Some critics and even the film's own director, Mario Bava, have at one point or another referred to 'Five Dolls For an August Moon' as one of the lesser efforts in his 37-film repertoire, and after an initial viewing it's difficult to argue with his opinion. Also known as 'Island of Terror,' the film stands out as both a blatant rip-off (read: phony homage) to Agatha Christie's 1939 novel 'And Then There Were None,' a.k.a '10 Little Indians,' and a surprisingly sedate thriller that is almost entirely free of such familiar thriller elements as apprehension, suspense, and tension. In fact, the whole thing plays out with all the intensity of a disinterested middle-aged housewife rocking a tumbler full of vodka and a fistful of Quaaludes.
The real point of interest – which always seems to make these supposed missteps by well-regarded, or at least well-liked, directors far more interesting – is that Bava, in a delightfully petulant move after being tasked with making this film even though he despised the script and had been given less than a week to prepare after replacing the outgoing director, deliberately worked to ensure the film would deny the audience the thrills they were seeking and had been promised through advertisements and any association that may have arisen from the director's involvement.
The result, then, has become not only Bava's most obscure film (it first received a U.S. release in the form of a DVD from Image Entertainment in 2001), but also a hotly contested one by the Bava faithful, who insist the film is not a creative failure, but rather a treasure trove of the behind-the-scenes machinations of a brilliant director who was working at his resentful best while making the movie. In a way, they're right; after learning of Bava's intentions for the story and his disdain for both its characters and the "unofficial source material," 'Five Dolls For an August Moon' actually becomes an interesting glimpse into the mind of a clever and visually gifted director through a series of nonverbal cues and the immense, slightly pertinacious restraint with which he presents what is basically a slasher film free of any slashing.
Beginning with a wild and somewhat perverse opening sequence in which a group of undoubtedly affluent individuals lasciviously gawk at the writhing frame of a woman who is one of their flock, and clearly comfortable with being ogled and reduced to an object, the film takes an odd, foreboding turn when the lights are briefly extinguished and upon their return it appears the frolicking minstrel has been stabbed in the heart with one of the knives recently handed out to the other guests. It all turns out to be a prank that soon becomes all too real, as the guests are knocked off one-by-one, gradually exposing their true nature, which plainly values material possession over human life.
While the opening sequence is intoxicating in its own lurid way – with just a hint of mockery aimed at another famous Italian director – the remainder of 'Five Dolls For an August Moon' fails to achieve the same delicate and enthralling balance of levity and bawdy fascination mixed with heightened expectation. In fact, it's not until the film's final scene – which was re-written by Bava himself – that we begin to see some element of trickery and playfulness peek through and actually resonate with the audience. Perhaps this anticipation on behalf of the audience is precisely why the rest of the film feels so flat. If that's the case, and if the reports of his disdain for the material are to be believed, the director delivered precisely what was intended.
That leaves the viewer's interpretation of the film in an awkward position. On one hand, even with the shaky narrative and less-than-favorable screenplay about a group of wealthy industrialists attempting to buy (then kill for) a formula of some revolutionary space-aged resin, Bava does a remarkable job delivering a very pointed estimation on greed and human nature through smart visual flourishes and interesting camera techniques, which are all indicative of his lengthy career as a cinematographer prior to becoming a full-fledged director. Bava uses a handful of recurring shots that symbolize his characters' various fantasies of wealth by calling upon them time and again, while lingering the camera's gaze on images of items being quietly coveted and mixing a potent visual cocktail of outward innocence mixed with wicked disobedience in one particular and highly telegraphed instance.
Still, at the end of the day, Bava was tasked with making 'Five Dolls For an August Moon' an entertaining and captivating "thriller," and the only thing interesting about the film is how it bizarrely builds zero apprehension or tension, despite being a semi-exploitative murder mystery. Without any background knowledge, the audience is treated to a movie that alternates between moments of barely coherent lustfulness and questions of murder, to outrageously long segments of people running around, shouting out the name of a character who has gone missing (no joke: the characters hurry across the island, calling out to Jack for two full minutes before the scene changes to something else). In this regard, the film is most certainly a disappointment.
