I love Mario Bava. LOVE, people--not "like" or "enjoy the films of." My passion probably clouds my reason and leads me to view his films with the dewey, wide-pupiled eyes of an awkward high school freshman admiring the soccer team captain (or a sparkly, hairless vampire--whatever; you get the point). The Bava-ranking scale in my brain is calibrated from "really cool" to "orgasmically fabulous."
That having been established, I found "5 Dolls for an August Moon," a film that Bava allegedly began churning out within 48 hours of inking his signature the contract and ultimately claimed to be one of his most disappointing efforts, to be a yummy if nonsensical little mystery that brims with vintage 1970 style. I know how extraordinarily vexing it can be to have someone claim that a work of yours that you strongly dislike is all kinds of marvy, and Bava himself would likely dispute the review that I'm going to post here, but I do it out of LOVE, which (as we all know) is renowned for its blindness-related potential.
"5 Dolls for an August Moon" blends elements of black comedy, playful narrative and psychedelic fashion into a fun mystery story. Three wealthy couples have gathered at the isolated island mansion of millionaire George Stark to attempt to convince the Professor Fritz Farrell (who is accompanied by his ice-queen wife Trudy) to sell his industrial resin formula. When Farrell resists, the murders begin. Yes, it's pretty much "Ten Little Indians," but with gobs and gobs of colorful style substituting for Agatha Christie's clever plotting.
The cast is full of recognizable faces, chief among them being that vixen with more hair than any living woman, the fabulous Ms. Edwige Fenech. Fenech is given an opportunity to play a scheming, adulterous wife, which she plays as flamboyantly as her Woman In Peril roles. Eurotrash vet William Berger (picture him tenting his fingers and arching an eyebrow--that's right; it's Father Vicente from "Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun") does a creditable job as Professor Ferrell and Ira von Furstenberg is haughty and beautiful as Trudy, whose lesbian desires for George's wife Jill provide some interesting plot tension (if a disappointing absence of actual girl-kissing).
These jet-setting millionaires may be a generally oily and unlikable lot, but don't think for a minute that this means they're not incredibly well dressed. The costumes are drool-worthy, from Edwige's scanty white petal bikini to the slim-cut hep-cat trousers favored by the gents of the cast. Spangles, gauze, colorful lacey undergarments, and pop art fabrics abound. The house where much of the action goes down is the seaside equivalent of the Frank-Lloyd-Wright-esque mansion at the end of "North by Northwest," with its cliff-side perch and vast expanses of window. Everything is circa-1970-sumptuous, right down to the rotating round bed and the ritzy glassware. And yes, in case you were wondering--these folks ARE drinking J&B.
A riotously jazzy soundtrack sounds like it might be at home in Jess Franco films made during this same time period--there are moments when the amazing music is driving the film perhaps more than the on-screen action. The music underscores some of the story's blackly comedic moments, keeping things from getting too serious and enhancing this delicious confection of a film.
This would not be a proper discussion of a Mario Bava film if the artistry of the cinematography went unaddressed. I know there are some mixed-at-best opinions towards the use of day-for-night shooting and frequently it's more comedic than atmospheric, but as used this film it works very well, casting an eerie moon-like light on the outdoor shots. Adding to my glee is the deployment of the fish-eye lens, which is used to play some clever tricks with perspective.
I can see why many folks rank this as one of Bava's lesser efforts--the pacing is iffy at times and, initially, the number of cast members introduced within such a short span of time (nine players, all shown in a party together) gave me a little difficulty in trying to understand what was happening in the story. The mystery isn't particularly slickly crafted--OK, it's not really so much crafted at all. The tale just sort of unwinds in a "Because I Said So" sort of manner, leaving logic in the dust like one of Ms. Fenech's discarded undergarments. To further this analogy, I don't really fret about that discarded undergarment because I'm too busy enjoying looking at what's underneath it.