Several years ago, I got a Netflix account. I did it for a variety of reasons, though the two biggest were the fact that the selection of movies at the average video rental store was abysmal and the price of a rental at the un-average video store was outrageous. Netflix — not to sound like a commercial for the service — offered an astounding number of titles, and because one of their main distribution centers is in Queens, the turn-around time for receiving new movies was lightning fast, provided the lightning is that ball lightning or swamp gas stuff that drifts slowly from Queens to Brooklyn over the course of a day and is often mistaken for a UFO or gnome. Let it be said right now that on my list of things to do before I die is see swamp gas or ball lightning, or at least photograph a weather balloon that could be mistaken for a UFO. But that is neither here nor there.
One of the nice things about Netflix, aside from the relative anonymity it affords me (it’s much easier to put sleazy sexploitation films on a queue and have them shipped to me by a faceless other than it is to walk up to the cute girl at the video store counter and plunk down a copy of whatever asserific Tinto Brass movie it is I’m watching this time), is that it also afforded me a chance to queue up a bunch of films I knew I should have seen but never did. Or films that I had to watch for a college course but never paid attention to or enjoyed since watching a film in a film studies class often involves sitting there while the professor pauses the movie every ten seconds to expound on some technical component or philosophical theory of interpretation. Seriously, if you love film and are worried by your love of film, take some film studies classes and watch all the joy and magic be mercilessly drained away by constant over-analysis and dissection.
Luckily, I was only minoring in film studies, so I am still able to wring considerable joy and entertainment out of even the most insipid crap — or out of the most pretentious experiments (except for that one video where it’s just a shot of a stereo speaker with some guy talking about misunderstood communications as the speaker is slowly buried with sand, until what he’s saying can’t be understood at all — I get it; a noble message — did it need to take so long to deliver?). Finally I got to sit down and watch Werner Herzog films, all the old epics I missed, silent films I’d always wanted to see. I even learned to love Godard and the French New Wave. But a man only has so many hours in the day, especially when he has to devote a substantial amount of his time to solving murder mysteries in exotic locales while wearing a tuxedo and armed with nothing but a flashlight and boundless wit. So there still remain substantial gaps in my resume, even within the genres in which I consider or am consider by others to be something of an authority. And in some cases, the films I have not seen in those particular genres aren’t just major films; they are the films. The cornerstone. The one everyone should see and from which all intelligent discourse flows.
Case in point: I love Mario Bava movies. I love giallo. And while making a claim for any film as “the first giallo” will only degenerate into an unresolvable debate akin to naming the first punk rock band, a lot of people tend to agree that it’s Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace — which I’ve never seen. I’ve seen almost every other Mario Bava film. I’ve seen tons of other giallo. And yet, there is that massive oversight in my education. How could it happen? I don’t know. I can’t claim lack of availability. I own Blood and Black Lace on DVD. Two different copies, actually. I have owned it for years. And yet somehow it never found its way into the player. I think after a while of planning to watch it, and after discussing it in the context of the history of other films I’ve seen, I even fooled myself into thinking I’d watched it. For a spell, I couldn’t even convince myself that I hadn’t watched it before. I’m pretty certain I lied about watching it to others, either out of shame or genuine self-delusion. When I sat down to think of movies I should have seen but somehow missed and could review for this B-Masters Roundtable, Blood and Black Lace leaped immediately to mind.
Shame, however, quickly gave way to excitement. It’s sort of like going back to your home town, meeting up with the girl you always had a crush on but never took the time to date because you were always chasing someone else, and falling in love with her all over again. Only it works out well, instead of how it usually is — which is an awkward night out for a drink before she excuses herself to go back home to her irritatingly awesome husband, leaving you sitting there like a chump, drowning your regret over missed chances in one beer too many. I suppose watching a movie you should have watched a long time ago can end in similar hops-drenched regret if you put the DVD in and, say, it was scratched and unplayable. But luckily, my copy of Blood and Black Lace was in pristine condition, so I had much better luck with it than I ever did being the creepy guy who hits on all his old high school and college crushes (doing that is why they invented Facebook, you know).
