Movie Discussion: Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve [Ecologia del delitto] (1971)

  • Monthly Theme: Video Nasties
  • The Film: Twitch of the Death Nerve
  • Alternative titles: A Bay of Blood, Blood Bath
  • Italian title: Ecologia del delitto
  • Alternative Italian title: Reazione a catena
  • Country of origin: Italy
  • Date of Italian release: September 8, 1971
  • Date of U.S. release: May 3, 1972
  • Studio: Nuova Linea Cinematografica
  • Distributer: Hallmark Releasing [dubbed]
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Mario Bava
  • Producer: Giuseppe Zaccariello
  • Screenwriters: Mario Bava, Filippo Ottoni & Giuseppe Zaccariello
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematography: Mario Bava
  • Make-Up/FX: Carlo Rambaldi
  • Music: Stelvio Cipriani
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes, a cameo by Italian genre starlet Nicoletta Elmi (DemonsDeep Red).
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: Best Special Effects at the 1971 Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival.
  • Tagline: “They came to play, they stayed to die.”
  • The Lowdown: The Countess, a rich matriarch who owns a beautiful bay in the Italian countryside, is brutally murdered, but it is made to look like a suicide. Suddenly, characters are crawling out of the woodwork trying to inherit the Countess’ fortune and property rights to the bay. As the bodies pile up, who will be left standing to lay claim to the bay of blood?

If you haven’t seen Twitch of the Death Nerve our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: How does one begin to talk about Twitch of the Death Nerve?

Kristine: I have lots of thoughts, but I’m not sure which one takes precedence. I’m curious to know what kinds of thoughts were running through your head during – and after – the movie.

Sean: I guess this rewatch really opened my eyes to how important this movie is to the establishment of the formulaic American slasher film, obviously the Friday the 13th films in particular. Twitch of the Death Nerve establishes so many of the conventions that Friday the 13th and many, many North American slashers would go on to embrace: the bucolic natural setting, the moments when we’re inhabiting the killer’s P.O.V., the semiotics/aesthetics of the kill scenes…. So much else, but those are the big ones.

The 4 stages of brutality

Kristine: I agree with all that, though my grasp on the Friday the 13th connections is certainly more superficial than yours (we’ve only watched the first two in the series). Mainly, several of the specific kills from Twitch are recreated in the Friday movies. Bobby getting macheted in the face is explicitly copied in the original Friday the 13th with Marcie getting axed in the face and then copied again in Friday the 13th Part 2 when Mark gets the machete in the face (though the amazing wheelchair-careening-down-the-steps aftermath is added – compliments to the chef). And obviously, the big one is the spear being driven through the couple while they’re having sex, which is recreated whole-cloth in Friday the 13th Part 2. I also noticed that the killer’s approach to the bed, with the spear in the foreground of the shot, is also copied in Friday the 13th Part 2 when Jason slowly closes in on Vicki and all we see in the foreground is his hand – complete with filthy fingernails – brandishing the butcher knife. Those first two Friday movies really are a pastiche of Twitch of the Death Nerve. And it was also interesting to see the camera take on the killer’s P.O.V. here, three years before Black Christmas and seven years before Halloween popularized that technique. Denise’s post-mortem wriggling is such a grotesque imitation of fornication. Is that the titular Twitch of the Death Nerve? The Webster’s definition of ‘cadaveric spasm’ (also known as ‘postmortem spasm’): “a rare form of muscular stiffening that occurs at the moment of death…the cause is unknown, but is usually associated with violent deaths happening under extremely physical circumstances with intense emotion.” I’d say that being speared to your boyfriend during sex qualifies as a “violent death happening under extremely physical circumstances with intense emotion.”

The killer whips it out and approaches…

Sean: Their wriggling after being speared actually made me sick.

Kristine: I loved it.

Sean: Note the changes they made for Friday the 13th Part 2. In that version of the scene, Sandra is on the bottom, pinned under her boyfriend’s body. She sees the killer with the spear raised and has time to gasp in terror before he strikes. It’s a big change, actually, and another piece of evidence that classic slasher movies actually are about female subjectivity, however twisted they might be.

