The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #2

Bava set is solid choice for collectors  

David Christenson

By David Christenson

Mario Bava Box Set
Three DVD set released December, 2000 by VCI Home Video.
Includes The Whip and the Body (1963, 88 min.), Blood and Black Lace (1964, 90 min.) and Kill, Baby...Kill (1966, 84 min.).
Color, Dolby sound, unrated (Kill, Baby...Kill is rated PG). See below for supplements. Manufacturer’s suggested retail price, $59.99

Few film directors could be said to have founded an industry. Mario Bava is one. In the 1960s, inspired by the success of England’s Hammer Studios, Bava made a series of films that became the foundation of Italian horror cinema and influenced the genre worldwide.

His first, Black Sunday, is generally acknowledged as his best. Barbara Steele, in her first role, starred as a witch seeking revenge from beyond the grave; the elegant photography and gruesome touches satisfied both critics and fans. This is a fairly well known film in the U.S., but other Bava horrors have been overlooked. Several of Bava’s follow-up films were bowdlerized and stupidly retitled by his American distributor; a few have never been screened here in uncut form.

VCI Home Video has done horror fans a great service by releasing three important Bava horror films in a boxed set of quality DVDs. The Whip and the Body (1963) and Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966) represent Bava in his gothic period—a peak, in my opinion—before the surrealistic excesses of Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969) and his later reliance on shock effects. Blood and Black Lace (1964) will appeal more to fans of contemporary horror; it established the Italian form known as giallo, which in turn provided the model for the American film Halloween and its many lesser imitators. Black Lace is a nasty serial killer flick, but it’s more concerned with style and tone than blood and guts, and so it’s not an inappropriate companion to the two ghost stories in this set.

The Whip and the Body (La fruste e il corpo) was originally distributed in this country by Roger Corman’s American International Pictures with about 15 minutes of key footage removed, and burdened with the unfortunate title What. “What” indeed. Without the offending scenes, including a couple of sequences in which Christopher Lee lashes a smiling Daliah Lavi, the movie must have been pretty muddled. In VCI’s restored version, it’s an interesting exploration of a sadomasochistic relationship and its deadly consequences, a romantic obsession in ghostly garb. Visually it’s fairly tame by today’s standards, or even by the standards of 1960s exploitation—no nudity, no severed limbs or airborne organs, and blood measured by the ounce not by the bucket. When illicit sex commences, the camera shyly turns away to gaze at the scenery. I suspect certain scenes were cut not because they were shocking, but because they were disturbing. It’s still disconcerting to glimpse the twisted dependency of this couple, and their games of power, pain and pleasure.

Though he’s on screen only sporadically, Lee dominates the film as the sadistic Kurt. His devilish charm has never been put to better use. Lee himself said this was his best Italian film, and his blend of menace and magnetism here rivals any of his work for Hammer. Daliah Lavi, an Israeli actress top-billed in this production, provides the point of view in the key scenes as Nevenka, the object of Kurt’s cruel affections. Is she mad, or does Kurt’s ghost still roam her family’s medieval castle? Meanwhile, members of her joyless clan mope around the house trying to solve the murder mystery and arranging flowers. Who killed Kurt and the old count, and why? Don’t these people have jobs?

Bava shows his skill as a hands-on cinematographer as his camera glides through shadowy hallways splashed with expressionistic lighting. The rich colors are uniquely Bava’s, but compared to his later work, the style here is somewhat subdued, reminiscent of Terence Fisher’s classically grounded Hammer films or Corman’s best Poe adaptations. The Technicolor imagery is lovely, and the musical score is similarly lush, though the romantic piano theme is a bit overused. Like the other films in this set it was filmed without live sound and dubbed later, unfortunately without the participation of Lee.

A change of mood. Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l’assassino) brings Bava’s agile camera into a school for models where a masked assassin prowls. The setting provides ample opportunity for color composition and bravura camera work. The 1960s fashions are wonderfully bold, the models are mod, and the set design looks like a collaboration between Liberace and Salvador Dali.

Given a whodunit script with an Agatha Christie resolution, Bava used the serial murder plot as a frame for images of grotesquely beautiful violence, accompanied by jazzy bongo-and-sax music. The inventive murderer employs a pillow, a red-hot stove, a steel claw, etc. Oddly, the most effective scene is a fairly conventional bathtub drowning, made memorable by Claudia Dantes’ performance as one of cinema’s finest dead bodies. The tub scene was trimmed somewhat for American release—and the claw scene wasn’t?—but it’s been restored by VCI.