If there’s any other film that can duke it out with Blood and Black Lace for the title of “first giallo movie,” it’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which coincidentally, was also directed by Mario Bava. For my money, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is more of a transitional film, with Blood and Black Lace being the next logical step into madness and the first true giallo. But like I said, playing “who got there first” is ultimately not all that important, as genres of film (like other forms of art) don’t spring fully formed out of a vacuum. If the giallo of the 1970s evolved from the early proto-giallo of Mario Bava, then Bava’s work itself grew out of a fascination with Hitchcockian thrillers (in the case of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, the influence is obvious in the title). And Hitchcock films themselves are a stew of one director’s peculiar vision mixed with the popular parlor room mysteries, espionage thrillers, and whodunits that were so popular during the 1930s and 40s. Among those early mystery films, some of the most remarkable were the mystery films based on the works of British author Edgar Wallace. Wallace’s mysteries were set apart from the pack by the writer’s fascination with mysterious, costumed villains — themselves a throwback to the days of serials and, even earlier, old pulp stories. Most of the tenants of giallo cinema trace their roots back to these early mysteries. The preoccupation with a class of elites (in the old whodunits, it was usually wealthy socialites; in giallo it was usually a group of artists or models), the amateur sleuth who gets involved in solving the mystery, the stack of red herrings that is slowly whittled down as the body count rises. When Hitchcock stepped onto the scene, he brought with him a certain biting wit. Mysteries were never wanting for witty entries: the Bulldog Drummond films, the Thin Man movies — clever banter and smart repartee were their stock in trade. But Hitchcock’s wit was a little…darker. More ironic. Meaner.
When it came time for Mario Bava to turn in his version of a Hitchcock movie, he picked up on that underlying current of malicious giddiness and ratcheted it up. If there is humor in Blood and Black Lace, it’s difficult to sort out. I think there is a certain glee in the carnage. Bava is a peasant let loose to demolish a nobleman’s home during the Russian Revolution. There is unbridled celebration, but there’s also unsettling tragedy. There’s no straight-up comedy. No jokes. Thank God, no comic relief. I think Bava is leaning on a subtle absurdity, taking a certain delight not just in demolishing the vacant aristocrats that comprise his cast of characters but also in wreaking havoc with the language of cinema and expectations of what was, then and now, acceptable. Blood and Black Lace gave giallo the element that made it so much different from the early whodunits from which it evolved: the snarl.
Early mysteries, even as the bodies piled up in someone’s old, dark house, were generally playful, the sinister edge taken off the murders by characters who were snappy, upbeat, and generally bouncy. Hell, Bulldog Drummond got as giddy as a school child every time a corpse turned up to force another postponement of his wedding. Hitchcock stripped some of the playfulness away, but still there was often a playful edge to what he was doing. Blood and Black Lace represents the point at which the playfulness is stripped away, or if not stripped away entirely, is at least infused with such a nasty edge that it becomes uncomfortable. Even by today’s standards, and even to a seasoned viewer of such films, Blood and Black Lace is brutal. It certainly caught me off-guard, and at times, it was hard to believe that I was watching such an early example of the genre. What’s even more impressive is that, while countless giallo have been made that are far gorier and much more mean-spirited, none of them matches or diminishes the visceral impact of Blood and Black Lace. You might think that decades of Argento, Sollima, Martino, and others would make Bava’s pioneering movie seem quaint and harmless. You would be wrong.
Bava’s tale of murder and greed is set among the denizens of an upscale fashion house. Someone is killing off the models, one by one, and in horrifically brutal fashion: bashing their head repeatedly against a tree, slamming their face into a red hot furnace, raking the face with a glove covered in hooks. It’s obvious that the killer wants something, but it’s also obvious that he relishes his gruesome work. What the killer wants, it turns out, is the diary of a woman murdered during the film’s opening scene. Exactly what the killer wants with it is unclear until the big reveal, but complicating retrieval of the diary is the fact that the killer is not alone in the desire to possess it. It seems that a lot of the people in the fashion house have reason to think that the diary contains something incriminating, or at least very embarrassing to them. As the book passes from one set of hands to another, the killer — wearing the trademark black raincoat and fedora that would become the de rigueur uniform of almost all giallo murderers — leaves a trail of mutilated bodies in pursuit of the elusive volume.
