Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 23, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1964)

7. Blood and Black Lace
Beautiful women filmed beautifully while being murdered in stylish way. What more could a horror fan ask for? “Blood and Black Lace,” despite being a financial failure at the time of its release, went on to become Bava’s most influence film. Bava took the krimi mini-genre, stripped it down to its bare essential elements, and married the material with a Hitchcockian eroticism and a distinctly Italian style. In the process, he created a new genre, the giallo. A mixture of violent murders, lurid sexuality, and police procedure, the giallo would go on to define Italian thriller cinema for the next decade. And if “Psycho” was the birth of the slasher movie, “Blood and Black Lace” was the first distant relative.

This is classic Bava and we know it right from the first shot of the film. A red sign swings back and forth in a storm, deep blacks and blue surrounding the building behind it. This is just first of many, many uses of fantastic color throughout the film. Red, in particular, seems to be something of the theme color throughout the film. The red diary full of secrets is what fuels the film’s plot. The first murder victim wears a red scarf. The heat of a blazingly hot furnace cast red light all over a room. Red cloth mannequins and curtains decorate the fashion house. The film ends with the image of a red telephone swinging back and forth, mirroring the opening shot. And, of course, the blood. Meanwhile, the deep blues and blacks signify the killer. Aside from the black-blue trench coat the faceless murderer wears, the killer’s escapes and entrances are often framed in that color. For example, in one scene, the killer flees a murder scene in a car, the vehicle’s exit lit with a white-blue spotlight. Rooms are often painted in yellows or brown, grounding the carnage in earthy colors. These are just some of the many fantastic uses of color in the film. I could go on forever about it.

Aside from the color, Bava’s camera is fantastically active. Using improvised dollies and cranes, the camera’s view peers around corner, over staircases, and peeks into shadows. Reflections in mirrors are used fantastically throughout. The film’s point-of-view is fantastically paranoid. In the early moments of the film, it casts suspicion upon just about everyone with simply a look or a glance. Later on, the killer’s presence is suggested with simply a cocked angle. Following the killer’s perspective would become a trademark of later gialli (And slashers.), but this movie simply suggests it.

The murders were unprecedented violent for the time. The opening strangulation drags on for what feels like minutes and minutes. Perhaps the film’s highlight involves Nicole, the second victim, being stalked through an antiques dealership. Bava’s colors go practically psychedelic in this scene, as pinks, greens, and blues overwhelm, for seemingly no other reason then to disorient the character and the audience. The amazingly suspenseful sequence climaxes with the groovy soft-jazz score dropping out and the defenseless girl getting a medieval clawed glove slammed into her face. Later, a girl is sadistically tortured with a bright orange hot furnace, predating “Hostel” and all the other torture horror by a good thirty years. My favorite kill in the movie, which is cut to in medias res, completely without build-up, involves an almost totally naked girl being violently, forcefully drowned in a bathtub, in a shocking, disturbing aversion of “Psycho.” Three of the five murder scenes involve the female victim in some state of undress, having her dress pulled off, wearing only a slinky nightgown, or being dressed only in her underwear. While later filmmakers in the giallo genre would knowingly eroticized violence against women, Bava seems to be criticizing the fashion industry here more then anything else. The dead girls, lying about half-undressed, seem to be morbid inversions of fashion shoots.

The early parts of the film spend a lot of time setting up potential suspects and red herrings, such as the impotent make-up artist, the unstable coke fiend, a forlorn epileptic lover, and even a relatively benign cleaning lady. These, along with the detective’s story, are promptly abandoned well before the end, to focus completely on the victims and their deaths. Bava dispenses with even more superficial story padding by revealing the murderer’s identity exactly at the hour mark, with the story’s conclusion still to come. The film resolves itself in a barrage of double crosses, greed, and twisted love, themes Bava would revisit again and again during his career.

Eva Bartok is very good as the default protagonists. She seems somewhat cold during the early segments of the film but it becomes apparent at the end that she is simply masking an insecure, desperate need to be loved. Cameron Mitchell is duplicitous, greasy, and sleazy as her lover and the fashion house’s co-owner. Lea Krugher is nicely hysterical as the most nervous of all the girls. Claude Danets is notable if, for nothing else, her incredible beauty, her voluptuous figure and cat-like eyes. I wish we saw more of her.

On the negative side, the dubbing on the English language track is very poor. The Italian jazz-pop score also seems somewhat out of place for such a macabre film. All in all, these are petty, minor negatives. “Blood and Black Lace” is essential horror, a must-see for fans of the genre and gialli, and a visual wonder for cult cinema watchers. It should be apparent to readers now that I adore Bava’s work and “Blood and Black Lace” might very well be my favorite of his films. [Grade: A]

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