While never as successful in life as he has become in death, Mario Bava managed to direct several genuine horror classics during his filmmaking career. Blood and Black Lace falls into the category of “genuine horror classic,” but more than simply becoming a classic film, it has become a landmark film as well.
In 1963, Bava released what many consider to be the first modern giallo film (some describe it as “proto-giallo”), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (AKA Evil Eye). A stylish, black-and-white murder mystery, it failed to make much of an impression on the movie-going public. Unfortunately, Blood and Black Lace was summarily ignored as well. It wasn’t until Argento released his international hit The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) that gialli became all the rage in Italy. Nevertheless, viewed with a historical lens, Blood and Black Lace established many of the cinematic tropes that would come to be associated with gialli.
The story centers on a fashion business that is losing its models to a mysterious, masked killer. As the killings begin to mount, the police are stymied and the girls are terrified by the mysterious killer, whose motive cannot be ferreted out. As stories go, the general outline isn’t terribly original. There are plenty of plays and films where a group of people centered on a general location are slowly picked off, one by one. But Bava elevates the story by adding multiple red herrings as well as a twist ending…or two.
Cameron Mitchell stars as Max Morlacchi who runs the fashion house along with his lover, Cristiana Como (Eva Bartok). As the fashion models get picked off, Morlacchi is fingered as a possible suspect. But just about every male involved with the models is also considered a suspect. There’s Franco, the desperately lonely drug-addict with a sinister infatuation with one of the models. He has a bad habit of disappearing during murders and the bad timing to show up just before a murder. There’s also the Marquis, who is dating one of the models. He owes a large sum of money to one of the murdered girls, thereby effectively erasing his debt. And we can’t forget Cesear, who works closely with all the girls during fashion shows. Who could the murderer be? One thing is for sure: there is likely one or more clues to the killer’s identity hidden within the first model’s diary, which is discovered during a fashion show. What did this girl know that could have gotten her killed, and why is every man and women backstage at the show so interested in reading this book?
With enough possibilities to fill two full-length features, Bava and his writers deftly handle the myriad suspects and clues in such a way as to keep the film from ever becoming confusing. On the contrary, with each new possibility presented, the viewer is sucked deeper into this Technicolor world.
Speaking of Technicolor, one reason this film is notable is for its use of color. Bava was a famed special effects artist and cinematographer well before he became a director (and that only after friend and colleague Ricardo Freda forced his hand). He was well-known for wresting top-notch quality from shoestring budgets and this film in no different. Filmed for around $125,000 in only six weeks, Bava successfully engineers a movie that looks like it cost millions and took months to film. It boggles the mind to know that Bava was able to create the look of the film and complete it in such a short amount of time.
A master at color and lighting, Blood and Black Lace is a rainbow explosion, starting with the original Italian opening credit sequence. As each co-star’s name appears on the screen, Bava’s camera, which is slowly panning across a darkened room, stops briefly on a brightly colored set of mannequins at the fashion warehouse. But if one looks closely, each actor whose name is on screen also appears motionless next to a mannequin. It’s a quirky and comic, and shows Bava’s playful side. Many scenes are imbued with a nourish feel as light creates shadow. But color is immensely important, too, and Bava fills the screen with sumptuous, even garish, color schemes, as when one lovely model is looking for Franco, the histrionic drug-addict. She enters his antiques shop where she wanders—and is eventually attacked—through greens and blues and even pinks. While the room is darkened, the blinking neon sign from outside steadily beats like a heart to alternately light and obscure her search. This is a truly colorful and beautiful film, and this scene is one of my favorites. But color is also used to signify meaning in the film, as is pointed out in the wonderful commentary track. Ultimately, the color design in this and other Bava films such as The Whip and the Body and Kill Baby, Kill established the overall look of many later gialli, including Argento’s work.