Naturally, every man involved with one of the models or the business of the fashion house is a suspect. One is a dope fiend. One is a penniless count. One is just irritatingly twitchy. And one is Cameron Mitchell, who ends up at the top of any list of suspects whenever he shows up in a movie, simply by virtue of being Cameron Mitchell. Although the police are convinced one of the men is the killer, there are quite a few women at the house who have a reason and ample opportunity to kill. The best mysteries, in my opinion, know better than to put all their hopes into the big reveal — movies that count on the final unmasking of the true killer to be the high point of the film are almost always disappointing in some way, and only a very few of them pull it off. Blood and Black Lace has a pretty good central mystery at its core, but it doesn’t rely on the shock of the killer’s identity as much as it does rely on the winding road to the reveal being interesting. By the time the killer is unmasked, it’s a nice bonus, but the rest of the movie has been so good that you almost don’t care.
The script by Marcello Fondato isn’t anything particularly great. The film lacks quality dialogue. There is none of the snappy banter of the old mysteries or Hitchcock films. There isn’t really any obvious humor. The story is…sufficient. Judged on the merits of the writing alone, Blood and Black Lace would be one of the many, many pioneering first examples of a genre that is important for historical purposes, but ultimately not a particularly good example of the genre it would create. For a while, that’s exactly how the movie was judged, too. Critics were aghast, as they often were and continue to be. The film was decried as misanthropic, vile, and sadistic. I’m pretty sure they just dusted off their old outraged reactions to Hammer Studio’s Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein and changed the title of the movies. Everything else is pretty much the same. In the United States, the film was hacked to pieces, edited, reassembled, poorly dubbed, and distributed as “just another sleazy horror film,” causing most critics to dismiss it out of hand. Like those earlier British films, Blood and Black Lace represented a quantum leap forward in what a filmmaker was willing to put on screen in terms of sex and violence. Horror was getting steadily bolder with every year, starting at Hammer, continuing with Roger Corman’s “Poe” cycle, and then going even further under the guidance of Mario Bava. The things all three groups of film had in common, and the thing that elevates Blood and Black Lace above its surprisingly violent but otherwise mediocre script were vision and color.
Mario Bava’s original intention in life was to be a painter. His father was a sculptor who ended up being one of the pioneers of special effects in the early days of the Italian silent film era. He was the cinematographer on two of the biggest epics of the silent era, 1912’s Quo Vadis? and 1914’s Cabiria. He worked on special effects for Cabiria (and if you think that silent films are modest, small-scale affairs, you really need to watch Cabiria). When Mario couldn’t make a living as a painter, he followed his father into the film business. Like his father, Mario worked first as a cinematographer. Just as his father had worked on two of the biggest sword and sandal epics of the silent era, Mario Bava worked on two of the biggest epics (Hercules and Hercules Unchained) of the sword and sandal revival of the late 50s and first half of the 1960s. When director Riccardo Freda was unable to complete filming of two movies in 1956 (I Vampiri and Caltiki the Undying Monster), Bava stepped in to finish the job. He did the same thing for Jacques Tournier with 1958’s Giant of Marathon. And then, finally, in 1960 he got to officially direct his first film, Black Sunday.
Looking back on his body of work, it’s easy to recognize his early training as a painter. Bava’s films are expertly staged, every scene meticulously arranged, every image shot in a way to maximize its effect. In 1961, he got to direct his first color film, the phantasmagorical supernatural sword and sandal adventure Hercules in the Haunted World. Saddled with a typically minuscule budget and tight turn-around time, Bava relied on creativity to make the movie something much more special than it would have been in the hands of any other director. Under Bava’s direction, the familiar world of the 60s peplum movie became a psychedelic nightmare. Hades was awash in multi-colored lighting that bathed otherwise bland cardboard and Styrofoam sets in eerie green, purple, blue, and red glows. Even though dozens of “Hercules” movies had been made by 1961, none of them were quite like Bava’s. It remains one of the few films in that much maligned (though much adored by me) genre to garner any critical acclaim, though as is often the case, most of that acclaim came long after the fact.
