This second Viking movie from Mario Bava, following Erik the Conqueror (1961), is actually a loose reworking of the classic western Shane (1953). With the apparent death of her husband King Arald (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), Karin (Elisa Pichelli) and her son Moki (Luciano Polletin) go into hiding from the villainous usurper Hagen (Fausto Tozzi). Hagen’s men mount a surprise attack but they are thwarted by a heroic stranger, Rurik (Cameron Mitchell). Rurik is shocked to realise Karin was the woman he raped years ago whilst pillaging their village in the mistaken belief Arald was responsible for the death of his wife and child. Needless to say, the true culprit was Hagen. Wracked with guilt, Rurik becomes a surrogate husband and father to Karin and Moki until he discovers Arald is alive…
A great many protagonists in Mario Bava’s pictures are tormented by feelings of guilt and wrongdoing (often given physical manifestation as vengeful ghosts), but Rurik is among the few given a chance to atone for his misdeeds. Knives of the Avenger a.k.a. I cotrelli del vendicatore follows Rurik’s redemptive quest which progresses through two stages. In the first he endeavours to protect the woman he wronged and the boy who is most likely his son. Rurik teaches Moki how to be a man, not in any crass, self-serving, macho kind of way but in a manner that subtly conveys his deep regret. He wants to forge the boy into a better man than he. The next stage has Rurik relinquish his son to Arald, thereby sacrificing his second chance at happiness so their family can be healed.
While the subtext is indeed profound and Cameron Mitchell delivers an affecting performance beyond the call of a low-budget adventure movie, close scrutiny reveals the story does not amount to much. It is really just a series of stalk and chase episodes, the most suspenseful of which is the barroom confrontation between Rurik and Hagen - staged identically to the one between Alan Ladd and Jack Palance in Shane. Remarkably, Bava mimics the exact same lighting setups, showing he had the magpie approach of Italian exploitation cinema down to a fine art. The fight scenes are bloody and brutal but Bava does not revel in the sadism. Knives of the Avenger (its title derived from Rurik’s trademark throwing knives) has a gritty flavour that, coupled with its adherence to solid human drama, elevates this above the campy nature of most sword and sandal movies. In keeping with his horror movies, Bava includes a witchlike fortune teller who adds a further quasi-mystical layer to the film’s musings on fate, guilt and redemption. It may fall short of the mythic grandeur attained by its model Shane but this remains a solid B picture and a compelling work.
Italian director/writer/cinematographer and one of the few Italian genre film-makers who influenced, rather than imitated. Worked as a cinematographer until the late 1950s, during which time he gained a reputation as a hugely talented director of photography, particularly in the use of optical effects.
Bava made his feature debut in 1960 with Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, a richly-shot black and white Gothic gem. From then on Bava worked in various genres – spaghetti western, sci-fi, action, peplum, sex – but it was in the horror genre that Bava made his legacy. His sumptuously filmed, tightly plotted giallo thrillers (Blood and Black Lace, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Bay of Blood) and supernatural horrors (Lisa and the Devil, Baron Blood, Kill, Baby...Kill!) influenced an entire generation of Italian film-makers (and beyond) – never had horror looked so good. Bava’s penultimate picture was the harrowing thriller Rabid Dogs, while his last film, Shock, was one his very scariest. Died of a heart attack in 1980.