BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (UK-'Iver Film Services') video cover
(Italy, 1964)
4 stars

"A Stormy Night

directed by: Mario Bava
starring: Eva Bartok, Cameron Mitchell, Thomas Reiner, Ariana Gorini, Mary Arden

(back of video blurb):

        *note*: I haven't included the full synopsis because it tells the entire story- including the identity of the killer!

       "One stormy night, Isobella is murdered outside Contessa Cristiani's lavish fashion salon where she worked with four other models. Her diary is found by Nicole. It contains entries mentioning drug addiction and illicit affairs concerning the models, their men friends, and Cristian's partner Morlacchi. Peggy steals and burns the diary bringing upon herself the sadistic wrath of a masked intruder. Nicole's nude and mutilated corpse is now discovered. Meanwhile Greta drags Peggy's body indoors from the tree trunk (sic) where it has been deposited. She is strangled by a masked figure. Inspector Silvestri, who has been holding all the male suspects in custody, is forced to release them when he realises that none of them could have committed this last murder. Terrified, the last remaining model packs in readiness to leave Cristiani's house, which she shares. She is drowned in a bath by a masked figure who turns out to be (SNIP!)..."

choice dialogue:

"Look at how the murderer tortured her-
he must have used a red hot poker!"
"He must have been a madman-
or a sex maniac in a homicidal fury!"

Slash with panache?:

       Mario Bava is one of my favourite directors and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is one of his best films- need I say more?!

       (Oh, I suppose I’d better!)...This 1964 shocker is set in and around a Rome fashion house- the credit sequence ,hinting at what is to come, shows garishly coloured mannequins, some of which have skulls for faces, in a delirious montage. The film itself opens in a ,typically, stylish way with the baroque house being lashed by a violent thunderstorm. Bava’s magnificently fluid camera prowls, the action developing into what feels like a huge play set- characters entering from either side of the screen to attend to some business or other, or to use the burgeoning storm as cover for secret liaisons. During this impressive The killer's face an unnerving blank...maelstrom of colour and light flashing to dark, a woman is pursued through the woods, near the fashion house, by an assailant who’s face is hidden by stretched white material- rendering it a menacing blank. She is caught and violently strangled- her body later turning up stuffed in a cupboard within the fashion house. The discovery of the body leads to a ,typically inept, police investigation. But it is the discovery of a diary that was kept by the murdered girl, discovered by one of the other models, that sparks off a rash of subsequent murders. It seems that everybody has a secret to hide and somebody is willing to kill and keep on killing to destroy the diary and keep their own particular secret hidden....

       Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE pretty much gave birth to the ‘gialli’, and set a template for the many films that followed in it’s wake. Most notably perhaps, Bava disciple, Dario Argento’s string of gialli which begun with L’UCCELLO DALLE PIUME DI CRISTALLO (aka THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) (1970). The anonymous killer replete in black leather gloves became a standard in later films. Usually it is just the gloves that are seen, or perhaps the killer’s silhouette, in an attempt to disguise their identity. But in Bava’s film the killer is seen, albeit in a disguise, and the figure becomes anonymous because of the feature erasing white stocking obscuring the face. This does not only provide anonymity, but in fact renders the killer’s identity purely secondary (at least for the majority of the picture). The ‘ Aurum Film Encyclopaedia of Horror’ observes; "Here, Bava dispenses with hypocrisy as the killer’s face is reduced to a blank screen offering no comforting resistance for projective identifications by the male spectators, and representing a menacing ‘every man’ for female viewers.". This argument was used against the horror film, especially in the early 80’s slasher boom, when critics warned of the audiences' identification with the masked killers and especially the POV shot directly putting the audience behind the mask. Naturally a cinema (and video) audience is much more sophisticated and able to view things on several different levels, something the critics of the genre condescendingly chose to overlook. Having said that, viewing violent murders without being able to definitively place the blame, provides BLOOD AND BLACK LACE with an unnerving and disturbing quality. The mask, of course, has always been used to ‘hide’ and ‘disguise’, but the ‘blankness’ that Bava provides as a perverse identity is something that, no doubt, inspired ‘the shape’ in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978). That film, and pretty much all of Brian De Palma’s thrillers- especially DRESSED TO KILL (1980), owe as much (if not more) to Bava’s, and in turn Argento’s, ‘gialli’, as they do to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal PSYCHO (1960). (This is especially interesting as, the US-centred, film press have always bemoaned De Palma as a Hitchcock wannabe.) Bava also breaks with the tradition of earlier thrillers by foregoing an unmasking during a revelatory denouement, instead by, (again perversely), doing this three-quarters of the way into the film. And by giving the killer an identity, he again disorientates his viewer- something which he does with even more alarming mischievousness in the later ECOLOGIA DEL DELITTO (aka BLOODBATH), when he (at least appears to) reveal the killer’s identity only minutes into the film!

       BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is a beautiful and violent film. It is this contradictory element that makes it such a successful and rewarding violence in BLOOD AND BLACK LACEviewing experience. Bava’s films are always beautifully shot and this film has exemplary cinematography. But Bava examines and exploits the artifice of ‘beauty’- and by doing so relishes in its destruction. Just as the killer is a cipher, the female models are too portrayed as little more than clothes horses. By taking to the cat walk they relinquish any personality and their deaths appear to be merely devices to propel the narrative. Something that is reinforced by the way they elegantly move in-between the motionless mannequins that stand silently around the interior of the fashion house. They are also shown to be ‘pathetic’ and (in a particularly old fashioned way), crave for and rely on the protection of the men-folk. To modern eyes this could be seen as a ‘misogynistic’ attitude for Bava to take, but whilst (nearly) all the violence is aimed towards the women the men are also one dimensional, whose only real character traits are shaped by their ‘secret’; drugs, impotence, greed, epilepsy etc. However, by the graphicness of the killings and the length with which they are lingered on Bava is neither letting the viewer ‘enjoy’ them or giving the viewer the safety of projecting another identity onto the murderer. The violence in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE maybe not as ‘graphic’ as that of the FRIDAY 13TH (1980) school of film making, or even that of his ultra gory BLOOD BATH (1971), but it is disturbing and protracted. Again The female bodies pile up...playing with the juxtaposition of ‘beauty’ and ‘horror’, Bava destroys beauty violently- but he does this in an absurdly beautiful way! By which I mean the killings are lushly shot, expertly framed and often adorned with sumptuous pink and green filters. In one scene a model drowned in the bath has her wrists cut by the killer to make it look like suicide, at the moment the razor touches skin the screen flashes pink and then the blood blossoms through the bath water like an opening red rose towards, and in sharp contrast to, the once beatific face of the victim now contorted in horror. This juxtaposition is even more blatantly shown when the killer burns off the face of one model on a red hot stove. By refusing to pander to the audiences preconceptions and their morality, Bava has achieved a provoking and disturbing masterpiece. Which is only undermined by wooden and flat acting by many of the principal players, something which may be attributed to the fact that to many of them English was not their native tongue (the movie was filmed in both English and Italian versions). Or perhaps Bava, the old goat (!), was mischievously and subliminally further reducing the one dimesionality of his characters. Which ever way you look at it BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is a veritable and, even today, potent classic which is easily as important as Hitchcock’s PSYCHO for shaping and influencing latter day slasher cinema.

BODYCOUNT 6  bodycount!   female:5 / male:1

       1) Female strangled
       2) Female killed with a metal claw glove
       3) Female has face burnt off on red hot stove
       4) Female suffocated with pillow
       5) Female drowned in bath tub
       6) Male shot dead

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