Bava made several movies between Hercules in the Haunted World and Blood and Black Lace, including: the all-too-often-ignored The Whip and the Body, starring his Hercules in the Haunted World villain, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee; Black Sabbath starring Boris Karloff; and The Girl Who Knew Too Much. It was in 1964, however, that all the pieces fell together. Blood and Black Lace is a director’s movie. The script is almost required to be bland, so as not to get in the way of what the director wants to use to really tell the story — the images. Film is a complicated medium, comprised of the visual, the literary, the musical, the theatrical. Sometimes, on rare occasions, all the pieces work in perfect harmony and balance. More often than not, though, one or two pieces of what goes into a film are considerably stronger than the others. Sometimes, the out-of-balance pieces are so terrible that even the good aspects are ruined for most people (Lucio Fulci tends to get put into this category a lot). Sometimes, the out-of-balance pieces are terrible, yes, but the good aspects are so good that one tolerates the incompetence in other areas (Lucio Fulci tends to get put into this category a lot, as well).
Blood and Black Lace benefits from the out-of-balance pieces not being all that bad. They are just good enough — which allows Bava’s fetish for the visual aspect to attain maximum effectiveness. As with his earlier films, his sets are crammed with detail, all of it vividly colored or lit. Simple cellars become warped, nightmare worlds similar to something real but also not quite right. A room full of mannequins is just a room full of mannequins, until Bava puts a bright red one in the middle of all the white wireframes. And it’s not gratuitous reveling in the visual medium purely for the sake of excess. What separates Mario Bava from many of the modern directors who put an equal emphasis on imagery over script is that, to Bava, the imagery is the script. This is how the story is told, with images rather than words. His garish sets and candy-colored palette are not just window dressing. This is the language he uses to tell his story. In no shot is this more effectively conveyed than the very first, when we see the sign for the fashion house being buffeted by a windstorm, finally coming completely unhinged and revealing the house behind it, so full of equally unhinged characters.
Later imitators would concentrate on aping the style without really grasping the substance behind it, and perhaps in his way, Mario Bava is responsible for the rise of the “style over substance” filmmaking that dominates the modern cinematic landscape (and before you get all up in my face, I don’t consider “style over substance” to be inherently bad). But just like i can’t hold a grudge against Operation Ivy for spawning a decade of shitty ska-punk bands, I’m not going to condemn Bava for what his imitators did. Hell, I don’t even blame Mario Bava for what his son, Lamberto Bava, would end up doing, and that’s a case of direct spawning. Although working in a genre that still gets very little respect, any aspiring cinematographer owes it to themselves to study Mario Bava in general, and Blood and Black Lace in particular. It’s as potent an example as there is of how film doesn’t have to rely on words to tell the story, as well as being an example of style with substance, instead of over it. It’s exactly the kind of movie you’d expect a painter to make. Bava’s predilection toward kaleidoscopic candy coloring for his movies makes for a visual feast, as does his penchant for bizarre camera angles (an element of the giallo that was directly inherited from Hitchcock). And while Bava bathes the movie in a wash of psychedelic hues, no color is more important to the film than red. The very opening is a shot of the strange red mannequin, so starkly different from the plain, white mannequins surrounding it. It seems to move through the story like a character, finding itself in different rooms and places, observing the self-destructive nature of the humans around it.
As a writer though — however questionable an example of my craft this particularly disjointed piece may be — I can’t totally discount the written word, and as I said, the script for Blood and Black Lace isn’t bad; it’s merely serviceable. Screenwriting in Italian genre film usually being a collaborative process, Bava himself shares writing credit with Fondato (who also worked with Bava on Black Sabbath). Bava had a number of thematic obsessions, and most of them show up here. First, and most obvious, is the unreliability of appearance. This is, as you probably know, not something Bava invented himself. Hell, there wouldn’t even be a mystery genre if everything was as it appeared to be. I mean, you don’ get very far in life as a murderer if you look like a murderer. And in murder mysteries, they often rely on sleight of the expectation hand. The sweaty, twitching gardener is rarely the killer. The proper, sophisticated gentleman often is. Bava’s unique take on this trope is to make it part of the visuals as well as the characterization that comes from the script. As I said before, he lights, decorates, and films his sets in a way that makes them not quite right. They seem normal enough at first glance, but something just a little bit off, just a little bit sinister, catches in the corner of your eye and makes you uneasy.
