Friday, October 7, 2016

Blood and Black Lace (1964)


Directed by: Mario Bava
Screenplay by: Mario Bava, Giuseppe Barilla, and Marcello Fondato
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariani Gorini, Luciano Pigozzi, Mary Arden, Calude Dantes
Running Time: 89 minutes

A masked killer in black clothing, fever dream colors run riot, brutal and elaborately staged murder set pieces, ineffective police detectives, and a mystery that isn’t actually solved so much as the movie just comes out and tells you whodunit. Yep, it sounds like Psychoplasmics is paying another visit  to our good friend the giallo this Halloween. The first time we did so, we dug into a movie that diverged rather dramatically from what we'd come to expect when we hear the term "giallo." Here we're shifting in reverse and taking a look at the movie that codified many of those elements in the first place and still manages to pack one hell of a punch despite decades of imitators ramping up the shocks. I give you Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE.

The backdrop for BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is the glamorous Christian Haute Couture fashion house in Rome, run by the widowed countess Christiana Como (Eva Bartok) and her current paramour Massimo. (Cameron Mitchell) It's the kind of place where every single one of its occupants has some dirty secret that they'd like very much to keep hidden, so when one of the models turns up strangled to death on the fashion house grounds, the police have their work cut out for them in narrowing down the possible suspects. Thing is, this is but the first in a series of murders, because our first victim, unknown to the police, kept a diary which detailed a lot of the shady goings on at Haute Couture and several people there would do anything to keep it out of their hands. As the diary ends up passed from person to person, our killer -- a figure in black wearing a featureless gauze mask -- hunts them down and dispatches each one of them in spectacularly brutal fashion. That the victims are all beautiful women and the vicious nature of each of the murders have the police mistakenly convinced that they're after a deranged sex maniac, which ends up indirectly giving the killer a perfect alibi to throw them off their trail. Now all they're going to need to get away scott free is someone to pin the blame on.

While discussing briefly the origins behind the term giallo in my post about Fulci's DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, I neglected to go into the importance of the German krimi film on the genre's development. Krimis or "Kriminalfilms" were a series of crime movies (produced mainly by Rialto Films) that primarily adapted the works of 20's pulp crime writer Edgar Wallace, beginning with 1959's THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG and ending with 1972's PUZZLE OF THE SILVER HALF MOONS. Krimis had plots that were straight out of old fashioned murder mysteries, usually revolving around individuals or group thereof hiding a dark secret being menaced by a masked villain, stylishly shot and with added touches of more graphic violence and sexuality than one would come to expect. If that sounds familiar, it should. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was a German-Italian co-production, intended to be a crime thriller in the Edgar Wallace tradition. (According to Tim Lucas's commentary on the Arrow Video release of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, the film seems to have lifted rather liberally from a Wallace story titled WHITEFACE, to the point that apparently it ended up being more faithful to it than that story's actual adaptation.) You can find traces of the krimi throughout BLOOD AND BLACK LACE; the collection of suspects and their entangled sins, the bizarrely dressed killer (who looks a lot like comic book superhero The Question), the bossa nova theme music by Carlo Rustichelli, and police detective hero. (Thomas Reiner) Or, well, about as close as you're going to find in this movie.

However, for all their flourishes, krimi films were police procedurals at heart and Bava, bored with the cliches of whodunits, aimed for something a little different. So, the role of the police in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is pared down considerably. Their investigation plays no role in the reveal of the killer's identity except in how it pays off a visual clue for the audience and they are not involved in the mystery's resolution. In fact, their one big move to capture the killer ultimately ends up giving that killer an opportunity to escape justice. You also won't be seeing any of the film's remaining cast members becoming amateur sleuths and taking it upon themselves to solve the mystery themselves. If anybody ends up being proactive in any fashion, it's usually to work up an alibi to cover their own ass than help anyone else. No one uncovers the killer’s identity; the movie just comes out and tells you. Instead, it’s the actions of our mysterious killer and the stalk-and-murder scenes become the real focus of our film. Therefore, by diverging from the krimis that formed its foundation and moving towards something much darker and harsher. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE becomes a missing link between film noir’s nihilism and horror’s viciousness. Obviously, our bizarre killer and the brutal methods he uses to dispatch his victims – strangulation, drowning, shoving them face first into a furnace, and stabbing them in the face with a barbed gauntlet – paved the way for the Michael Myers’ and Jason Voorhees’ to follow but when its revealed that the killings are driven by greed and the last act follows our killer as they try to clean up loose ends, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE doesn’t feel too far removed from the likes of DIABOLIQUE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Almost joyously misanthropic, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE presents a world that, underneath all the riches and glamour, is more corrupt, cynical and savage than anything else.

Of course, it wasn't just the shift in content that helped BLOOD AND BLACK LACE kick off a sub-genre of its own but also the presentation of it. It's important to note that early in life, Mario Bava had aspirations to be a painter. When that career went nowhere, Bava moved on to work with his father in the Italian film industry but that inclination stayed with him. After a number of years working as a cameraman and co-directing whatever movies Riccardo Freda didn't feel like finishing, Bava would graduate to helming films all by his lonesome, starting with his More-Hammer-Than-Hammer gothic BLACK SUNDAY. He would direct his first color feature with 1961's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, which would be the first to feature the hallucinatory color cinematography that would become synonymous with the phrase "a Mario Bava film." See, as a director, Bava was concerned more with the staging and lighting of a scene than whether or not it made complete logical sense. To him, the script was generally little more than a vague outline to follow, which considering the quality of the scripts that the man usually worked with, maybe was for the best. While this does lead us to wonder what he could have pulled off if he had an actual decent script to build on, it ultimately isn't as big of the drawback as it sounds because in Bava's films, it's the pictures that do the talking. While the writing in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE never manages to rise above adequate enough to not be intrusive, the images contained within the film are potent enough to pick up the slack.

