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DVD SAVANT

THE Whip AND THE Body;
Blood AND Black Lace;
Kill, Baby... Kill!

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In the winter of 1999, Mario Bava hit DVD bigtime with Image Entertainment's special edition of Black Sunday. Since then they've followed with a steady string of horror classics. Now VCI entertainment has stepped into the market with this boxed set of 3 of Bava's best, making the Italian maestro one of the best represented classic directors on DVD.

Bava shifted between genres but is best known for his ingenious variations on the horror film. He had a solid hand in the birth of Italian horror as cameraman on 1957's I vampiri.. VCI's box set contains three of his better films, two gothic 'corridor' films, and the bloodsoaked epic that launched the giallo sub-genre.


The Whip and the Body
VCI
1963 / Color / 1:78 flat / La Frusta e il corpo
Starring Daliah Lavi, Christopher Lee, Harriet White Medin, Tony Kendall, Isli Oberon, Jacques Herlin, Luciano Pigozzi, Dean Ardow
Cinematography Ubaldo Terzano
Art Direction Ottavio Scotti
Film Editor Renato Cinquini
Original Music Carlo Rustichelli
Writing credits Ernesto Gastaldi, Ugo Guerro and Luciano Martino
Produced by Elio Scardimaglia

Directed by Mario Bava (aka John M. Old)

In 1993, the American Cinematheque showed a 35mm Technicolor print, in fine condition, of this once-rare classic title. It was entitled What!, as it had been on B&W prints shown on TV starting less than a year after its almost invisible theatrical run. What! was famous for being completely unintelligible. The censor cuts were so severe that you couldn't tell who was doing what to whom. Robbed of its color, the movie was a pit of murky grey-on-grey. Little did we know that the original was one of the very best italian Horror films.

Synopsis:

Black sheep Kurt (Christopher Lee) returns to his seaside castle home bearing nothing but his noble title and a reputation for evil. His father repudiates him, and the maid (Harriet White Medin) blames him for the suicide of her daughter years before -- she even keeps the dagger in a glass case. The beauty of the household is Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), who is either the wife or the lover of Kurt's father. Like every other female in the household, Nevenka fears and loathes Kurt, who immediately reasserts himself as a sexual threat to the stability of the household. Nevenka retreats to the beach, where she is accosted and roughed up by Kurt. Taking her riding crop, he whips her until her clothes are torn and bloody -- and she likes it! Relationships become even more complicated as murders in the castle naturally point to Kurt as the obvious culprit. But nothing about the romantic, obsessive Nevenka is that simple.

The Whip and the Body is one of the most adult and erotically conceived horror films. Unlike the censor-restricted Hammer output, Italian horror was steering in a definitely non-kiddie direction in the early '60s, and this film and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock are over-achieving gothic eye-openers. Daliah Lavi makes more than a fine Barbara Steele substitute, as some have labeled her in this film. She's less an icon to swoon over than Steele, but far more sensitive an actress. Hichcock was a clever collection of Horror Genre and Hitchcock conventions masking a profoundly perverted theme; The Whip and the Body masquerades as a stock gothic, and develops into something much more sophisticated.

A good point of comparison is the Deborah Kerr movie, The Innocents, a well-known upscale horror film from the James novel The Turn of the Screw. In the book, the supernatural hauntings of the governess remain ambiguous. Whether the children are possessed by spectres is either real, or just the hysterical distortion of the governess'es mind, remains unresolved. The movie version has a tougher time retaining its ambiguity. Since we perceive Deborah Kerr's hauntings/illusions along with her, the story plays as a stock ghost tale until the point when Kerr begins to behave erratically. The 'psychologically serious' nature of the movie then pretty much abolishes the ambiguity by letting us opt for the obvious answer that Kerr is off her rocker, and all the illusions are the creations of a fevered, sexually frustrated mind. 4

With minimal literary content or intimidating starpower, The Whip and the Body manages to be just as psychological as The Innocents, and better cinema. Here Bava's camera does the storytelling. The lush look of the film seduces the eye with richly textured and colored images. The more contradictory the 'facts' of the haunting become, the more we closely we must watch Nevenka's character, knowing that the mystery won't be resolved through dialogue exposition. When Nevenka's true nature is revealed, it's through a stylistic device that's just plain great filmmaking.