Bava also brings a healthy suspicion of authority to his film. As with the peplum that was just completing its fade from popularity in 1964, Bava’s outlandish use of colors and crazy situations could be seen as a massive artistic release after decades spent under the grueling thumb of Italian fascism and the meticulously dull “white telephone” films of that era. Following that was the era of the neo-realists, who made a number of exceptional films. However, one can see how a freer spirit might chafe under the oppressively grim obsession with hopelessness and despair that characterized the movement. Director Pietro Francisci once remarked that his film, La Fatiche di Ercole, was a reaction to decades of white telephone and neo-realist movies. For God’s sake, he just wanted to slough off the shackles and sadness and embrace spectacle, celebrate humanity “in times of greatness.” In its way, Blood and Black Lace carries on the tradition. Captains of industry (well, captains of the fashion industry), the rich, the glamorous — we poor people have always known they were swollen with corruption and vileness, but in 1964, peeling back that onion was still relatively novel and, when done, had to be done with extreme coyness. Bava, however, launches into a savage…well, savaging…of society’s authority figures. Even the cops are ineffectual and unimaginative. Gone are the plucky do-gooder elites of the old Thin Man days. Gone are wide-innocents caught up in a deadly game. Here, everyone is seedy. Even the innocent are shady, and ultimately, no one in Blood and Black Lace is innocent as much as they are just not guilty of this particular crime. And in fact, the more innocent a character is, the more meaningless their death ends up being within the plot.
Gone too is the amateur sleuth that was a staple of the old mystery movies and would, in fact, also be a staple of the giallo that were to come. No one at the fashion house takes an interest in solving the murders. In fact, the murders are never “solved” on screen. When the killer is revealed, it isn’t because someone discovers the identity or follows the clues. It’s revealed simply as another part of the narrative. The reaction of these people, vacant as the mannequins that surround them, to the grisly crimes ranges from emotionless distance to panic that they will be implicated, but no one picks up the spiked gauntlet and tries to solve the case on their own. Bava seems keen on creating characters who do not possess the capacity for normal human emotion. At first, it can seem like just another case of characters in horror movies doing really stupid things, but it’s more than that. If there’s any character who flirts with being sympathetic, it’s the poor young girl who is married to the penniless count. In the midst of the murders, with her husband locked up as a suspect, she begs her fellow models to let her stay with one of them for the night rather than force her to go home alone, to her isolated house on the outskirts of town. This simple request would be met with agreement by almost any decent human, but she is summarily turned down by everyone, for reasons as trite as “I don’t feel like it” to “don’t be such a baby.”
Rather than being motivated simply by the script’s need to get her alone, though, these cold reactions to a fellow human’s simple request serve to illustrate Bava’s core characters as being brutally cynical and disconnected. Their beauty, their success, their wealth, and their status in society has made them jaded, incapable of loving or feeling compassion. It’s not even that any of them are being mean when they turn the poor girl out on her own; they are simply incapable of feeling as if they should help. Such an emotion has become alien to them. If Bava’s films, like those of the early peplum directors, were a stylistic reaction against the grim palette of the neo-realists, then they also still cling to the idea of the elite in society as morally bankrupt and hollow — something that was actually quite common in sword and sandal films as well, where the heroes, while being beefy bodybuilder types, were usually still salts of the earth helping the downtrodden in their struggle against the decadent and corrupt members of the elite. Blood and Black Lace may not have Reg Park bounding about the place in a loin cloth, but it still shares that fascination with dissecting the rich and powerful.