This is a pioneering “giallo,” an Italian form of thriller marked by ghastly murders, and in this case, apparent misogyny. There’s a scheming explanation behind the killings, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it. The main attraction is creative killing and a dose of cruel battery. It’s not at bloody as it sounds, and certainly not as graphic as its 1980s body-count imitators, but it’s unusually hard hearted, even for this kind of movie. Despite the star power of Cameron Mitchell, there’s no real protagonist; characters are presented as objects of suspicion, not sympathy, and after some moments of suspense, the murder scenes are blatantly voyeuristic. The characters scheme and bicker, the red herring plot twists and turns, and it’s almost a relief when the slayer jumps out, with all his energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes we’re allowed a little warm feeling for the victims, at the point of death, before their bodies become props to tumble out of closets and car trunks.

Despite all this, Bava somehow makes this a fun film, full of little cinematic pleasures. This kind of movie has been done many times since, but rarely with so much visual panache and so little emotional cushioning. Bava makes a lovely spectacle of death, but he doesn’t provide us with easy excuses for watching it.

We’re back to castles and cobwebs—acres of cobwebs—in Kill, Baby...Kill! (Operazione Paura). The film’s go-go title, imposed for American distribution, is completely inappropriate for this ghost story, but then so is the original Italian title translated as “Operation Fear.” Sometime in the late 19th century, a crumbling Transylvania town is haunted by the vengeful ghost of a young girl, whose pale complexion and fixed stare are reminiscent of the spooky alien kids from Village of the Damned. Having died in a public accident while the villagers ignored her pleas for help, the girl ghost hypnotizes her victims into committing picturesque suicides. Her creepy baroness mother is implicated in the mayhem, somehow—the final explanation was rather oblique in translation. Opposing the homicidal duo are the town witch (earthy, rumpled Fabienne Dali), the intended final victim (Erica Blanc, an actress with an unusually appropriate last name), and the hero type (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), who remains skeptical of the paranormal even when unattended doors slam in his face, and who dashes about with the ineptitude typical of young men in gothic movies.

For me this was the most frightening of the three films in the set, but then I’m a sucker for a ghost story, and the girl killer is as scary as ghosts get. Unlike most movie ghosts, she’s not a mere manifestation of characters’ suppressed desires, and she’s not going to fade away once a murder mystery is solved. She’s just plain pissed off, so much so that you can’t even mention her name without getting skewered on a sharp candlestick. You have to wonder why these villagers didn’t simply move out of town, but maybe there was a housing shortage.

You can see Bava’s style loosening up in this film, with more liberal use of the snap zoom a la Martin Scorcese, more experimentation with point of view, some odd jump cuts, and a few forays into the surreal. Some of these things work and some don’t. Those that don’t are usually the result of zoom lens mishaps: an attempt to assume the point of view of the ghost on a swing looks cheesy, and a dizzy scene on a spiral staircase is marred by a low-budget try for Hitchcock’s signature shot from Vertigo. There is some cool stuff in the ghost’s villa, however. In one strange visual sequence our hapless hero is caught in a kind of time loop, running repeatedly through the same room, and finally catches up with himself. There’s a painting of the ghost girl that recalls The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), and there’s a hallway lit by candles held by human hands mounted on the wall, in apparent homage to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). The use of sound to announce the ghost’s presence with her laugh, and to suggest supernatural voices in the baroness’s room, is excellent, and the musical score is effective, though it was patched together from other sources, including the other two films in this set.

Once again, there’s a little gore here and there, but nothing that would shock experienced audiences. This is Bava’s last film in the gothic style, and it’s a good atmospheric one.

The presentations of Whip and Black Lace are fine. These films are presented in restored widescreen versions with picture quality that ranks with the best. These are older films, but no excuses are needed: the photography is sharp, grain is at a minimum, and the Technicolor is fantastic, without the fading common among movies of this vintage. The only serious flaws are a few vertical scratches, which I’m surprised were not removed in restoration. Both of these films have multiple soundtracks, trailers, multiple subtitles, photo galleries, pamphlets with critical notes, and commentaries by critic Tim Lucas. Lucas is good about spotting niceties of film technique and Bava’s ingenious camera tricks, but he never stays screen-specific for long. During periods of plot exposition, he loads us up with biographies and filmographies of minor actors. He sometimes overanalyzes, in my opinion; for example, near the end of Black Lace he sees womb imagery in both a corpse slipping under water and a dangling telephone receiver.

Kill, Baby...Kill is a bare-bones disk. It’s a full-screen transfer, not widescreen, from a fairly grainy and slightly faded print. No commentary or additional video material is included. There’s only one soundtrack, in the English dub. As a matter of fact, the few supplements didn’t work well for me—the third screen of a Bava biography wouldn’t come up, and I had trouble making the scene selection function work.

Bottom line: The Whip and the Body and Blood and Black Lace are superior presentations of superior films, and Kill, Baby...Kill is a fine film on an adequate disk. Despite some flaws, the strength of the material makes this set a worthy addition to serious horror collections.

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David Christenson is a journalist, photographer, dealer in used and rare books, ex-beekeeper and movie buff who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Copyright © 2001 by the author. All rights reserved.