Synopsis: Imagine Quentin Tarantino remaking LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT inside a speeding car…That’s Mario Bava’s RABID DOGS (Cani Arrabbiati), a brutal and ironic kidnapping story whose unflinching realism makes it unlike any other film ever made by Italy’s foremost director of horror and fantasy. The violent, pessimistic and darkly ironical story of RABID DOGS says much about why Bava sought refuge in art, why fear was his favorite subject, and why he felt compelled to stylize everything in his films-from the colored gel lighting that illuminated his actors, to their unrelenting acts of violence. Made in the Summer of 1974, five years before Bava’s death, RABID DOGS was virtually completed when one of its key investors was killed in a traffic accident; the footage was impounded until it was completed twenty years later according to Bava’s editing notes!
RABID DOGS is to Bava’s career what DETOUR is to the filmography of Edgar G. Ulmer, a minimalist noir masterpiece that shows how much drama he was capable of conjuring onscreen with little or no means. The release of Rabid Dogs is a momentous occasion for Italian genre buffs, worldwide. It’s one of Bava’s best and darkest films, and also one of his greatest technical achievements!
Cani arrabbiati 7.75
eyelights: its plot. its tension-building. its twists.
eyesores: Don Backy, George Eastman and Maria Fabbri’s performances.
“We’re all a little bit tense.”
To say that Mario Bava hit some speedbumps in his career would be an understatement. Already limited by tight budgets and unremarkable resources, he also had to deal with producers who would force him to make movies he didn’t want to make and has had pictures taken out of his hands.
‘Cani arrabbiati’ is one such example.
Originally filmed in 1973, the production fell apart in the latest possible stages: with most of the filming already wrapped up, the producer went bankrupt and the resulting footage was kept in legal limbo for twenty years, when it was finally unearthed and screened for the first time.
Since it hadn’t been completed, audio, a credit sequence, and filler material were inserted into it. Then taken out. Then new footage was introduced in a new edit by Bava’s son, Lamberto. There are, according to some accounts, a minimum of four versions under perhaps as many titles.
‘Cani arrabbiati’ is the closest to the shooting script – thus, to Mario Bava’s intentions. It was first released in 1998.
The story is simple: four small-time criminals steal a briefcase full of money in a bloody hold-up. Chased by the police, they wind up taking a woman hostage during their escape and then hijacking a car and its passengers: a man and his young son, whom he’s trying to drive to the hospital.
Stuck together, the five adults try to make their way to a hidden getaway car, all the while ditching the authorities and avoiding being recognized by other civilians – and overcoming their differences in the process. It’s a tension-filled roadtrip that lasts approximately 90 minutes.
Most of ‘Cani arrabbiati’ is set inside the car, with some breaks to get water at a carstop, to go to the bathroom, to get gas, …etc. The ride is nearly as claustrophobic as it would be in real life, stuck with two psychotics, two sociopaths, a tearful victim and a sleeping child.
But this is what makes the picture so engrossing; its gritty realism is a far cry from the glossy fodder you’d have gotten from Hollywood at the time. It’s unrelenting: it builds layers of tension by causing conflict between the characters and adding risk for both the criminals and hostages.
At every turn there’s a chance that the thieves will get caught – and, given their erratic nature, confrontation can’t end well. And there’s the persistent threat of sexual abuse, with the two hoods foaming at the mouth around Maria, who obliviously leaves her blouse open the whole way.
These hints of flesh constantly remind us that she’s in danger.
There’s this scene when Maria asks to relieve herself, and is allowed to on the side of the road, only to make a break for it when they’re distracted. This leads to an extended chase through cornfields that we know can’t end well. Indeed, Maria is caught and humiliated by her rabid captors.
Thankfully, Bisturi and Trentadue are reeled in by Dottore, their leader, who remains cool under pressure. But his grip will loosen as they journey onward and his two wild dogs get antsy. The situation will become most unpleasant for many of the participants – though it’s not for us.
In fact, if anything, ‘Cani arrabbiati’ is an exciting, edgy ride that at no point slows down or falters; Bava strung together drama, suspense, action and twists so tightly that the motion picture just zips by. Granted, it has its flaws, such as red paint in lieu of blood or its non-effects.
But these can be overlooked.
The cast, for the most part, is very much equal to the material: Maurice Poli is cool and collected as Dottore, Lea Lander is appropriately shaken and desperate as Maria and Riccardo Cucciolla is perfectly impenetrable as the second hostage and driver; they’re the anchors of the group.
The problem lies in George Eastman as Trentadue and Don Backy as Bisturi, who overplay almost all of their scenes – especially Backy, who chews the scenery as if his life depended on it. They make Nicolas Cage seem subtle in comparison. Admittedly, they look the part but still they spoil it.
Then there’s the arrival of Maria Fabbri, as an interloper who imposes herself on the group when they’re stuck gassing up on a side road. She’s grating as all !@#$, talking talking talking endlessly like she’s on speed, like a garish cartoon rake. She made me want to shoot her in the head.
Still, this remains one of Mario Bava’s best pictures – though it’s stylistically different from his usual output. Given that it was made on an über-low budget and that it wasn’t even completed at the time, it’s a marvel. One can only imagine the outcome if Bava had had a hand in its completion.
In fact, it would have been a near-perfect swansong if Bava (who passed away in 1980) hadn’t given a final stab at filmmaking in 1977 and utterly missed the boat with ‘Schock‘. ‘Cani arrabbiati’ is a gripping picture by any standard – for its time, it’s an edge-of-your-seat phenomenon.
I’m a big fan.
(Nota bene: my rating would be higher, probably up to 8.25, if not for the performances…)
Date of viewing: July 15, 2017