Bava also sees no reason to ask us to sympathize with his killer any more than we do with the characters being killed. This is no “love to hate him” villain, no character with a back story that tempers the killings. When the motivations for the murders is finally revealed, it is thoroughly base and corrupt. And the murders themselves, while largely bloodless, are so brutal and horrifying that any sense of “rooting for the killer,” as was common in some of the giallo of the 70s and certainly in the slasher films of the 80s, is eliminated. Blood and Black Lace has been criticized for having a misogynistic streak, for reveling in the brutal killing of female characters. I think it’s a valid reading, as most readings are (hey, if you see it, then at least for you, it’s there), even if it’s one with which I don’t agree. I think the movie is more misanthropic than misogynistic, finding the men in the movie thoroughly loathsome while the women are the victims of the vileness. There is no “joy” to be extracted from the murders, no tacit approval of the act as there is in so many other films. The killing in Blood and Black Lace has the effect of Bava holding your eyes open and forcing you to watch something sickening. I was, as I said in the beginning of this rambling review, caught off-guard by just how shocking and violent these largely bloodless killings were. If Blood and Black Lace was truly a misogynistic film, I think the deaths of the women would be staged in a way that allows the seedy viewer to take some pleasure from them. But that isn’t the case. They are nasty and brutal and hard to stomach, a sensation that is made all the more bizarre by the fact that Bava’s visual style lends such a deceptively colorful and care-free surrounding. I can’t think of many murder movies, certainly not any other giallo, where the killing was as effectively upsetting as it is in Blood and Black Lace.
Because his films were such an obvious influence on the coming generation of Italian (and other) filmmakers, Bava is often placed for comparison alongside directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. In my opinion, however, he has less in common with the men he would inspire than he does with contemporaries he may not have even heard of at the time. I’m thinking specifically here of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki. Both men worked in what were regarded as artless, commercial, disposable genres — Bava in horror, Suzuki in gangster movies. And both turned their respective genres upside down by employing bold stylistic flourishes. Suzuki’s films so enraged his bosses that they actually took color stock away from him and forced him to work in black and white. Suzuki responded by making his most outlandish gangster film yet, Branded to Kill. Both Suzuki and Bava proved that working in commercial genres didn’t preclude being inventive and valuable. And both men delighted in the colorful carnage they brought to their genres and the characters who inhabited their movies. Coincidentally, the other film I was considering for this roundtable since, while I love yakuza films and Seijun Suzuki, I have never seen Branded to Kill.
That’s not to say that Bava doesn’t deserve to be counted among the ranks of Italian thriller directors he helped inspire. Dario Argento would emerge as his most talented, most interesting, and later most disappointing acolyte. Mario’s own son, Lamberto, would make aggressively commercial horror films in the 70s and 80s, but the younger Bava never showed any of the stylistic flare or sensitivity for injecting actual meaning into a movie that identified his father’s work. To complete the circle, Alfred Hitchcock’s own final film, Frenzy, was a very giallo-looking venture, and his proposed but never filmed next film was described by Hitch himself as being a blood and nudity filled experiment in mayhem. It would have been interesting to see what Hitchcock’s first completely giallo looking film would have been like, even if the film had ultimately been a failure. If he was studying the men who studied him, he could have done no better than draw inspiration from Blood and Black Lace. This is no “film you should see for historical purposes only.” It’s as mad, creative, and shocking as it was when it was new. In fact, it still feels fresh and powerful despite being almost half a century old. It lends itself to endless exploration and interpretation, and every time you watch it, there’s going to be something new that comes up, some new angle that can be discussed among fans, yet another piece that keeps the movie from getting old. While I’m aghast at the fact that it took me so long to finally sit down and watch the movie, I’ve watched it three times since then, and I look forward to a long life of watching it again and again.
Release Year: 1964 | Country: Italy | Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariana Gorini, Dante DiPaolo, Mary Arden, Franco Ressel, Claude Dantes, Luciano Pigozzi, Lea Krugher, Massimo Righi, Francesca Ungaro, Giuliano Raffaelli, Harriet White Medin, Mary Carmen | Writers: Mario Bava, Marcello Fondato, Giuseppe Barilla | Director: Mario Bava | Cinematography: Ubaldo Terzano, Mario Bava | Music: Carlo Rustichelli | Producers: Alfredo Mirabile, Massimo Patrizi | Original Title: Sei donne per l’assassino