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.
Commentary by Tim Lucas, Author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark