With the imminent arrival of Tim Lucas’s long-awaited tome on Mario Bava, I decided the time was right for another look at FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON. The waning days of the particular month always seem like the right time to watch it, anyway.
1970’s FIVE DOLLS would never be the first Bava film that I'd show to somebody unfamiliar with the director—that would be DANGER: DIABOLIK, or maybe even BLACK SABBATH. But FIVE DOLLS always plays to me unlike any other film ever made. Whether that was entirely intentional is another question. And it’s a difficult film to properly summarize since portions of it still don’t seem to make any sense. Why does the houseboy’s body get discovered twice? Why doesn’t Marie tell anyone when she discovers the body? Who is Isabelle anyway? Maybe one reason I find myself continually drawn to it is the hope that eventually I’ll figure out a few of these things. Maybe if I consumed as much J&B as the characters seem to, it would help. Maybe someone can answer these questions. It doesn’t matter. I have too much fun watching it anyway. But really, who the hell is Isabelle?
With a basic plot similar to Agatha Christie’s TEN LITTLE INDIANS, the film presents us with several couples vacationing on an island, staying in a beach house owned by one of them. One of the guests is a scientist who has recently perfected a formula that we hear nothing about, except that it’s for a “new type of industrial resin.” Though checks for a million dollars are being waved in front of him, he expresses no interest in selling the formula, saying it’s for the good of mankind. Soon enough, murders begin occurring, raising the question of who wants the formula and who wants the money. But meanwhile, lots of drinking continues to occur.
As many of the deaths occurr offscreen, the film comes off as a sort of bizarre comedy of manners more than a horror film. The continued feeling of ennui of the main characters presents promise of an interesting scenario—hey, Antonioni’s making a slasher film!—and it would have been interesting if the film had gone even further in that direction. At one point a character states, “Everyone seems to be waiting for something that isn’t happening,” which is a great line, one of the best in the film. Fittingly, it’s uttered only a few moments before the onslaught of death begins. “Houseboys come and go, but there’s always a bottle,” is another key line, appropriate considering how the characters seem more occupied with drinking themselves into a stupor than figuring out who the murderer among them is.
It’s well known that Bava took on this project with very little notice, but it’s tougher to tell exactly what his intentions were. While some, including Lucas, have speculated that the zoom-crazy party that opens the film is emblematic of Bava’s “contempt” for the film and its production, enough of it remains sloppily written to the point that maybe the director should have been focusing his attention on other matters. But every now and then there's a moment, a shot, a sequence, that stands out. The continued use of color is something I continually find myself paying attention to throughout the film. As it is, I’m still a little in the dark on some of the plot turns.
The quasi-futuristic house is one of the things that draw me back to this film for repeat viewings, as are the performances. Yeah, it’s safe to say that the amazing Edwige Fenech walks off with the film at least in part by her own pure physicality. But several of the other actors, particularly Ira Furstenberg as Trudy, are very good and each of them seem to ‘pop’ in various ways that add to the film’s unique feel.
But the thing I suppose I love about this film most of all is the amazing lounge score by Piero Umiliani. Remembered mainly for composing the song “Mahna Mahna” which was later made famous by the Muppets, Umiliani’s work here provides much of the same bouncy, infectious feel, only the music here is designed to underscore an allegedly grim tale of murder. From the dialogue-free first moments of the party that opens the film, to the carnival-like bounce used whenever the various corpses are continually hung up in the meat locker, to the transcendent moment where Edwige Fenech runs along the beach after discovering the first corpse, Piero Umiliani’s music for FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON makes it something more than it would have been otherwise. When I first saw this film, on a bootleg tape, back in 1995, the first thing I said to the room was “If anyone ever finds this soundtrack, let me know.” Several years later in Tower Records on Sunset I found myself staring at the Japanese CD. It was priced at something like 35 dollars, but I took the plunge. I’m glad I did and the score for this film was probably crucial in my burgeoning interest in the lounge scores of this era.
I’ve sometimes daydreamed about remaking FIVE DOLLS and who could play some of the roles. Certainly a similar setting could be used and the music would of course be the same. But any possible rewrite would have to clear up some of the gaping plot holes and I’m not sure that the scenario could withstand such logic brought to it. Maybe it’s just best to let this film be. FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON brings up an interesting question of what is “good” in a film. There’s the issue of quality, of structure, of what is “well done”, ideas that are thrown out the window the instant the first zoom occurs during the party. But in the case of this film, I don’t care. Maybe it’s romanticizing a different era and genre, but FIVE DOLLS is an unusual record of a film made under duress but displaying nothing but the joy of making movies behind it. I don’t love this film because it’s so bad it’s good. I love this film because I’ve never seen and heard anything else quite like it.