The small cast is very effective, with Lavi a stunning beauty brooding in her secret sins, and Christopher Lee nicely shaded as a wanton aristocrat with a haughty attitude, who may have been slandered with an undeserved reputation. It's clear that the actors felt that The Whip and the Body was more than just a horror film; Bava 's career was still on his initial roll of success and this is one of his most sensitive works. The nocturnal wanderings down creepy corridors, a given in this branch of the genre, are exceptionally expressive. The disturbing whippings are the only real sex in the movie, but even without the explicitness of later Eurohorror, The Whip's overall atmosphere carries a weird erotic charge.


VCI's DVD of The Whip and the Body is a handsome letterboxed (flat) transfer not quite up to the visual standard of their competitors over at Image and Anchor Bay. It is still by far the best-looking video copy of the film Savant has seen. It's a much better experience than the Cinematheque screening, which was saddled with a dubbed English track. The original Italian dialogue blends better with the exotic mood, if reading subtitles is not too objectionable. What comes across best on either soundtrack is the romantic Carlo Rustichelli score, which encourages the reading of Kurt and Nevenka's 'relationship' as one that is essentially loving, if twisted.

Bava expert Tim Lucas' informative commentary would seem to betray this Bava as his favorite.



Blood and Black Lace
VCI
1964 / Color / 1:78 flat / Sei donne per l'assassino
Starring Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Dante DiPaolo. Lea Lander, Ariana Gorini, Harriet White Medin, Thomas Reiner, Mary Arden, Claude Dantes
Cinematography Ubaldo Terzano
Film Editor Mario Serendrei
Original Music Carlo Rustichelli
Writing credits Giuseppe Barilla, Mario Bava, Marcel Fonda, and Marcello Fondato
Produced by Alfredo Mirabile and Massimo Patrizi

Directed by Mario Bava

Psycho pretty much knocked down the barrier against showing sordid murders on the screen in clinical detail, a freedom exploited initially only by cheap independent films. Bava probably didn't mean to invent a subgenre with Blood and Black Lace, a murder story which forgoes the slow buildups and character development of previous thrillers to concentrate almost exclusively on the killings themselves. There's a lot of talk about the movie being a 'murder machine' conceptual breakthrough, where the horror dynamic is distilled into a pure equation. The masked killer is supposedly an audience substitute and the string of beautiful, disposable females per l'assassino exist only to titillate the audience. Although our identification usually sides with the victims, we gaze upon their various fates objectively and openly anticipate the next killing. So the argument stands. Since the movie is devoid of most other content, theme or message, it remains one of those pictures that live by style alone. But what a style! The French Mini-minuit Fantastique articles (some of the only contemporary writing which even began to take these films seriously) consistently used the word 'delirious' to describe the textural night world of shape and color where sexual excitement is met with bloody death.

Synopsis:

A compromising diary turns up among the effects of a murdered fashion model, and a masked maniac with a clawed glove goes into action. Everyone associated with the fashion salon has personal and criminal reasons for keeping the diary secret, yet one by one they are eliminated as if in retribution for their sins, with each killing more horrible than the last. With all of the bloodshed, how are salon owners Cameron Mitchell and Eva Bartok going to stay in business?

