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If you listen carefully, you can hear hundreds of old VCI DVDs flying out windows and stacking up in landfills. A quality Mario Bava Blu-ray is always big news, but no Bava release has had this much of an impact since Image tested the water with its first Black Sunday disc, or Paramount with their DVD of Danger: Diabolik. American fans that first saw this shocker in 1965 have surely been wondering all that time if it could possibly be as dazzlingly colorful as they remember. For all I know, European viewers haven't been seeing it in tip-top condition either, especially the way it was censored in some countries. My first taste came in 1993; the occasion is a strong personal memory. 1
By now there's little point to analyze Blood and Black Lace for a fan review, as it has already been the focus of a dozen studies by international experts on horror and the Italian giallo subgenre of suspense thriller. It's certainly central to the work of Mario Bava, the visual artist who consistently took color fantasy imagery beyond normal limits. Bava uses color the way Ennio Morricone uses instruments -- pure and clean, not trying to hide each primary hue's individual qualities. Imagine an alternate-reality Apocalypse Now quote from Dennis Hopper, praising the genius of Mario Bava:
"Forget off-white, man, forget mauve. You can't go out into space, you know, to other planets with like, you know, pastels!"
Animator Robert Swarthe once cut off my verbal defense of Bava with the axiom that 'great art direction does not a director make.' Bava's powerful images are never simply decorative, never just pretty pictures or art direction. As Bava's many champions say, his work is prime cinema because the moving pictures are doing the talking, creating emotional reactions directly, without the intervention of words.
There's plenty of talk in Blood and Black Lace, an annihilating serial murder mystery with a dozen distinct characters locked in a web of dishonesty and double-crossing. Yet a goodly portion of the movie is wordless, backed only by Carlo Rustichelli's jazzy score. Some of the mystery mechanics are rather good, and the only klunky moment comes in a flurry of explanations at the finale. I confess that the movie's visual surface is so powerful that I'm too distracted to worry much about Agatha Christie- style whodunnit logic.
On a dark and stormy night, fashion salon manager Massimo Morlacchi (Cameron Mitchell) and owner Contessa Cristina Como (Eva Bartok) are busy riding herd on their staff of models and assistants. When a compromising diary turns up among the effects of a murdered fashion model, a masked maniac with a clawed glove goes into action. All associated with the salon have sordid, sometimes criminal reasons for keeping the diary secret, as drug use and blackmail is very much a part of the salon scene. As if in retribution for their sins, one by one the top models are eliminated, with each killing more horrible than the last. Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner) slaps all the male suspects in jail, only to see them exonerated when the masked killer strikes again. And the grisly slaughter shows no sign of letting up.
Blood and Black Lace is acknowledged as the first full-bore modern giallo. It introduces a fixation on sadistic killings by a diabolical mystery figure with nightmarish visual properties - a faceless mask, exotic weapons. Older thrillers were more reticent about the rough stuff, often cutting from a screaming face to an aftermath where someone tells us what's been done to the body. Although there's a lot to be said for understatement, Bava overturns that applecart by veering in the opposite direction -- cruelty and sadism are the commodities on display. The string of beautiful, disposable females per l'assassino scream and suffer for the express purpose of titillating the audience. The sensually charged images encourage us to anticipate the next gruesome killing, briefly converting us all into sex killers. Fashion is about surface beauty, and Bava's visuals highlight contrasts of texture -- warm skin, cold plastic coats, lush furs, silky hair, sparkling eyes, glittering blood. The Contessa's gorgeous models invite us into the fast lane of excitement and luxury -- and the killer goes about his business as if committing gory acts of art.
Bava's pictures offer the argument that visual style can in itself create engaging cinema. Often described as 'delirious;' his images become disturbing when sexual excitement is met with bloody death. But nearly the entire picture is a sensual delight for the retina. Every third shot is an 'ooh-ahh' moment, whether it be a backlit figure in a red plastic mackintosh navigating a misty corridor of trees, or a single close-up of a nervous model, with Bava's lighting making her look as glossy as a piece of candy.