Kristine: Good point.

Sean: You’ve observed several times in the past that a key trope of the North American slasher is the moment where the final girl finds the bodies of the murder victims all fastidiously arranged… That scene where Renata finds the bodies of the four dead teens hilariously crammed into the bathtub is truly the grandfather to that trope (á la Halloween). There are so many similarities between those iconic North American slashers and this movie. But there are also some key differences, right? I was fascinated by how Twitch is animated by class warfare, which is a trope the North American slasher totally abandons.

The amoral teens wind up in a kind of orgy after all

Kristine: Agreed. The centrality of class conflict to the movie was very apparent to me from the opening scene. I really loved the setpiece that opens Twitch, with the Countess wheeling herself through those baroque interiors (complete with multiple shots of her manicured, bejeweled hands on the wheels) towards the window, where she gazes out across the bay at the shabby cabin (which we only later realize is Simon’s abode/squid-killing shack). The bay might as well be a set of railroad tracks, with Simon on the wrong side. Then, of course, there’s that insane exchange between Paolo and Simon about the nature of killing (remember that Simon says, “Man should live and let live without any interfering” in that scene – though all of his subsequent actions contradict that worldview). It seems like the conflict in Twitch is between several different social/economic classes: the wealthy (namely Filippo Donati) driven by greed and perversion (with all the hints to his sexual voraciousness), the working class (embodied by Simon) who is driven both by animus at his disenfranchisement but also a weird loyalty to the wealthy matriarch/dead mother (Psycho reference?), the amoral counterculture (embodied by the four pleasure-seeking teens) who are simply thrill-seekers and who do not respect or recognize social boundaries (they break into the nightclub and house and generally parade around the property without any regard), the intelligentsia (embodied by Paolo) who are infantilized and ineffectual, and a couple of different segments of the middle class – the striving wannabes (Frank and Laura, Renata and Albert) who want to seize power/resources from the upper classes by any means necessary, and the bored leisure class (Anna) who subsists on superstition, gossip and the vicarious thrill of other people’s bad behavior. And then there’s the Countess, representative of the aristocracy who inherit their power/land/wealth. But she’s also the most ‘moral’ agent in the film, despite all the melodrama surrounding Simon’s status as her illegitimate lovechild, because she stands up for and believes in the purity of Nature. Her access to wealth and property inoculates her against the greed and ambition that drive almost all the other characters and allow her to take on a romantic view of the world.

Sean: I guess Bava’s pretty clear, then, about what he thinks happens to romantics. They’re the first ones to be killed.

Kristine: Sure. I think it’s key that her romanticism is a byproduct of her wealth and privilege. Though Bava really knows how to luxuriate in those pretty surfaces and interiors. Her house is everything. Those red couches? I was drooling over her swag, but was a bit disappointed that those kinds of luxe interiors were not on display here as often as they were in Blood and Black Lace. The only other truly beautiful interior space was Frank Ventura’s amazing swinging bachelor pad. I was agog. The zebra print sheets? The insane space age bubble lamp? The orange curtains festooned with geometric patterns? The B&W graphic optic prints casually scattered hither and thither? And, of course, the essential of any decent bachelor pad: bottles of Dewar’s and objets d’art (such as antique spears) propped up just so against a throw pillow.

I cannot believe Renata breaks this beautiful bathroom door just to save her own measly life

Sean: That’s something the North American slasher doesn’t carry over – the luxe and intricately designed interiors. What about that bizarre yellow-glass bathroom door where Renata and Frank struggle? And Renata stabs him through the glass? And stands there, transfixed, staring into the deep wound she’s made in his leg? That door – and everything about that scene – was ridiculous.

Kristine: Mario Bava is truly up there with Pedro Almodóvar in specializing at décor porn.

