The work of Mario Bava, often considered the grandfather of Italian horror, was largelymisunderstood while he was alive. Although his first film, 1960's Black Sunday(La maschera del demonio), received a warm critical reception during its initialrelease, many of his subsequent films did not, including Blood and Black Lace(Sei donne per l'assassino). For instance, in his otherwise excellent andperceptive history of horror and science fiction films of the classical era (1895-1967), CarlosClarens misses the mark completely when he describes Blood and Black Lace as afilm with "minimal plot" that "consists of a string of brutal murders, each staged with relishand in the most redolent hues, attesting to the fact that Bava is simply trying to titillate a veryspecialized segment of his audience that requires neither rhyme nor reason."
Although the film does consist chiefly of "a string of brutal murders" that are certainly"staged with relish and in the most redolent hues," it is a gross understatement to assume thatBava is sinking to some lowest common denominator in order to titillate viewers. Unlike therash of slasher films in the 1980s for which Blood and Black Lace served as aforerunner and model, Bava's film is a complex murder mystery raised to a higher levelthrough artistry and innovation.
Blood and Black Lace is generally considered the first giallo, Italianmystery thrillers that feature graphic violence. The name itself is derived from lurid Italianpaperbacks, the covers of which were always yellow. Thus, unlike most slasher films,Blood and Black Lace is set up as a mystery--a whodunit with a significant bodycount. While there is plenty of violence throughout the film (six beautiful women aremurdered in unique and sadistic ways), the violence is but one element of the larger whole. Itis not, like some horror films, the sole reason for its being.
The majority of the story takes place at the Christian Haute Couture, a fashion salon in Romerun by Contessa Cristina (Eva Bartok). In the opening scene, a young model named Isabella(Lea Krugher) is murdered outside the salon by someone dressed in a black trench-coat andfedora whose face is covered by a white mask of cloth, which gives the impression of awaxen, featureless visage. It turns out that Isabella had kept a diary in which she recountedthe dark secrets of everyone involved the fashion salon. Her small red diary, which changeshands numerous times and becomes a prized object for many (which is why so manycharacters come under suspicion of the murder), contains information about affairs,blackmail, abortions, and drug use.
However, as the diary changes hands, the death toll grows. One by one, each model ismurdered in a particularly nasty way (the worst being one woman who is burned to death byhaving her face pressed against a red-hot stove), and at various times, the shadow ofsuspicion falls on different characters. At one point, the frustrated police detective in chargeof the investigation (Thomas Reiner) holds five men in prison because he thinks any one ofthem may be the culprit ... and another murder still occurs.
As with Bava's other films, Blood and Black Lace is a visual marvel. Even thosewho find the story and violent imagery repulsive cannot help but admire Bava's skill behindthe camera. A former cinematographer, Bava had an intricate working knowledge of theeffectiveness of lighting and shadow, and he bathes his horror film in showy Technicolorthat gives an aura of professionalism and technical polish that betrays the film's meagerbudget. (The acting, however, is not particularly good; many of the performances are stiffand unconvincing, with the exceptions of Cameron Mitchell and Eva Bartok.)
Appropriately enough, the dominate color in Blood and Black Lace is red, fromthe crimson curtains that adorn much of the fashion salon, to Isabella's diary cover, to theblood of the victims. Bava gives the film a distinctly modern feel (in contrast to his earlierfilms, such as Whip and the Body, which take place in historical contexts), but hestill manages to incorporate classic whodunit motifs such as hidden passageways and anominous underground catacomb. He generates suspense and tension by complete control ofthe camera; although always in motion in complex tracking shots and sudden zooms, heexpertly trains the lens only on that which he wants you to see. At times, the killer is readilyvisible in the corner of the frame, but you don't notice the figure until it is right on top of thevictim because Bava keeps your interest focused elsewhere.
Like Hitchock's Vertigo (1958), the screenplay for Blood and BlackLace takes a serious gamble in revealing the solution to the mystery well before the endof the film. While it does not take place halfway through the narrative, the identity of theblack-clad murderer is revealed with a good 20 minutes left in the film, which opens newpossibilities and reveals further complications in motive and deception. Although thecomplete narrative is not as clear as it probably could have been, Blood and BlackLace maintains the ability to surprise right up until the very end, which is always thehallmark of a good giallo.
Copyright ©2001 James Kendrick
Overall Rating: (3)
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