Sex and sadism have traditionally gotten horror films in trouble -- censors once went crazy over any blending of the two. It's hard to understand how some '30s movies could be released, just for suggesting this taboo -- Murders in the Rue Morgue, Island of Lost Souls. In a holdover from '40s Freud-fad movies, Hitchcock's Psycho went psycho-clinical with its shocks, encouraging a generation of movies to derive twisted horror from secrets of the personality. Bava took the other fork: instead of lecturing us on psychology, his horror films confront us with expressionist horrors direct from our morbid fantasies. The non-mysterious motivations are strictly conventional: greed, lust, shame. The dimension of visual delirium displaces the outright supernatural elements that would be incompatible with a slick, realistic thriller. Bava's horrors are all too physical. The killer's eye-gouging claw isn't even sharp and therefore seems all the more brutal. A stove used to sear a human face glows as if it were red-hot. Seeing is Feeling in Bava. We almost expect the victim's head to burst into flame.
Blood and Black Lace counterpoints its gruesomeness with a beauty that enchants even this reviewer's prudish instincts. I remember most of the giallos of the 1970s only in terms of isolated scenes that stand out by virtue of some narrative or situational gimmick. Hitchcock might have liked the idea of a witness trapped between two glass walls, as in Argento's first giallo. This picture leaves me stunned every time -- especially now in this incredible restoration -- and prompts an uncharacteristic vote in favor of its gleeful sadistic excess.
Bava's large cast is clearly into the movie's spirit. His men usually look good and his women always look fabulous, and that's enough to get an enthusiastic performance out of any actor. The ensemble plays well together. Did Bava ever handle this many active characters on screen at one time? This new disc restores the original Italian title sequence, which introduces most of the main characters in 'moving portraits' as striking as a layout in a glossy Italian fashion or architectural magazine. The 'six dolls' are haute couture victims for our delectation. Like women in a men's magazine, they're packaged as a commodity, gorgeous and interchangeable.
One of the donne is so distinctive that it would seem impossible for her to be confused with anybody. The first time I saw the TV show N.C.I.S. I did a doubletake at Pauley Perrette's character Abby Sciuto. How to say this properly... her general type immediately reminded me of a 'good girl' version of Black Lace's Tao-Li, the model played by actress Claude Dantes. The difference is that Ms. Dantes' wicked allure isn't just a tease. With her exaggerated eyebrows, Dantes' face is in itself a shocking graphic assault, a graphic-novel illustration of sexual excess... or exotic male sex fantasies. The cutaways to her portrait close-ups are some of the film's most arresting shots, and her murder is the most shocking in the film -- those staring eyes! The power of il maestro is such that even the moralistic prude Savant responds - it's murder aestheticized. The beauty of Dantes' dead stare, with the cloud of crimson billowing through the bathwater, is a psychopath's nightmare. This is the scene that Spain's great Pedro Almodóvar -- another lover of unusual, striking faces -- chose to put in his perverse horror thriller Matador. 2
Arrow Video's Region A + B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of Blood and Black Lace is by far the most beautiful home video rendering of a Bava film I've yet seen. Black Sunday and Danger: Diabolik are his only features I've seen in original 35mm of perfect quality, and this encoding could only be bettered by a perfect original Technicolor print, which are no longer made. The 2K encoding is said to be brand new.
None of the usual caveats with Euro-horror apply. The 1:66 aspect ratio would seem correct and the audio is extremely clear. The Italian mix is excellent, especially its rendering of Carlo Rustichelli's music score. Although it's been pointed out many times, it's still fun to play the police lineup scene and listen to the English language track. Joe Dante wasn't exaggerating -- now that we've heard enough of Paul Frees to recognize the many voices his pretzel vocal chords could produce, we can verify that several, maybe all, of the males in the lineup scene are voiced by the same man.