Sean: Agreed. Back to Nature for a sec? It’s interesting to consider, for me, how these movies situate a body of water (the bay in Twitch of the Death Nerve – keep in mind that the U.K. release was titled A Bay of Blood) – Crystal Lake in the first two Friday the 13th films) – as the centerpiece for their universes. The body of water in Twitch of the Death Nerve (which feels embryonic and mythic to me, if that’s not an overreach) stands for Nature (with a capital ‘N’) and gives the movie its animating theme of development vs. conservation, protecting the wildness and beauty of Nature vs. the development of industry and capital, turning Nature into a luxe resort for the bourgeoisie (remember that Paolo hates Frank because “he wants to transform the bay into a sea of cement”). In the first two Friday the 13th films, the body of water is this bucolic symbol of middle-class childhood: the summer camp. So in both cases, Nature and class are intertwined in a lot of different ways. I’m also interested in the way the bodies of water in all three of the movies interact with human bodies, the way the water hides corpses (Brunhilda discovering the bloated corpse of Filippo Donati submerged under the dock), invites naked women into them – which always leads to death – and also, of course, Jason’s body emerging from the lake at the end of the original Friday the 13th. Compare that moment to the uncanny squids in Twitch. The image of the squid clinging to Donati’s rotted corpse is, perhaps, the most powerful image in the movie. And the presence of the squids in Twitch forces me to think about the differences between the bodies of water in the films: the brackish, oceanic Italian bay vs. the wooded freshwater American lake of the Friday films.

Calamari = an Italian delicacy

Kristine: I feel a bit doltish, because I honestly didn’t think much about the significance of the water. The only time I really considered it was when Brunhilda goes skinny-dipping. She sees the bay as this pristine place that’s all about leisure and freedom, which is a marker of her laid-back European attitude as opposed to Bobby’s American neuroticism. He only sees the water as a breeding ground for bacteria; “If it isn’t typhus it’ll be pneumonia!” he says. An aside: Isn’t the movie satirizing Eurotrash girls by naming her Brunhilda? Especially how the other characters call her, alternately, a Kraut and a Viking, which are not interchangeable terms – Is she Germanic or Norse? “She’s used to the cold like all the Vikings,” the French girl, Denise, says about Brunhilda. I think she’s supposed to be the most stereotypical Eurogirl imaginable – foreign name, prone to nudity, etc. Remember the big Terry-goes-skinny-dipping setpiece in Friday the 13th Part 2, which parallels Brunhilda’s naked swimming. Terry’s swim is interrupted by Scott spying on her and stealing her clothes, leading to both of their deaths. In Twitch, Brunhilda’s swim is cut short by her discovery of Donati’s corpse which, pointedly, is staged as a kind of molestation, with his mutilated hand drifting uncomfortably close to her crotch and caressing her skin. Sex and death, blah blah blah.

Donati molests women… even from beyond the grave

Sean: Yeah, but I have to say, I think Twitch and the Friday movies think about Nature in totally different terms. In the American films, Nature is a sinister place. The lake is there to swallow innocent children (Jason’s drowning), the woods are there to consume the camp counselors – they go into the woods but they don’t come out. From Friday the 13th Part 2 and on in the franchise, the character of the killer, Jason, is a representative of Nature. He’s an avatar for the moldering lake, the lush woods, the dense vegetation. He’s a Nature deity, of sorts, reborn out of the sludge and reeds and gunk of the lake. The whole premise of the American summer camp is that it transforms Nature into this safe space, this kid-friendly playground. But the Friday movies again and again insist that’s a fool’s errand, because it disavows the inherently sinister and uncontrollable force of Nature’s will, embodied by Jason in most of the sequels. Nature/Jason is there to destroy you for thinking you can just go traipsing into the wilderness like it’s a big fucking party. Nature is serious business. But Twitch, for the most part, truly constructs Nature as serene and Edenic. It’s the human element that brings the death and the bloodshed. Nature is the thing they all want to possess or control, but the bay and the brush and the woods are simply there, impartial and amoral. Human greed and striving leads to death. Especially important here is also how the Friday sequels revolve around a single killer/death-dealer, while in Twitch there are a handful of killers, all motivated by very basic things – greed and revenge. While Jason is a force with very few human qualities, the killers in Twitch are all too human and their reasons for killing don’t reflect the ‘will’ of Nature (like Jason’s arguably do). Of course, Anna brings a twinge of the Gothic to the proceedings, claiming that Death is imminent because of a convergence of elements (“The lines of air, fire and water and all the earth are now complete,” she tells Paolo forebodingly). But Nature itself is not sinister in Twitch of the Death Nerve; humanity is the sinister force, perhaps best exemplified by the live beetle pinned to the board in Paolo’s study, its legs flailing wildly. Even Paolo, who claims to cherish and admire the natural world, despoils it.

