Saturday 28 January 2012

Viva Bava, Part 5: Cutting-edge fashion

After pushing the boundaries of Gothic horror to new and disturbing places with Black Sabbath and The Whip and the Body, Mario Bava wasted no time in returning to the new subgenre he had created. Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l'assassino), though in several ways a worse film than The Girl Who Knew Too Much, distilled all the distinctive elements of the giallo into a single picture for the first time.

As so often, Bava's backers didn't expect or want the archetype of the ultra-stylish murder mysteries of the sixties and seventies: as an Italian-West German co-production, Blood and Black Lace was planned as a whodunit in the tradition of the countless German Edgar Wallace adaptations of the time. (These are still a mainstay on television in the Fatherland.) Like so much of Bava's career, the film was to be work for hire.

The director, though, was bored of that and chose to focus on lurid murders and cheap thrills at the expense of plot. Commercially, the gamble didn't quite work out: a box office bomb in Italy and a modest success in West Germany, Blood and Black Lace was passed over by AIP, who'd distributed Bava's earlier horror films in the United States. Instead, the film was picked up by the Woolner Brothers and released in a widely disliked English dub, to a cool reception.

Woolner Brothers did, however, bestow upon Blood and Black Lace its glorious English title, the first time that a Bava film title was improved by translation. Sei donne per l'assassino (Six Women for the Murderer) is serviceably lurid, making it perfectly clear we're about to watch a slice of exploitation; but Blood and Black Lace, ah! The alliteration, the structure of the vowels, the progression from relatively soft consonants to the hard /k/ and the hissed /s/ of the final words! And then there's the heady mix of high fashion, titillation and gore the words themselves promise. It is, in a word, a stunning title for an exploitation film that would not be surpassed until Twitch of the Death Nerve.

After extraordinarily stylish opening credits in which the actors are arranged like mannequins in a luridly lit fashion studio, we meet a man and a woman outside a mansion, discussing their current acute lack of cocaine; it turns out that Isabella, the man's still-girlfriend, is holding out on them, and they agree they'll ask her for the white stuff when she gets back. But when we cut to Isabella (Francesca Ungaro) walking through the woods, it isn't long before she's attacked and strangled to death by a masked killer wearing a trenchcoat and black gloves (actor and stuntman Goffredo Unger) in a pretty vicious sequence.

The next day, Inspector Silvestri (Thomas Reiner) turns up at the fashion house where Isabella worked as a model. The house is run by Massimo Morlacchi (Cameron Mitchell) and his lover, fashion designer Contessa Cristina Cuomo (Eva Bartok). The models become nervous as it is revealed that Isabella kept a diary in which the fashion house's various sins - abortion, cocaine, blackmail, you name it - are detailed. Nicole (Ariana Gorini) is murdered by the killer at the antique shop of her lover Franco Scalo (Dante Di Paolo), but the diary has already been nicked from her purse by Peggy (Mary Arden), and...

You know what? If the above sounds confusing, imagine what the film is like to watch. Blood and Black Lace has loads and loads of characters, most of whom never matter as more than cannon fodder and/or red herrings: half a dozen models, as many men employed in various capacities, and hangers-on. The narrative isn't so much flawed as downright broken: Inspector Silvestri, whose perspective we assume as he begins to unravel the house's dark secrets, all but disappears in the third act, when the screenplay's attention shifts radically to other characters. It's an illogical mess of a plot, and a thoroughly unsatisfying mystery.

But! That critique isn't just not the whole picture: it misses the point fundamentally, for Blood and Black Lace is style as substance, full of Bava's signature use of shadow, spare lighting, strong colours (a lot of red this time round) and quasi-psychotic zooms - which fit right in with the lurid subject matter, where they seemed out of place in The Whip and the Body. Carlo Rustichelli's string-heavy score is overwrought but extraordinarily atmospheric, while a shot of the killer appearing and disappearing in flickering light is so good it was ripped off as far down the ladder as Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.

There's no doubt that unlike Bava's somewhat more artful earlier horror thrillers Blood and Black Lace is exploitation: the film revels in serving up scantily clad young women for the slaughter, and in the grand tradition of bodycount horror it's inventive when it comes to murder. There's a loving close-up of one model being stabbed to death with a spiked glove, for example; another is killed when her face is pressed against a burning furnace, while a third is drowned in the bath and then has her wrists slashed to suggest suicide, which gives us the above image of horrid loveliness.

It's quite shockingly violent for 1964, far more so than The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and sexually suggestive to boot: one girl is suffocated wearing her nightgown, and the way the scene is filmed and acted her death throes might as well be sexual ecstasy - which puts the viewer into an uncomfortable perspective, to say the least. The acting is, all in all, mostly functional, although Bartok knocks the rest of the cast into a hat.

At one point, Inspector Silvestri and his colleagues discuss what drives the killer. They turn out to be wrong, but the question is symptomatic of something Bava's films ask time and again: why murder? Because it's beautiful, the giallo answers disconcertingly. The look of the subgenre - black gloves, trenchcoats, gleaming blades, dead bodies draped in an aesthetic, even titillating fashion: the visual vocabulary that renders the viewer complicit in the horrors depicted first blossomed in Blood and Black Lace. If the film isn't perfect - not even, perhaps, good - it nonetheless proved sufficiently compelling to inspire legions of imitators.

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