The disc set is also available in a collector SteelBook.
The prime extra on a Bava film is bound to be Tim Lucas' audio commentary, and this disc is no exception. The amount of research is of course prodigious, and Tim's personal connections enhance the feeling of closeness to what was for many years a remote vein of European filmmaking. I liked being reminded that Lea Lander returned ten years later for Bava's Rabid Dogs, and then thirty years later to rescue that film. Tim's riposte to the charge that Sei donne is anti-women is that the fashion industry does more psychological harm to the female sex than do sadistic movies about mutilating them. That's true, but it doesn't make Bava's adult, edgy movie more benign. Nor should we worry about that: Art has no responsibility to be socially uplifting. This picture is agreeably malign today, and in 1964 it must have been the pinnacle of violence porn. More power to it.
Several lengthy documentaries cover Blood and Black Lace and the giallo thriller as a subgenre. The longest lets a battery of experts loose on the broad subject, including Bava's son & director Lamberto and writer-director Dario Argento. A pair of European makers of neo-Giallo films also rate a featurette to express their ideas. Scots critics Michael MacKenzie hosts another lengthy but visually astute look at the giallo from a historical-cultural perspective.
Our own David Del Valle comes forward with his series of Cameron Mitchell interviews from public access television in the late 1980s (I think). Cameron is having a fine time. The ragged-quality film clips then available serve as good examples of what we older fans had to suffer, before the advent of DVD.
We're also given Yellow, a 25-minute bonus giallo from Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt. It's a Blu-ray exclusive. To show the elaborate American title sequence for the Woolner Brothers release, Arrow scanned Joe Dante's 16mm print, the very same one we saw at the American Cinematheque in 1993. The colorful insert booklet has informative essays by Howard Hughes, plus interviews with Joe Dante and David Del Valle, who speaks of Cameron Mitchell.
2015 has given us a number of exceptional discs, but at the moment this one feels like the best of year so far. Now anything seems possible: Arrow Video or another company could step forward to do the same with the rest of classic Euro-fantasy. Why not start with Bava's Hercules pictures and progress to delicacies like Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hichcock? They're marvelous in Technicolor.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. 1993: It was four friends on a trip to the then- fairly new Director's Guild building for an early American Cinematheque screening. Wayne Schmidt, Steve Nielson and myself felt it necessary to go; also in attendance was Gary Teetzel, a fellow MGM employee I wouldn't actually meet for another month or so. Joe Dante was hosting two Bava greats -- his 16mm IB Tech print of the American version of Blood and Black Lace plus a 35mm IB Tech of The Whip and the Body.
Dante introduced two special guests that night. Publisher Tim Lucas's Video Watchdog was then only three years old and the hottest thing in movie fandom. It may have been his first professional trip to California. Actress Harriet White Medin responded well to Dante's questions; we soon learned of her even greater claim to fame, a romantic leading role in Roberto Rossellini's epochal Paisan. Ms. Medin had also served as dialogue coach for dozens of Italian pictures. In Los Angeles there were once frequent museum screenings attended by big celebrities. I've been fortunate to see vintage films with all manner of legendary names in attendance, from James Stewart to Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen, to Hank Worden and Sam Peckinpah. Just a few years ago, a screening of a restored Superman II was attended by a dazzling pantheon of actors and directors in animation, fantasy and comic book movies. But that Bava night was extra-special.
2. I reviewed King Vidor's Solomon and Sheba just a couple of weeks ago. In it Claude Dantes plays the mother of a disputed baby that the 'wise' Solomon threatens to cut in two. I don't remember a close-up of Ms. Dantes, but I'm sure she isn't wearing extreme eye makeup such as that in Sei donne. Solomon and Sheba is one of the movies on which Harriet White Medin served as dialogue coach. In the main titles, she rates a giant credit carved in stone.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.