Kristine: You know, it stood out to me that most of the characters are in this gorgeous natural environment, but all they want to do is get inside. All of the characters are desperate to own/possess the bay, but they don’t actually want to engage in nature. There are a couple of exceptions, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. Brunhilda is idiotic, Simon is sadistic and Paolo claims to worship Nature but he just wants to catalogue and objectify it, turning living things into specimens and pets. As Simon points out, Paolo’s bugs “still end up under [his] microscope” – not the most romantic behavior. Still, Paolo frolicks about with a butterfly net while Simon chews on a live squid, which is quite a statement about contrasting forms of masculinity, though both are portrayed as being abject in my opinion.

A tale of two masculinities

Sean: Paolo is the effete man of science… Again, it’s all about class conflict – working class masculinity vs. intellectual middle class effeminacy. Paolo infantilizes his pet bug, hates his wife (a kind of impotence/lack of heterosexual interest), and sashays around the bay with his net.

Kristine: For the most part, the characters in Twitch want to be inside, away from nature. They want to create real estate and inhabit luxe interiors.

Sean: Great point. Bava is very clear that the bay as a representative of Nature’s serene side is one of the main things on this movie’s mind, with all those long, picturesque pans across the water and the woods. Several of those shots were very beautiful and, in particular, I loved the long scene of Anna walking in her vampire cape along the bay at night, with the purple/black skies swirling in the background and the bushes and foliage in the foreground. I think that’s a fucking amazing moment. Also, you called Simon a sadist and I think that’s right. I was really thinking about Cannibal Holocaust when Simon and Paolo have their debate about killing living things. Simon says, “At least I eat my squid and I don’t kill as a hobby like you do… If you kill for killing’s sake, you become a monster.” I think that we’re supposed to view the rest of the movie through the lens of that statement. I see this as a very misanthropic movie. It has a real mean-streak. It sees the middle and upper classes as a bunch of sociopathic, striving monsters. I think Twitch of the Death Nerve is a pro-Nature polemic that is basically arguing that people need to just die off so the beauty of Nature can exist unimpeded.

A phallic end for a phallic sadist

Kristine: I thought we were back in Cannibal Holocaust territory when Simon kills the squid with his teeth. I just want to say that the squid clinging to Donati’s corpse-face really reminded me of the Facehugger from Alien.

Sean: The squid scene is fucking revolting and shocking and amazing. I love how Renata spends the next ten minutes dry-heaving and retching (and how she commands Albert to “Get the Mercedes!”). I’d like to return to how Anna, the psychic diva, invokes and channels the Gothic into the movie. I think she’s meant as both parody (her drunk hiccupping) and homage (the pure visual power of her cape, curls and massive amounts of jewelry, chewing on the edges of Tarot cards). But she, importantly, foretells/foresees the violence to come, saying things like, “The clouds are swirling. There will be tears shed over the bay… The sickle of Death is about to strike!” I don’t know if you remember, but when we watched Friday the 13th one of the weirdest and most incongruous moments is when Marcie talks about this surrealistic, prophetic dream she’s had about the sky raining blood and Death coming. It’s a jarring moment because it feels like something out of a different kind of movie. I was struck by how Twitch of the Death Nerve and Friday the 13th both subtly channel some supernatural/Gothic elements.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 4.04.44 PM
If you bite your Tarot card, the prophecy will definitely come true

Kristine: I did like the contrast between Paolo, the ‘professional naturalist,’ and his wife, the one truly in touch with the environment and one of the only characters that engages in the outdoors the way humans are meant to – you know, by traipsing about the woods floating on a wine cloud in a black cape.

Sean: As you do. Can we discuss the opening scene and the Countess (what kind of gay camp diva realness is that name)? First off, there is not a word of dialogue for the first nine minutes of the movie. Just saying. I thought the opening was a very funny self-aware riff on the giallo formula. First the Countess is killed by a murderer and we only see his hands in gloves (giallo trope) but then we see Donati’s face (in a gialli we never see the killer’s face until at least the midway point) so we know he can’t be the “real” killer. Sure enough, moments later he is killed by the “real” giallo killer, a faceless, unseen man also wearing black leather gloves. Somehow the most upsetting image in the movie is the Countess’s hands dangling there after she’s been strung up by Donati. The way Bava keeps returning to them and turning them into these fetish objects really struck me and upset me.

Kristine: I think you’re right, but I also found it poignant. Like you say, this film is misanthropic. Most of the murders are shocking in their method and viciousness, but I didn’t care about any of the characters. They are all stupid and selfish, if not downright evil. Remember earlier when I mentioned how I was struck by the image of the Countess’ bejeweled hands wheeling herself through her villa? Initially I thought this was a subtle way to establish her character – refined, wealthy, self-sufficient, proud. But when her hands are shown again, dangling as her body hangs there, I found it pretty devastating. Like all those qualities her hands suggested about her character when she was alive moments ago are gone now, in the most dehumanizing way. I found her death scene to be really shocking, maybe just because it’s the first one and it happens so immediately. The scene is so serene and the assault and murder is so jarring and abrupt. She cuts such a dignified figure, to watch her reduced to a hung piece of meat was so… Don’t laugh, but it is so gauche! And I thought the wheelchair being kicked away, laying on its side with the wheels spinning, was really the cherry on the sundae of indignity. Now, I gather that the Countess had her faults like the rest of them (such as, umm, secret children that live in murder shacks?), but still, her death was the only one that moved me.

Thanks god the Countess got that manicure right before her brutal murder

Sean: I agree that the Countess is one of the only characters in the movie who is portrayed even marginally sympathetically, especially her ‘heroic’ speech about protecting the bay and allowing the beauty of nature to exist unspoiled. She’s one of the only people with any sense of morality, it seems, despite her twisted backstory with Simon… and aren’t there so many parallels to Jason and Mrs. Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies there? We’re told that the Countess “kept [Simon] there, like a wild animal, right under her nose, a constant reminder of her weak flesh.” In both universes, the mother’s son is barely human, is partially ‘wild,’ but notably Mrs. Voorhees is the force of the moral majority, punishing American teens for their “weak flesh,” while the Countess is the one who is guilty of sin. Two very different takes on the mad matriarch. What about the ending of Twitch of the Death Nerve? Where the kids kill their parents and go traipsing off into the wild reeds?

Kristine: Loved loved loved. Loved it all. The ending is a total surprise and a gift from Bava to the viewer.

Sean: It’s a fucked up ‘happy’ ending, right? The only people capable of enjoying/coexisting with Nature are these ‘innocent’ monsterkids… That redhead is Nicoletta Elmi, who played the little girl from Deep Red and the evil redhead from Demons, fyi.

Kristine: Woah.

Sean: Can we address how fucking misogynistic this movie is? I can do it in one word, actually: skwonk.

Kristine: What the fuck is that?

That’s what you get when you wear such an egregious mullet

Sean: OMG, really???? At the beginning, Frank is basically telling his lover Laura what a useless twat she is and he invents this imaginary creature, the skwonk, that is a metaphor for women. He says that a skwonk is “a dark-colored creature. Its skin is covered with moles. It’s equipped with long claws and strong teeth… It only gives itself away because a skwonk never stops whimpering…. When captured it dissolves into tears… Sulkiness, diffidence and possessiveness… These are highly inconvenient tendencies for a personal secretary… or a partner in an affair as important as ours.” His pet name for her for the rest of the movie is SKWONK.

Kristine: Oh yeah. I remember that stupid monologue. I also remember him telling Laura to “be a good girl” and that she could come over later (for him to fuck her, obviously) but “make sure to call first.”

Sean: Skwonk.