This brings up an interesting argument then, as to whether or not a film should be judged solely on the merits of what the director delivers, in terms of the finished product, or if a film can and should be judged based on the filmmaker's intent that may have not been readily apparent in the actual presentation – especially if said intent was to peevishly undermine his own work as a way to subvert the audience's expectations when it came to the nature of the film in question. A possibly contentious answer is that the film can and should be judged based on both criteria, and that the additional information on Bava and his semi-resentful approach to making the movie actually helps one understand the film better and appreciate it more for the gorgeous bit of rebellion that it is.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Five Dolls For an August Moon' comes from the fine folks over at Kino Classics as a single 25GB disc in the standard slim keepcase. There is no content ahead of the top menu, so you are free to choose the feature, a whole host of other Kino releases in the Mario Bava Collection, or to watch the film with the optional commentary by author and film critic Tim Lucas.
This 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer was mastered in HD from the 35mm negative of the English language version, and although it still contains several instances of scrapes, dings, and lines, the telltale signs of aging only work to make the film feel distinctly of a specific time and place – a characteristic that helps the presentation enormously.
Aside from the noticeable wear and tear, 'Five Dolls For an August Moon' looks fantastic and is a marked improvement on previous releases. The most noticeable aspect of the transfer is just how bright and luminous everything is. Bava paid particular attention to detail in every single shot, giving great precedence over to the notion of color and how a particular palette can play a role in representation of a theme, and here that color palette is bright and vivid, and manages to saturate every inch of the viewer's television screen.
Fine detail is good, but not great, which is likely a result of the film's age and the stock it was made on. There is a noticeable layer of grain throughout the movie, which certainly gives it a warm, lived-in feel; it also detracts somewhat from the finer aspects of detail and texture. Still, there are several close-ups where the image looks particularly full of texture and fine detail, which, again, helps to offset some of the minor scrapes that artifacts that pepper the image. Contrast levels are consistent throughout and tend to be high in regard to producing deep and inky blacks and not letting the white levels run too hot. There's also some very nice gradation between the two and there's not a hint of anything like banding or noise anywhere else in the film.
All in all, this is a nice, but not terrific transfer, but for an older and certainly more obscure release, it's quite impressive.
Again, this is the English language version of the film, so for those hoping to get their hands on an original Italian mix, you're sadly out of luck. The dub is actually quite good for its part and isn't too distracting from the actors on-screen. While the LPCM 2.0 mix doesn't really have a lot of oomph to its presentation, it doesn't really need to as this is a low key film that relies primarily on the character dialogue and the fantastic musical score Piero Umiliani, which sounds slightly tinny in certain places here, but otherwise quite good.
All of the dialogue is clean and easy to understand, and the, as mentioned above the music generally comes through with good sound. Sound effects tend to sound as though they were added in post production – which the probably were – and therefore seem to be judged more on how delightfully phony they sound when played back. Otherwise, there's not a lot of extension going around on this audio mix. The two basic elements tend to sound very good and they are balanced with one another quite well.
Like the image, however, there is a noticeable amount of degradation on the audio in the form of some scratches and jumps that are few and far between, but a distraction nonetheless. It’s a given that audio this old and from this low budget of a production is going to have some issues, so it seems as though we should rejoice that it actually sounds as good as it does, rather than focus on the negative.
'Five Dolls For an August Moon' is the perfect example of cinema being rediscovered for a new generation. This film is presented beautifully, but, moreover, it is given new life by Tim Lucas' informative commentary that transforms the film from underwhelming effort of a popular director to something with far more meaning once you understand the context in which it was made. While it would have been nice to see a complete restoration and some additional special features, this one is certainly worth a look.