Mario Bava is a master of extracting substance from within his style, where the moving parts of emotions and motivations oftentimes lead to deeper horror experiences than one might expect. Whether he's lurking in the heavy shadows of black-and-white gothic tales or operating with vivid pools of colored lights from across the spectrum, his direction -- and influence over the camerawork -- conscientiously focuses upon the characters in such a way that even some of the smallest, seemingly inconsequential characters have a little something else going on beneath the surface. In a murder mystery like Blood and Black Lace, this feeds into credible uncertainty as to who's responsible for killings. Taking place mostly within a modeling-slash-burlesque "fashion house", Bava's lavish prismatic shades and sequence of gruesome death take shape as one of the earliest and most influential manifestations of the Italian giallo horror subgenre, clutching firmly onto the traits of those who come in and out of the house for its emphatic whodunit suspense.
Dressed in a jacket, hat, and stretchy face wrap to conceal their identity, someone lurking on the grounds of the fashion house viciously murders one of the many models who resides there. An investigation into the murder begins, and with the inspection into the motivations of those close to the victim also comes the discovery of a wide array of other wrongdoings from the residents, largely contained within a specific diary. While the recently widowed manager of the company, Christina (Eva Bartok), attempts to maintain the status quo and keep the fashion business moving, the location of the diary becomes its own mystery as the killer remains at large, eventually claiming other victims with ties to the fashion house … and to that secret diary. Suspects are narrowed and motivations come and go, but the threat of the killer continues to loom throughout, with many of the personalities that pass through the fashion house becoming more and more distinct.
Immediately, the bright colors and moody shadows of Maria Bava's craftsmanship take control in Blood and Black Lace, almost as if looking at the fashion house through a kaleidoscope while he slyly introduces the actors, all draped in various hues while Ubaldo Terzano's camerawork flows from one to the next. Crimson mannequins with shiny black hair also peek out from the darkness, elevating Bava's setting into something bordering on the surreal as models finalize their garments and bodies are discovered in hiding places. This is a display of artifice, sure, but what's on the surface ties together with the orchestration of the fashion shows themselves, as well as to those who participate in them. Searching for symbolism in every shade of color in Blood and Black Lace may be futile, but it's hard to dispute the calculation involved with how Bava selected the right ones to create specific moods, emboldening his purposeful use of colored lights that seem unnaturally emergent in the house. Things that'd come across as ostentatious elsewhere feel at home and meaningful in this palace of superficiality.
It doesn't take long for Blood and Black Lace to demonstrate that there's more going on here than just a bunch of pretty women being killed off by a random stranger. From the deaths emerge suspicions and gossip, which introduce all sorts of indiscretions committed by both the models and those that manage them, spanning from hedonistic behavior to more serious offenses like secretive abortions and blackmail. That's where the giallo mechanisms kick into gear, in which the ominous killer gets overshadowed by the wide range of people who could feasible lurk under the mask, and the motivations behind their killing. While these characters wouldn't be classified as profound, exactly -- this isn't a rich moral examination or anything -- almost all of them have a compelling underlying layer that hinges on some deeper human flaw, which makes going the guesswork on who's responsible for the murders an interesting experience in observation. The intersection of details going on about who's wrapped up in what drama, and where the tell-all diary might've ended up, continuously raises the tension throughout.
While the likes of Black Christmas and Halloween shaped the slasher-movie framework into the machine for tension that we've come to relish, Blood and Black Lace telegraphs a similarly methodical, thematic sequence of deaths, aptly earning a reputation for being a precursor for conventional bodycount horror. The deaths can be grueling, hinged on the tortures of impalement and scorched flesh, but they're designed less for the suspense of seeing whether someone's going to die and more on expanding the mystery behind who's responsible. Bava skillfully ties together the process of eliminating suspects from a list of possibilities with stylized, unrestrained kills full of the spirit of Italian horror, with set design choices that amplify the mood just enough to draw attention to the intensity of their demise. Attention has also been paid to the manner in which everyone's been killed by the masked murderer, creating a situation where almost anyone -- male or female, strong or borderline weak -- could feasibly be underneath the disguise, motivated by any number of potential revelations about their wrongdoings.
The reveal of who's behind the mask and the reasons for their killing spree isn't terribly surprising in Blood and Black Lace, but that's more of a testament to the foreshadowing and setup devised by Bava and screenwriter Marcello Fondato than an absence of shock value or potency. It could be argued that the framing of certain clues and dialogue early on might've been a little too suggestive for their own good, building to a predictable finish; however, when it comes to the revelations about the victims and how they factor into the masked murderer's reasons for their villainy, these pieces fit together into an outcome that simply make sense in its operatic grandness. While it isn't as gruesome as Black Sunday or as intent on building to visceral scares as Black Sabbath, Blood and Black Lace drops into a devious middle-ground between the two while remaining focused on credibility with its murder-mystery rationale, stitching together equal measures of Bava's emphasis on style as substance and straightforward, yet sharply-written pulpy thrills.