Kristine: Just erase that word from your vocabulary right now.

Sean: What about when Paolo says, to his bug, “Your females are queens, Ferdinando, not babbling fortune tellers,” referring derisively to his wife. The men in this movie basically hate women.

Kristine: I agree absolutely.

Nature’s babies

Sean: So was this a breath of fresh air after Cannibal Holocaust?

Kristine: Yes, except for when the squid scene gave me flashbacks. It was nice to see people being killed because of basic greed, as opposed to being killed and brutalized just because humans are evil fucks.

Sean: This movie is like a lurid, violent episode of Dynasty. Rich bitches fucking each other over for melodrama and cash. Except instead of social humiliations, its just murder.

Kristine: Um, from my notes: “This movie is a black comedy with gore/super-violent soap opera elements.” Can I ask what your favorite murder setpiece was?

Sean: I think Shy Bobby, he of the criminal mullet. The machete to his face comes with such an amazing sound effect. I’ll tell you my least favorite murder sequence: when Simon strangles Laura to death. It felt really misogynistic, like the movie was luxuriating in her suffering. Plus, he just got a pot of boiling water to the face! All she’d have to do is rake her nails across his burned face and he’d be down for the count. I hated that scene. It was like that disgusting scene in Inglourious Basterds where Hans Landa strangles Bridget von Hammersmark. When we watched that movie, my boyfriend leaned over after that scene looking pale and nauseous and was like, “I really wish that scene hadn’t happened.” Such pure sadism and pure lady-hatred, played for maximum titillation. Especially because Laura was, after the Countess, the closest we get to a true romantic. “Love isn’t love without a little cuddling after,” she tells Frank in their first scene (which reminded me a lot of Sam and Marion’s hotel room tryst at the opening of Psycho).

Heart-shaped binocs

Kristine: The last thing I’d like to mention is how I was really aware of all the shots of eyes, of people bearing witness. This is a giallo thing, I realize, like the killer’s eye glistening in the light off the razor blade right before Donald Pleasance’s murder in Phenomena or the killer’s eyeball peering through the door at Suzy Kendall in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. And like we’ve discussed many, many times, horror movies often construct the act of looking as prurient and sadistic, and Twitch of the Death Nerve follows suit: Renata spying with the binoculars, Paolo and his magnifying glass, etc.

Sean: Right. And that’s the kind of moral universe Bava’s created here. Everyone’s a sadist, everyone is always spying. Anna creeps about the woods in her cape, Paolo skulks about with his butterfly net, Renata and Albert, Simon… everyone. Even the two little kids are first shown spying on their parents through the window when they’re supposed to be asleep. Everyone looks, everyone inflicts damage. Though I guess Bava suggests the children are ‘innocent’ because they don’t understand consequences, they don’t have a moral compass.

Kristine: Exactly. They’re not corrupted by cynical motivation. They are perfectly amoral and, thus, perfect agents of Nature. Which is where we leave them, scampering off into the woods.

Sean: Maybe they’ll find Jason Voorhees out there and they’ll all be one big happy family.

Kristine: That would be cute.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Total trash! I loved it AND Slick, bloody fun AND The kids are all right (for the heroes at the end!) AND Totally disgusting (but just for the squid).

The Freak’s Rating: Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative AND Stylistic triumph AND Worth watching for the campy dramz

8 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve [Ecologia del delitto] (1971)

  1. I am a fan of this blog. I love reading both of your many theories for various horror films as well as how both your writing styles allows for your personalities to shine through. It has been a while since the last write up and am wondering if the “Girl Meets Freak” blog has sadly been stopped for good?

  2. Hi Andrea,

    Yeah my partner-in-crime has had some changes in her life that have taken her away from the blog. Thanks for reading and enjoying!


  3. Oh, no! That’s heartbreaking! I’ll keep all my toes crossed for a GMF reunion someday. Meanwhile, thanks for all the amazing, fantastic criticism. I love, love, love this blog. There’s nothing else quite like it.

  4. very sad news. will miss you two; you had great chemistry and the blog was something i looked forward to reading. i could see a book percolating even! sad face… 😦

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