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George Stark is a wealthy industrialist who invites five business friends of his to his remote Mediterranean island for a weekend of relaxation and business when he introduces them to Professor Farrell, a brilliant chemist who gives investment ideas to the group. But against Farrell's wishes, the group goes behind each other's back to obtain information on Farrell's chemistry ideas and soon the guests and residents start turning up dead one by one as Stark and Farrell must rally the group together to determine the identity of the killer (or killers) despite nobody trusting anyone. Written by
Seemingly Mario Bava was not pleased with having to direct this film. He carried out his duties as a director for hire though but despite the presence of the beautiful giallo regular Edwige Fenech, his disinterest to the project shows and the movie is wildly uneven but hugely likable. It's about an inventor who, along with a group of would-be investors, assemble on an island. The investors want a formula from the inventor and are willing to pay big for it but he does not want to sell out. Before long people start being murdered one by one. It's a variation on Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians.
It has the breezy atmosphere that many late 60's Italian thrillers have. It wasn't until after Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage became an international success that the giallo genre became more direct, aggressively suspenseful and violent. Five Dolls is very much a product of the gialli that came before this. Its lounge music soundtrack and languid nature testify to this. As an actual mystery thriller it's pretty lacking it has to be said. It feels like Bava's contempt for the material is reflected in his complete indifference in creating a suspenseful or thrilling movie. While it's a whodunit with quite a number of murders, they are all committed off-screen. This is not to the film's advantage at all. Characters suddenly die from out of nowhere with no build up. Sometimes it feels like Five Dolls is a lampoon of the genre. Judging by the black humour Bava utilised in the following year's Bay of Blood it is entirely possible that he isn't taking things entirely seriously here either.
What Five Dolls does have though is a beautiful look and feel. This is hardly surprising I suppose seeing as its Bava's trademark. The cinematography is always interesting, with several well composed shots and good use of the beach-front location and villa. While the production design, fashions and cool décor are all appealing. The interest of the film, therefore, is more in watching a chic melodrama involving a group of largely unsympathetic rich people. It works better as this, than as a thriller. Still, it does have some nice macabre touches that would have graced his best films, such as the repeat scene of the murder victims hanging up in the freezer wrapped in plastic; or the shot of crystal balls rolling en mass down a set of stairs and into a bathroom leading us to yet another dead body. But perhaps best of all is the opening party scene which introduces all of the characters. It's campy to the max, with lots of slow zooms into all of the character's faces, while Fenech dances in a crazy sensual way. This sequence, like many others, benefits from the score by Piero Umiliani. It's a very eccentric soundtrack of organ-driven Italo-pop. Five Dolls is certainly a film that favours style over substance.
Five Dolls for an August Moon is not one of Mario Bava's best films but it is among his most charming. Despite the inherent weakness of its plot and mystery-thriller elements there's just something extremely likable about it. It's of its time in the best possible sense.
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