It was Bava’s intent to make this film look like one of the lurid covers to an old Mondadori paperback brought to life and it goes without saying that he succeeded. Through the use of wildly varied and vivid color schemes and lighting and strange camera angles, Bava makes normal spaces take on surreal dimensions. A simple cellar gets warped into a gothic dungeon. An antique store becomes a phantasmagorical nightmare world that our killer, seeming to merge with the shadows, stalks his victims through. A furnace glows red with an unnatural intensity. Red is a very important color in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. (Hey, considering the title it better be.) The film opens and closes with lingering shots on an object of that color and it reappears time and time again, most notably via a strange mannequin that is shown posing with some of the cast during the film’s marvelous opening credits and pops up again and again like some sort of impartial observer to the decadence on display. Most interestingly, though, is when Bava restrains himself from using his strange color schemes. Scenery that’s so delirious at night is rendered almost unrecognizable when shown in the light of day. It’s in these scenes that much of the police investigation takes place and well, no wonder they can’t solve it. It feels like they’re in a completely different world. This visual mastery is made even more impressive by the fact that Bava was working with a limited budget and could only get the shots he wanted by resorting to such methods as dragging the camera around in a child’s wagon or rigging up a see-saw-esque device in place of a crane.

The year previous to BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, Bava directed another film that’s often credited as the first giallo: THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH / THE EVIL EYE, starring John Saxon and Leticia Roman. There’s no argument that it created the template for much of what we westerners know as giallo – the outsider protagonist turning amateur sleuth after witnessing a murder, the travelogue like depictions of its European setting, and even a touch of supernatural weirdness that other giallos would run with – but it’s not quite there yet. It’s still nestled comfortably within the boundaries of your Hitchcockian thriller – in fact, it was originally intended as a comedic send-up of Hitch’s films, as the title suggests, until Bava concluded that the film’s absurdity would work better played completely straight. So, more of an evolutionary step then. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, on the other hand, can’t be mistaken for anything else, not just for its cynicism and candy-colored visuals but simply just for how horrifically brutal it is. Even with the on-screen gore kept to a minimum and years of the likes of Argento, Sollima, and Fulci amping up the shocks, the violence in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE remains effective because Bava knows how to make the audience feel it in a way that many of his imitators never grasped. Stabbing someone in the face with spikes is bad enough but throw in a lingering shot from the victim’s point of view showing those barbs are at eye level before they plunge in? Yikes. While subsequent giallos and especially their bastard offspring, the slasher, would victimize scantily clad women for cheap titillation, the sexualization of the victims here just serves to make the violence against them all more disturbing. Thanks to Bava’s whole filmmakers-as-painter approach, shots like a pair of corpses posed as for a magazine spread or that of a drowned women, the briefest lingering on blood spreading over the water’s surface, come across like macabre art pieces about the destruction of something beautiful.

It’s strong stuff, to say the least, and so it should come as little surprise that audiences weren’t quite ready for it when it hit theaters. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE flopped in its native Italy and was dismissed by critics. AIP, who had distributed Bava’s films stateside in the past, deemed the film’s content too disturbing for the teen and drive-in audience they marketed to and passed on it, the film eventually getting released over here thanks to the Woolner brothers. A bit amusing that the movies that Bava is best known for are among his least successful. West Germany loved the movie though and you can see BLOOD AND BLACK LACE’s influence all over the krimis that followed in its wake, eventually leading to German-Italian co-productions that combined krimis with giallos even further. It would be years before it kicked off a similar trend in its home land though, brought about when Bava’s disciple Dario Argento would basically Brundefly THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE into THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and thereby open the floodgates.

But BLOOD AND BLACK LACE did it first and in my opinion, did it best. It’s a truly exceptional piece of filmmaking art and one of my all time favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it yet and are interested, may I recommend the recent release by Arrow Films, now available for us knuckleheads in the U.S.? Not only is the new picture transfer absolutely gorgeous but it comes with an absolute bounty of supplemental features. Included are an article / interview with Joe Dante about his love for Bava, a commentary by Tim Lucas – the man who literally wrote the book on Bava -- , a feature length documentary interviewing Italian screenwriters, directors, and critics about the history and influence of the giallo, YELLOW, a short film created as a tribute to the giallo, a fascinating video essay about distinct portrayals of gender throughout the genre, and an episode of The Sinister Image guest starring BLACK LACE star Cameron Mitchell. It’s probably my favorite feature of the bunch, as Mitchell discusses his entire career with a mix of good humor and professionalism. Mitchell regarded Bava as his favorite director to work with (and this is man who got his start under John Ford, remember) and you can hear the genuine affection he has for the man whenever he’s brought up. Seek it out, it’s worth the price.

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