Blood and Black Lace (1964)

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*. I’ll begin by saying that Blood and Black Lace is my favourite Mario Bava film, and the one I consider to be his best.
*. What a great opening! The credit sequence where we’re introduced to the cast isn’t original (a lot of older movies did something similar, harkening back to theatrical introductions of the “players”), but the way it’s done here perfectly sets the tone. First there’s what might be called Bava’s Technicolor chiaroscuro, and then the motif of the mannequin. Bava loves mannequins (and statues, and suits of armour), and you’ll see plenty of them here. And note how the cast themselves are mannequins, which might be another entry point into Bava’s style of filmmaking. Isn’t the faceless (masked) killer in this film a mannequin? Wasn’t Reg Park in Hercules in the Haunted World a mannequin-action figure?

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*. Also wonderful is Carlo Rustichelli’s rhumba- or tango-flavoured score. What sort of a movie is such a theme setting us up for? Not necessarily something terrifying, but certainly fun.
*. It’s incredible to me that the American release lost these credits and replaced them with a boring (and confusing) montage of mannequins intercut with a skull and with the score underplayed. Apparently they didn’t think the original credits were scary enough. This is what happens when you take formula too literally.
*. From the credits we cut immediately to a location title that appears on a sign announcing the House of Christian’s haute couture. The sign is swinging wildly in a storm and then breaks, revealing a Roman palazzo (the Villa Sciarra). It’s such a beautifully busy shot. There’s the storm. There’s the squeaky hinges and the falling sign. And best of all there are those silhouettes of people moving back and forth behind the brightly lit windows. They’re almost like cartoons, or the cut-outs of people Kevin uses to fool intruders into thinking he isn’t “home alone.”
*. We’re not two minutes into the film and you have to be wondering how things could get any better!

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*. In his DVD commentary Tim Lucas calls this the first giallo and “first authentic body-count movie.” This may be true, but if so it’s worth noting that it’s not an entirely original or groundbreaking film. Lucas himself mentions the tradition of the Edgar Wallace “krimi” or crime films, for example. Bava knew he was working within a genre that had certain conventions. What he did was amplify some things (the colour, the violence) and in so doing he altered the direction such films would go in, changing their basic grammar.

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*. Misogyny? This is a charge that has to be considered largely because of what came after, which was the American slasher film and its nubile teens getting killed in their underwear immediately after (or during) sex.
*. The sexism is present here, and I don’t think it can be swept under the rug of style. The victims, for one thing, are all women. They are all almost all killed either in their underwear or after something is done to reveal their underwear. Lucas calls it a “film about beauty and its ruination,” which it may be but it’s a judgment that sidesteps a lot.
*. American slasher films were sleazier than their Italian forebears (there was none of the Italian obsession with the world of fashion, for one thing), but this may be the result of a broader cultural difference. Personally, I think the exploitation is part of Bava’s undeniable trash aesthetic. I think he’s a great, almost visionary filmmaker, and could work miracles on tight budgets and schedules, but at the same time you can’t deny the deliriously awful genre roots of much of his work. I don’t think he denies them either, but develops them in his own way.

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*. Is it suspenseful? Scary? Only moderately so. To some extent the sense of style overwhelms the horror. The stalking in the antique shop, which Lucas calls the “quintessential sequence of the entire Bava canon,” is a good example. You can’t watch a sequence like that without thinking of all those strange coloured lights, and how bizarre the murder weapon is. It all seems too weird or otherworldly to be believed.
*. Another bit praised by Lucas is the scene where we see the body behind the screen being dragged backward. This is startling because the way the shot is set up you’re led to assume that what you’re seeing is the killer’s point of view. What you get, however, is a bait and switch, as the killer is actually somewhere else (at the feet of the corpse, as it turns out). It’s clever to be sure (Antonioni does something similar in Blow-Up, but far more subtly), and Lucas mentions viewers standing to cheer when they saw it. I think it’s brilliant too, but the thing is, when you’re noticing stuff like this it’s because it draws attention to itself. As with his use of colour, Bava doesn’t really have a subtle mode.

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*. This isn’t to say Bava doesn’t have an eye for detail. Despite the low budget — so low he couldn’t even afford a dolly for the camera but had to mount it on a child’s wagon (presumably a different one from the one he was still said to be using, for budget reasons, to shoot 1971’s A Bay of Blood) — there is a thoroughness and unity to his vision here that is remarkable.

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*. The story, I think, is terrific, and the way the business about the purse with the diary in it becomes a focal point for everyone’s gaze is great (and those faces!). But the movie is filled with such brilliant little touches. Notice how Isabella’s flashlight when she’s running is shining on her neck, highlighting her vulnerability and foreshadowing her imminent strangulation.
*. The only criticism is that even these little touches are overstated. Has anyone ever had as wild an epileptic seizure as Marco performs at the police station? And yet in a film like this it doesn’t seem out of place.
*. It’s amazing that a film with this crazy a plot, made on this small a budget, manages to hold together as well as it does. To be sure there are improbabilities, especially with the ending, but by then I didn’t care. I’d also say that despite its important place in film history, and Bava’s growing reputation, it has yet to receive its full due.

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