Blood and Black Lace seemed sleazy on cheap '80s videocassettes and didn't fare much better on a pale letterboxed laserdisc that came out just a few years ago. The DVD incarnation of this gory mix of intrigue and mayhem marks the first time its visuals have approximated their original intensity. Once again, the visual dimension is the spur; even static images in this fast-moving story glow with Bava's striking color contrasts. The film is exceptionally well cast, with the males differentiated and the women almost interchangeable in their photo-perfect faces and candy-fresh bodies. I say almost, because Claude Dantes (a woman) has the most remarkably fetishistic face Savant's ever seen on the screen, her lipstick'ed and mascara'd features looking as perfect and lifeless as the everpresent mannikins that provide a silent chorus to the killings. Some of the other murders are downright savage, but Dantes' bathtub demise can only be described as eerily glamorous. 6 The power of il maestro is such that even the moralistic prude Savant responds. The beauty of Dantes' dead stare with the cloud of crimson billowing through the bathwater, is the kind of weird visual that one doesn't have to be a psychopath to understand.


Of the three discs, Blood and Black Lace looks the best. Also not 16:9 enhanced, it nevertheless remains bright and sharp on a large monitor, and its Italian audio track was noticeably clearer to this viewer. Since much of the plot is a pretext, Savant recommends leaving the subtitles off for a subsequent viewing, and just letting the images, like, flow. Cinema isn't just visuals ... but like Black Sabbath, this Bava film can stand on images alone.

This title has a commentary by Tim Lucas, who instead of running out of material, is just getting better at narrating these things. An enthusiastic Cameron Mitchell is interviewed in one extra segment, and actress Mary Dawne Arden directly addresses the camera in a clumsy but fun 'interview.' The big surprise watching Blood and Black Lace this time around was Eva Bartok. An actress of considerable talent, her friction with Cameron Mitchell gives this extermination derby a memorably human finale.

As with The Whip and the Body, the availability of an original Italian language track also makes one feel as if the movie is intact for the first time. 5



Kill, Baby... Kill!
VCI
1966 / Color / 1:33 flat / Operazione paura
Starring Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Erika Blanc, Fabianne Dali, Piero Lulli, Max Lawrence, Luciano Catenacci, Gianna Vivaldi
Cinematography Antonio Rinaldi
Set Decoration Alessandro Dell'Orco
Film Editor Romana Fortini
Original Music Carlo Rustichelli
Writing creditsMario Bava, Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale
Produced by Luciano Cantenacci and Nando Pisani

Directed by Mario Bava

Bava's Operazione Paura has eluded Savant up to now, and it was a pleasant revelation to see it for the first time on DVD. It's a gothic mystery that weaves a new pattern out of a stock ghost story. The ignorant and superstitious village cowers in fear while showing hostility to the rational hero. A curse emanating from a Miss Haversham-like crone manifests itself in a beautiful but malignant child-demon.

Synopsis:

Doctor Paul (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arrives in a town paralyzed by fear, to perform an autopsy on a young woman who died a violent death. When he finds a coin embedded in the victim's heart, shameful local secrets are unearthed. The ghost of Melissa Graps, a child callously run over and left to die during a drunken festival twenty years before, is said to be causing the victims to destroy themselves. Local occult 'wikkan' Ruth (Fabienne Dali) seems to be encouraging the hysteria with her cruel folk remedies, while local officials that approach Villa Graps to investigate its mysterious Baroness (Gianni Vivaldi) also turn up dead with self-inflicted wounds. Together with a frightened Monica (Erika Blanc), Paul determines to penetrate the castle and put an end to the reign of terror.

Once again, the Bava spell creates an oppressive atmosphere that allows uncanny events to get a solid grip on the viewer. In this case the ghost of record is a young child, a longhaired blonde girl with a tiny pale face and staring eyes. Seen mostly at fogged windows and bouncing a ball on cobwebbed staircases, her effectiveness is derived almost entirely from the direction ... and she's plenty creepy. (She seems to be borrowed intact, concept and appearance, for Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit episode of Spirits of the Dead) Young women that simply catch sight of her, soon kill themselves. While not dodging shotgun-toting innkeepers, Monica and Paul must navigate confounding mental hallucinations. Monica's nightmare is an impressive (and rather un-Bava-ish) montage full of dissolves and optical superimpositions that are so clean, they may have been executed in the camera. Paul experiences some genuinely dislocating fractures of time and space in Villa Graps. Suffice it to say that they recall elements of classic macabre art and writing, especially Edgar Allan Poe. Paul's attempt to leave Villa Graps triggers an exciting dimension of illusion and Escher-esgue imagery.

