Two names that tower in the world of gothic cinema are Mario Bava and Christopher Lee. Even though Lee has a relatively small part in Bava's The Whip and the Body, his role is essential to the film, and the it is one of the most successful stylistically for both.
Lee stars as Kurt Menliff, the disgraced older son of Count Menliff (Gustavo De Nardo), who returns to the family manor ostensibly to congratulate his young brother Christian (Tony Kendall) on his marriage. But in reality, he wants to once again take up his sadomasochistic relationship with his brother's wife Nevenka, played by Israeli actress Daliah Lavi.
Kurt's return is not welcomed, least of all by Georgia (Harriet Medin), the servant whose daughter Kurt seduced and then abandoned, driving her to suicide. She keeps the dagger that her daughter used to do the deed on display in a glass case. It comes as no surprise then when Kurt turns up dead, stabbed in the throat with the very same dagger. Suspicion is cast about everywhere, everyone suspecting and accusing the others. Soon, Nevenka begins having visions, seeing Kurt, who seems not only very much alive, but continues to beat and whip her. And the murders continue.
The Whip and the Body has a deceptively simple plot. While Bava delights in throwing suspicion first in one direction and then another, there are no intricate plot twists or detours, rather a straightforward, though deliberately paced, story. But the slow going is barely noticed, so intrigued are we with Bava's sumptuous style, with a lighting design better and more affecting that I have seen in a film in quite a while.
The performances are quite good, too, especially Daliah Lavi. Her mental breakdown as the spirit of Kurt torments her is exquisite and pitch perfect. Lee of course has his usual commanding presence, even though this is undercut somewhat by his voice being dubbed by someone else on the English track. All around, the actors throw themselves into their roles with gusto. These might perhaps be the best performances Bava ever got out of a cast.
This combination of high success in style and performance more than make up for the somewhat threadbare plot, which actually does hold together much better than a lot of Italian horror films of this era. The Whip and the Body works very well for Bava, and isn't as widely known as some of his other films, like Black Sunday or Blood and Black Lace, but it is just as worthy of serious regard as any of his other work. For anyone interested in Italian cinema of the sixties, or really anyone who loves atmospheric movies, this is one to seek out. Highly recommended.
The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and looks quite good. Of course, there are the occasional scratches and lens dirt, but Kino has done a great job with the mastering, and the colors are rich with a good contrast and deep blacks.
Audio is Dolby digital 2 channel, and generally sounds good, but with some quirks. English subtitles are included, as well as Italian, French and English language tracks. On occasion, subtitles are included for lines that are not spoken, in the English version anyway. However, the dialogue can always be heard, and there is no prominent hiss or other problem.
There are a couple of extras included. They are:
Trailers are included for Bava films The Whip and the Body, Black Sunday, A Bay of Blood, Baron Blood and Lisa and the Devil.
Commentary by Tim Lucas, Author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark
Once again, Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog provides a commentary, which seems to have been recorded for an earlier release of the film. Lucas provides a lot of interesting detail and context about Bava, all the actors and much of the crew. Interesting tidbits abound, such as that writer Ernesto Gastaldi made the first ever movie adapted from a Giallo book as his final project in film school, or that the Bava family knew Mussolini quite well, and felt betrayed by his actions. Lucas isn't the most dynamic person in the world, but provides a wealth of information, and there are few people who know as much about Bava and his world as he does. This commentary adds to the viewing experience considerably.
The Whip and the Body is one of Mario Bava's best films, and is relatively overlooked nevertheless. It certainly deserves a lot more attention, and Kino has helped that along by providing a very fine remastered edition with a great commentary. A horror film with Christopher Lee, directed by Mario Bava is not to be missed.