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Whip and the Body, The

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Review by DVD Savant | posted January 19, 2001 | E-mail the Author
In 1993, the American Cinematheque showed a 35mm technicolor print, in fine condition, of this once-rare classic title. It was entitled What!, as it had been on black and white prints on TV shown starting less than a year after its almost invisible theatrical run. What! was famous for being completely unintelligible. The censor cuts were so severe that you couldn't tell who was doing what to whom. And in b&w, the movie was a pit of murky grey-on-grey. Little did we know that the original was one of the very best italian Horror films.

Black sheep Kurt (Christopher Lee) returns to his seaside castle home with nothing but his title and a reputation for evil. His father repudiates him, and the maid (Harriet White Medin) blames him for the suicide of her daughter years before - she even keeps the dagger in a glass case. The beauty of the household is Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), who is either the wife or the lover of Kurt's father. Like almost every other female in the household, Nevenka harbors bitterness against Kurt, who immediately reasserts himself as a sexual threat to the stability of the household. Nevenka retreats to the beach - where she is accosted and roughed up by Kurt. Taking her riding crop, he whips her until her clothes are torn and bloody - and she likes it! Relationships become even more complicated as murders in the castle naturally point to Kurt as the obvious culprit. But nothing about the romantic, obsessive Nevenka is that simple.

The Whip and the Body is one of the most adult and erotically conceived horror films. Unlike the censor-restricted Hammer output, Italian horror was steering in a definitely non-kiddie direction in the early '60s, and this film and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock are over-achieving gothic eye-openers. Daliah Lavi makes more than a fine Barbara Steele substitute, as some have labeled her in this film. She's less an icon to swoon over than Steele, but far more sensitive an actress. Hichcock was a clever collection of Horror Genre and Hitchcock conventions masking a profoundly perverted theme; The Whip and the Body masquerades as a stock gothic, and develops into something much more sophisticated.

A good point of comparison is the Deborah Kerr movie, The Innocents, a well-known upscale horror film from the James novel The Turn of the Screw. In the book, the supernatural hauntings of the governess remain ambiguous. Whether the children are possessed by spectres is either real, or just the hysterical distortion of the governess'es mind, remains totally unresolved. The movie version has a tougher time retaining its ambiguity. Since we perceive Deborah Kerr's hauntings/illusions along with her, the story plays as a stock ghost tale until the point when Kerr does begin to behave erratically. The 'psychologically serious' nature of the movie then pretty much abolishes the ambiguity by letting us opt for the obvious answer, that Kerr is off her rocker, and all the illusions are the creations of a fevered, sexually frustrated mind.

The Whip and the Body manages, with minimal literary content or intimidating starpower, to be just as psychological as The Innocents, and better cinema. Here Bava's camera does the storytelling. The lush look of the film seduces the eye with richly textured and colored images. The more contradictory the 'facts' of the haunting become, the more we closely we must watch Nevenka's character, knowing that the mystery won't be resolved through dialogue exposition. When Nevenka's true nature is revealed, it's through a stylistic device that's just plain great filmmaking.

The small cast is very effective, with Lavi a stunning beauty brooding in her secret sins, and Christopher Lee nicely shaded as a wanton aristocrat with a haughty attitude, who may have been slandered with an undeserved reputation. It's clear that the actors felt that The Whip and the Body was more than just a horror film; Bava was still on his initial roll of success at this point in his career, and this is one of his most sensitive works. The nocturnal wanderings down creepy corridors, a given in this branch of the genre, are exceptionally expressive. The disturbing whippings are the only real sex in the movie, but even without the explicitness of later eurohorror, The Whip's overall atmosphere has a weird erotic charge.

VCI's DVD of The Whip and the Body is a handsome letterboxed (flat) transfer that is not up to the visual standard of their competitors over at Image and Anchor Bay, but is still by far the best-looking copy of the film Savant has seen, on television or videotape. It's a much better experience, even, than the Cinematheque screening, which had the dubbed English track. The original Italian dialogue blends better with the exotic mood, if reading subtitles is not too objectionable. What comes across best on either soundtrack is the romantic Carlo Rustichelli score, which encourages the reading of Kurt and Nevenka's 'relationship' as one that is essentially loving, if twisted.

Bava expert Tim Lucas' informative commentary would seem to betray this Bava as his favorite.

(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: The Whip and The Body rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Packaging: Amaray case in card sleeve
Reviewed: January 17, 2001

Black Sunday... Black Sunday Censorship... Black Sabbath... The Asphyx... Lisa and the Devil... Daughter of Dr. Jekyll... The Awful Dr. Orlof... The Girl Who Knew Too Much... Dementia / Daughter of Horror... Sisters... City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie... Basket Case... Nosferatu 1922 / Nosferatu 1979... Nudes and Gore Galore: The Vampire Lovers

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1997-2001 Glenn Erickson

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