won (and yes, you don’t need to point out to me that I’m beginning to sound like Troy McClure... give me a break here though, I’m not a cartoon... at least not on week days). In this movie she has a fetished up S&M doll who turns into a full-on flesh and blood fetishistic dominatrix at will (because you can’t have a Valentina story without Valentina getting whipped into an S&M frenzy) who is causing Valentina all kinds of trouble... as is her camera (Valentina is a photographer in this) which has been cursed by Baba Yaga and is killing people or rendering things inoperable whenever she clicks the shutter. Valentina herself is played by French actress Isabelle De Funès who almost, but not quite, looks like Valentina. The hair and figure seem about right to me but the face just seems a tad too old and maybe a little less innocent than it ought to. She does a fine job in the part though and to be honest it’s one of those cool Euro-movies which are more about the way in which the camera moves through the shot, the pace of the editing and the way, in this particular case, the frames are arranged to be more comic book like in their execution than about the performances of the actors.

Plus the score in this by Piero Umiliani, who gave us the classic, good time, I-will-play-this-album-to-death score to Mario Bava’s Five Dolls For An August Moon... is another classic and should, in an ideal world, be available on CD. Can some bright spark record label please release this score already?

While Baba Yaga is probably not the perfect movie that I would have wanted a Valentina adaptation to be, it’s a way cooler than the majority of comic book movies made today and it’s never boring. It’s definitely worth an hour and a half of your time and the restored and absolutely the best ever Shameless edition... Baba Yaga: The Final Cut... is definitely the one to get. Asides from the restored movie (which, to be fair, is not exactly seamless due to deterioration of the film stock I would guess on the restored scenes but which is absolutely watchable and a much more enhanced version of the movie) you also get two documentaries on the Fumetti by the director of the film which both feature Crepax’s creation in them and also a new interview with the director.

And as always with the Shameless versions you get a choice of cover with a reversible sleeve (both pictured above). The inside reverse sleeve has a wonderful poster painting and big, cool 1970s typography... but the regular front cover artwork has a load of drawings lifted directly from the Valentina strip... and I can’t not have the Guido Crepax artwork on my front cover. Spoilt for choice really!


  1. It's not Baba Yaga without the hut on chicken legs! That freaked me out as a kid. But reading this, I can only think "encyclopedic." You are the film encyclopedia extraordinaire--full of references and cross-references and leads to other cool films. Nice!

  2. Ha! Thanks Bucko, you're too kind.

    I'm actually unfamiliar with the original myth... why don't you tell me the story please? If you have time.

    As always, thanks for reading and commenting. Always good to hear from you.