The Whip and the Body is one title of three in VCI's Mario Bava Boxed Set. See Savant's full review, with footnotes, of the set for a full overview.
Psycho pretty much knocked down the barrier toward 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 film, 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 are watching their various fates objectively, openly looking forward to the next killing. So the argument stands as far as it goes. Since the movie is devoid of almost any other possible 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.
When a compromising diary turns up among the effects of a murdered fashion model, 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 next. 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. This incarnation of this gory mix of intrigue and mayhem is 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, with 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 her bathtub demise can only be described as eerily glamorous. The power of il maestro is such that even moralistic prude Savant responds. The beauty of Dantes' dead stare with the cloud of crimson billowing through the bathwater, is the kind of aesthetic thrill that you don'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 bigscreen 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 this Bava film, like Black Sabbath, 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 give this extermination derby a memorably human finale.
Like 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.
(General Box Set Comments:)
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 who've bought these titles over and over again on VHS and laserdiscs, and these reasonably priced discs look far better than any of them. 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. A slight caveat: some users have reported difficulties in getting all of the discs to play on certain machines, a serious flaw that buyers should check out before ponying up their cash.
The extras on the discs range from trailers (one of the discs has a blurry but nice trailer for Erik the Conqueror) to text essays. The ones by Tim Lucas, a major contributor to all the Bava discs, are excellent, but some of the other credits 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. It's the overall disc design that is somewhat disappointing, in Savant's judgment. Starting up one of these discs requires sitting through two logos and an annoying pair of 'special thanks to' cards that really put the cart before the horse. A more practical complaint are the distracting subtitles, which are written in a trendy font that is hard to read. VCI has the right spirit, it must be said.
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 are vague. Nobody's snapped up Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, Savant's fave 'blob' movie by far. Terrore Nello Spazio is 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. While waiting for Tim Lucas' forthcoming Bava Book, you can read more about Diabolik in Savant's Article, The Guiltiest Pleasure of Them All.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Mario Bava Box Set: Blood and Black Lace rates:
OTHER SAVANT HORROR REVIEWS AND ARTICLES:
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1997-2001 Glenn Erickson