We're reaching a point where straightforward Blu-ray double dips are going to be fewer and further between, since most "upgrade" releases are now taking shape as 4K UltraHD bundle sets. A second release of Blood and Black Lace has snuck into the mix, though, attempting to pick up where Arrow Video's notable presentation left off. VCI's presentation takes a daring turn by offering a different aspect ratio than most other home-video versions out there, available on both the Blu-ray and DVD in this two disc package, which features reversible artwork contained inside a clear double-disc case.
Video and Audio:
Most presentations of Blood and Black Lace available have been framed at 1.66:1, a choice worthy of debate among devotees of Mario Bava's body of work. The folks at VCI have filled a niche by offering a second Blu-ray option for the film by presenting it in this new transfer at 1.85:1, another discussed theatrical ratio for the film, and the expected comments one might have about the difference between the two apply here: this aspect ratio tends to cut in tighter on the top and bottom, yet expand to the sides. While I cannot attest to authenticity, my general impression is that this transfer often feels a little tighter than preferable during some shots, notably during Bava's tight closeups, and expanded in others. VCI's transfer is, otherwise, a handsome one: skin tones are warm and natural, there's some discernible fine detail that's quite pleasing for the film's age, and the contrast balance yields pleasing depth and midrange shadows. Thing is, certain shades possess a bit too much saturation -- there's a notable red push; it's visible in the mannequins and the fashion house's telephone, but carries over into the general color cast of scenes -- and shadows can be too heavy even when taking Bava's stylized ambitions into account. Couple that with marginally satisfying digital integrity that comes close to having problems with looking filmic, and you've got a transfer that's full of positives and negatives that doesn't outright provide a superior reason for doubling up on Blu-ray.
Unfortunately, the only track made available for Blood and Black Lace is the 2.0 English option; no Italian language alternative can be selected here. The track that's here fits the definition of serviceable, even considering its vintage: the dialogue can be discerned without issues, the music creates enough expansive atmosphere to be reputable, and the sound effects of screeches, searing flesh, and other traditional horror-movie staples are full and assertive. Many facets also possess the twang of its vintage throughout, though, coming across as metallic and cumbersome in both high-level and lower sounds -- mostly on the higher end -- while the track's general gravitation towards middle-ranged effects leaves it sounding constrained and without the kind of expansiveness that'd give it a natural responsiveness. This is a fine, yet dusty and unimpressive track that could benefit from some additional cleanup efforts.
In terms of extras, this release of Blood and Black Lace from VCI does contain a few exclusive goodies, but it's notably lighter on content than others out there. Perhaps most noteworthy are the pair of Audio Commentaries able to be played with this release, both of which can be found in the "SETUP" wing of the Blu-ray. The first comes from Kat Ellinger, a film historian and author who's currently the editor-in-chief at Diabolique Magazine, who smartly mentions early on that she knows this film has been extensively discussed beforehand, and that she wants to not rehash the same content; she outright name-drops Tim Lucas' work, who recorded the commentary on Arrow's disc. I like her observational rhythm, how she mentions details happening onscreen and touches upon the aesthetic and thematic components of the screen, frequently underpinning it with historical context that evaluates its impact on both slashers and the giallo subgenre. The other, featuring David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner, is more anecdotal and conversational, though it hovers around somewhat similar historical underpinnings and how they tie to Bava's intentions. One's more scholarly, the other's more casual yet informative.
On the Blu-ray, the rest of the extras are more objective inclusions, spearheaded by the American Cut vs. European Cut (27:31, 16x9 HD) examination. Without any dialogue, the piece bounces between the death scenes and plays them out as they appear in both cuts of the film, letting the audience decipher on their own how the film was edited differently. There's also a Photo Gallery, an audio-only arrangement of the Music Score by Composer Carlo Rustichelli (7:27, 16x9 HD), an HD Trailer for Blood and Black Lace (3:21, 16x9 HD) -- which, yeah, you really shouldn't watch until after the film's over if you're into preserving surprises -- and the American Titles (1:53, 4x3 Letterbox) also for comparison's sake. Be sure to jump over to the included DVD Copy as well, though, because there are two exclusive extras to that disc: David Del Valle Interviews Cameron Mitchell (7:25, 4x3) and a Mary Dawne Arwen Interview (12:10, 4x3), both from VCI's earlier standard-definition release of the film.
Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace takes big hunks of his prior successes in the horror genre -- both style and substance -- and mixes them together into the vessel of what's now considered the giallo subgenre. Vivid colors and brooding shadows commingle around the murder mystery involved with a string of slain models around a fashion house, with its pacing switching off between the rhythm of a detective tale and the bodycount anticipation of a slasher film. It doesn't overexert itself in any of those areas, though, as it's not trying to be more horror film than mystery and vice versa; instead, Bava ties together the restrained execution of those different suspenseful pursuits into a versatile, atmospheric, heavily stylized Italian horror film that's working with a few deeper layers involving morality and suspicions about possible killers. VCI have taken another stab at Blood and Black Lace on Blu-ray with an alternate aspect ratio, yet that option and a few cultivated extras tend to be the only reason to pursue this release, as the digital quality doesn't achieve enough to outright dismiss or replace earlier releases. A mildly Recommended double dip for the transfer choice, the 2018 commentaries and other exclusive extras.