As an experienced cinematographer, Bava also fully understood the mechanics of filming and camera movements. Long before Argento’s famed extended tracking shots on timed cranes, Bava was sitting in a children’s wagon being dragged along because he couldn’t afford dolly equipment nor the time it would take to set the tracks. My favorite scene is a long tracking shot backstage during a fashion show. The camera stalks around the room as people enter and exit the screen. The camera comes to rest once the diary is found and begins its slow movement as we follow the diary from the model’s hand into her purse, then the purse from her wardrobe cubicle to a table nearer the runway entrance. As the purse is set down, another model steps into the background and into a perfect frame as she is surrounded by the purse straps. The amount of motion, the number of prompts, and the exact placement of actors is a perfect example of mis-en-scene made all the more impressive when you understand what Bava had to work with. Scenes like this are no less grand than if Hitchcock, who was also famed for long tracking shots, had created them. (Ironically, both directors died within 72 hours of each other; Hitchcock was celebrated worldwide while Bava became a footnote until just recently, as his film oeuvre has been re-evaluated.)
The film is shockingly violent for its time as well as sexually risqué, given its 1964 production date. Most of the murder victims are killed in a state of undress, though no actual nudity is shown, leading to many complaints of misogyny on the part of the director. Most of the murders are physically brutal, though very little blood is shown. The opening murder, when Isabella is murdered, is astoundingly violent, as she is forcefully strangled, kicking and screaming, until she stops breathing. Other deaths are just as brutal, including one scene of torture as the killer tries to wrest the location of the all-important diary from one of the models by beating her senseless and throwing her around the room before scalding her hand on a hot stove. Her ultimate demise is just as cruel as her face is shoved into the hot stove. There is also a violent drowning that is also uniquely beautiful as the camera lies on the bottom of the bathtub and the viewer sees the victim with her head and torso held underwater from above. Again, while there is very little blood and almost no special effects, these murders are still very violent when viewed today. It must have been absolutely shocking to viewers over a half-century ago. Interestingly, Bava also pioneered the black-gloved killer with no face with this film, another highly identifiable characteristic of modern gialli.
And one would be remiss to not mention the jazz score by Carlo Rustichelli. With nearly 300 (!) credits to his name, Bava used him for The Whip and the Body as well as Kill Baby, Kill, too. It’s an upbeat and original score which Bava uses very well, including the choice of not using music during key sequences, like the murder in the antiquities shop.
Whether you watch Blood and Black Lace for its historical place in Italian (and, ultimately, worldwide, cinema) or just for sheer entertainment, the film is simply one of the best of its kind and highly enjoyable.
Arrow has created a remarkable selection of extras and featurettes to add to this release. The film is presented in a brand-new 2K restoration and is complete and uncut, both on standard DVD as well as on Blu-Ray. There is a new commentary by Video Watchdog Tim Lucas, who perhaps knows more about Bava than even Bava’s own son (sorry, Lamberto!). It is a fascinating and enlightening commentary that is quite entertaining instead of dry and academic. There is a 50-minute feature that traces the origin of the giallo genre and includes commentary with Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and famed gialli screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, among others, as well as a shorter featurette by the filmmaking duo that brought Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears to the screen, though much of it is covered in the first featurette. Another featurette discusses gender within the context of gialli and was very interesting. While the first featurettes were fun and entertaining, any gialli fan knew much of what was covered. However, I had never heard of M-gialli and F-gialli, so this particular feature contained a great deal of new information for me. While entertaining, these featurettes are all relatively academic. To balance this out, Arrow has also included a short, 2014 panel discussion that includes Dario Argento reminiscing about Bava’s work on Argento’s 1980 film Inferno, Bava’s son Lamberto discussing his father, and others. It’s great to hear stories from other great Italian horror film directors about Bava. There is also a fun and riotous local television show, circa the very late 80’s, which is an interview and retrospective of Cameron Mitchell. Mitchell as an A-list star of film and Broadway and worked with all the truly great A-list actors and directors in the forties and fifties before moving to the Italian genre scene and into B-grade (and Z-grade) schlock in the late 60’s and beyond. Though it’s only a local cable access show, you can tell that Mitchell loves the attention and wished for bigger and better things for the end of his career. The quality isn’t great, but it’s very watchable and really entertaining.
There are several other features to round out this disc, including the acclaimed neo-giallo short film Yellow, the US opening title sequence, and the original trailer. You can tell the good folks at Arrow appreciate Bava and love this film, and they have put together a superb package that really enlightens the viewer about this film and the giallo genre as a whole. This is a can’t-miss purchase. The film can be found on Amazon or you can go directly to Arrow Film’s website at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa
Now stop reading and go buy it already!