Finally, Operazione Paura (I hate the stupid English title) has a unique character in the local sorceress played by Fabienne Dali. Not only is she an effective black-cloaked female 'Van Helsing' to contrast with the stuffy, incredulous hero, her mastery of black arts and level-headed maternal morality provide the only real defense against the virginal evil of Melissa Graps and her vengeful mother. All the interesting characters in Operazione Paura are women.

Kill, Baby... Kill was actually released by VCI over a year ago, and it is not as good looking as the other two discs in the set. The full-frame flat source appears to be a 16mm print. It appears to be cropped on the sides, and in general looks nowhere near as good as the other two titles. The only track is an English-language dub, another disappointment. However, the movie is so good that it was easily as enjoyable as the other two.


VCI's Boxed Bava set is a mix in terms of quality, and only devotees of the films are going to understand their value even in less-than-perfect editions. Savant knows a score of people that have purchased these titles over and over again on VHS and laserdisc, and these reasonably priced discs look far better. VCI is to be commended on this level, even if they have some distance to go to catch up with the production quality of the front-rank Image and Anchor Bay labels.

The extras on the discs range from trailers to text essays. One of the discs has a blurry but nice trailer for Erik the Conqueror. The essays by Tim Lucas, a major contributor to all the Bava discs, are excellent, but some of the credit lists are incomplete or incorrect. The oft-repeated flub about Bava producing a movie called Atom Age Vampire gets another workout here, and a '50s space movie Bava filmed is listed as two separate movies under French and Italian titles. The overall disc design is somewhat disappointing, in Savant's judgment.


Already considered a Must-Buy for horror fans, The Mario Bava Boxed Set delivers three of the best of Bava. What's remaining in the regista Italiana's filmography may be harder for fans to see. Word on the chances to see I Vampiri 1 are vague. Nobody's yet snapped up Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, Savant's fave 'blob' movie by far. Terrore Nello Spazio is also missing in action -- MGM recently remastered the American version, Planet of the Vampires. Danger: Diabolik is from Paramount, so the likelihood of it coming out is extremely slim, unfortunately.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Mario Bava Box Set: The Whip and The Body / Blood and Black Lace / Kill, Baby Kill! rates:
Movie: TWATB Excellent; BABL, KBK Very Good
Video: TWATB, BABL Good; KBK Fair
Sound: TWATB, BABL Good; KBK Fair
Packaging: Amaray cases in card sleeve
Reviewed: January 17, 2001

Footnotes:

1. actually only partially directed by Bava, after being begun by Riccardo Freda
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4. another sad aftereffect of the "horror films = not serious" cinema equation is that straight ghost stories are considered too 'simple' for upscale art audiences. Kerr's frantically obvious sex problems are what pass for sophistication in a movie that really is no more complicated than an Agatha Christie.
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5. at the Cinematheque screening eight (!) years ago, host Joe Dante pointed out that the cut-price English dubbing for this overpopulated (at the beginning) killfest put the voice of Paul Frees in as many as three on-screen characters at the same time!
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6. A clip of the bathtub killing is shown in the beginning of Pedro Almodovar's Matador; a large part of the appeal of the Spaniard's newer films (including Live Flesh and All About My Mother) is their vividly sensual look that Savant believes is directly derived from Bava. Almodovar goes in for Bava's fetishistic faces as well, as witness the beautiful asymmetry of Rossy De Palma in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
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OTHER SAVANT HORROR REVIEWS AND ARTICLES:
Black Sunday... Black Sunday Censorship... Black Sabbath... The Asphyx... Lisa and the Devil... Daughter of Dr. Jekyll... The Awful Dr. Orlof... The Girl Who Knew Too Much... Dementia / Daughter of Horror... Sisters... City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie... Basket Case... Nosferatu 1922 / Nosferatu 1979... Nudes and Gore Galore: The Vampire Lovers




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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