I had high hopes that Danger: Diabolik (1968) was going to be the Mario Bava film I could finally wholly embrace. It certainly stood the best chance. Well, maybe my hopes were too high, or maybe I had heard too much about how great it was—and maybe if I’d seen it when I was 12—it would be different, but it was a disappointment for me. I understand why people think it’s great, but it didn’t do it for me for a lot of reasons. I felt like I was laughing (to the degree I did) at the movie and not with it. The cheese factor was too high. The main characters—super criminal Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his girlfriend Eva (Marisa Mell)—have virtually no personality beyond being pretty, and are frankly pretty loathsome in the bargain. All in all, it felt way too much like something left over from the Adam West Batman series to impress me the way it was supposed to.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no beef with the idea of a sociopath or megalomaniac super villain as a main character or as the most interesting character. After all, nobody ever read a Fu Manchu novel or watched a movie featuring the insidious doctor because they were just wild about Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie (face it, they were little more than Holmes and Watson knock-offs). The problem I have with Diabolik on that score—apart from it wanting the viewer to take the villain as the actual hero—is that its super villain is so utterly drab and mundane. Is he out for something worthwhile like world domination—or even something amusingly absurd like Dr. Noah’s Bacillus in Casino Royale (1967)? No. He’s just greedy or out to impress his vapid girlfriend. This doesn’t do it for me.
I suspect part of my problem with the film’s concept lies in the fact that—unlike so many of its ardent supporters—I was there at the time and I understand why it wasn’t a big hit in 1968. It’s not just that American audiences had no familiarity with the character—though that certainly didn’t help, especially since Diabolik just assumes the viewer has that familiarity. The bigger problem was that it landed in the wake of not just the actual James Bond movies, but their campier spoof relatives like the Matt Helm (Dean Martin) movies—The Silencers (1966), Murderer’s Row (1966), The Ambushers (1967)—and the Derek Flint (James Coburn) pictures—Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967). There had even been European spoofs like Philippe de Broca’s That Man from Rio (1964) and Claude Chabrol’s Blue Panther (1965). And, of course, the year before Diabolik came out there’d been Casino Royale—the critically savaged, but immensely popular ultimate Bond spoof (hell, it even spoofed The Silencers). Regardless of how you feel about Bava’s film, it added very little to an already saturated spoof market
Of course, the film Diabolik is most compared to is Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968). Both were based on European comics, both were fantasticated—and both were on the cheesy side. I will happily concede that Diabolik is far more successful than the crashingly disappointing Barbarella. Bava’s film—though it often reminds me of one of those unintentionally funny episodes of the Japanese TV show The Space Giants (1967)—has a grasp on the basic idea that this can’t possibly be taken seriously, while Vadim’s film can’t seem to make up its mind. (It’s probably a wash in terms of pointless zoom shots, though.) Should you see it? Oh, yes. It’s an interesting artifact of its time. Whether it’s actually a great film is another matter.