Thursday 19 January 2012

Viva Bava, Part 4: With his stripes

Italian horror developed at an astonishing pace in the early 1960s. I've previously referred to just how many films across a range of genres Mario Bava made during those years. But it's worth remembering that Bava and his collaborators barely had time to wait and see if Black Sabbath would be a success, for the maestro's next film was released on 29 August 1963, just twelve days after its predecessor. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Terence Malick.*

That The Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo) was a Mario Bava film may not have been obvious to audiences at the time, though (nor, I think, would they have cared very much: the age of the auteur was not yet at hand, excepting superstar directors like Alfred Hitchcock). For it was in The Whip and the Body that Bava first used the nom de plume John M. Old, and pretty much everyone else involved in the production also adopted Anglo-Saxon pseudonyms: having managed to hire Christopher Lee at the height of his stardom, they were trying to seem as non-Italian as they could. It's a pity, but at least we know who the very capable folks behind the scenes really were.

The Whip and the Body is set at a castle in the nineteenth century. Kurt (Christopher Lee), the violent, sadistic son of the elderly, invalid count (Gustavo de Nardo, sporting the ingenious nom de plume Dean Ardow), returns to claim his patrimony, having been exiled years before after driving the daughter of housekeeper Giorgia (Harriet Medin) to suicide. In the meantime, his former lover Nevenka (Israeli actress Daliah Lavi) has married his spineless brother Christian (Tony Kendall), frustrating his cousin Katia (Ida Galli), who'd had her sights set on Christian. Reluctantly, the count allows Kurt to stay.

It soon turns out, however, that the prodigal son hasn't changed. While Nevenka is at the beach alone, she is surprised by Kurt, who flogs her with a horsewhip before raping her, claiming that she is really enjoying the violence. Before long, Kurt is killed when he's stabbed in the neck by an unseen assailant. He's buried in the family crypt, but the family's relief soon turns to terror. A ghostly Kurt, apparently risen from the grave, appears to Nevenka during the night and brutally whips her again. Christian at first assumes his sister is hallucinating, but when the count is found murdered by being stabbed in the neck, he too accepts that his brother must be a revenant.

Besides its subject matter - which would be heavily censored when the film was released in the United States, under the title What! - it's the contrast, perhaps even conflict between Bava as director and as cinematographer that makes The Whip and the Body so fascinating. Bava's visual vocabulary was developing at a rapid pace, and in this, his fourth horror film, he's using a whole lot of sudden, violent zooms that seem to prefigure his later work (and the erratic direction of American horror directors like Tobe Hooper). Frankly, it doesn't work: Gothic horror calls for steadier camerawork than Bava was interested in at this point, and the film's most effective sequences are among the most conservatively staged.

As a cinematographer, though, Bava does extraordinary work here: together with longtime collaborator Ubaldo Terzano, he makes The Whip and the Body hands down his most gorgeous film so far. Italian cinema was fonder of vivid colours than Hollywood, and Bava doesn't disappoint with luscious blue, green and red lighting: a sequence of Kurt walking down a corridor is downright breathtakingly beautiful. If The Girl Who Knew Too Much proved anything, it's that nobody put ol' Mario in a corner when it came to lighting his leading ladies' faces, making the most of the interplay of light and shadow on pale skin. The shots of Lavi's frightened face are nothing short of brilliant.

The Whip and the Body is, of course, about sadomasochism. Villains with psychosexual hangups were nothing new at the time: the most famous was Norman Bates of Psycho, who had inspired countless knock-offs. Kurt is a more disturbing character even than Norman, though. Where the latter kills because he must destroy the objects of his desire, finding himself unable to mortify the desire within, Kurt inflicts pain to establish and maintain his dominance. He is totally egocentric, quite incapable of pangs of conscience.

What makes this more stomach-turning, of course, is that Kurt's insistence that deep down Nevenka enjoys and loves him for his violence is true. It doesn't take long for Nevenka's pain to turn into sexual ecstasy: Kurt's aggression provides something she misses with the weak-seeming Christian. She has internalised her patriarchal subjection to such an extent that she begins to crave it, and in several scenes she fetishises the welts Kurt has dealt her, and obviously enjoys being beaten:

Eventually, Nevenka accepts Kurt's 'love', sucking the thumb he extends to her in a scene straight out of L'âge d'or, and it seems inevitable that the sex act alluded to in a shockingly bald way is one so expressive of gender dominance. Lavi, whose attempt to base a career on her very considerable sex appeal eventually floundered despite her appearance in Casino Royale, isn't all that good. I'm suspecting Bava must have been unpleasant to his leading ladies: Michèle Mercier, in Black Sabbath, is the only actress in his films so far who really seems at ease. Christopher Lee, though, is a wonder to behold: his natural stage presence would hold the film together if Bava couldn't.

It will hopefully have become obvious by now - and if not, just wait for Blood and Black Lace, but please ignore the horror IMDB have chosen as the page image - that Bava's films usually have extraordinarily vivid, beautiful posters. I mention this because The Whip and the Body is the first Bava film whose poster is, as we say in the Fatherland, a little nullachtfünfzehn (08/15 - the serial number of a Great War machine gun, naturally): bog-standard, in other words. It wasn't in all markets: the demented French poster continues to delight. This was the first time, though, that I regretted being tied to the Italian poster. Enough said.

All in all, The Whip and the Body may be the most fully rounded and satisfying film of Bava's I've seen so far. As with most Italian genre films, story logic clearly ranked far below style in the director's list of priorities: but with a motion picture as gorgeous as this one, I shan't complain. The Whip and the Body perhaps marks Bava's peak as a master of Gothic horror, and clearly the man was in a roll. For the next film on our list is what is often called the greatest of the gialli, 1964's Blood and Black Lace. 

*This depends somewhat on what release date you accept for Black Sabbath, but the most widely reported is 17 August 1963.

No comments:

Post a Comment