Mario Bava is one of the most highly influential directors in genre cinema. His films are rarely listed as the greatest of all time, but his work kick started a number of sub genres as well as inspired numerous more famous directors. Bava's first credited feature, Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan) in 1960, was a sumptuously gothic horror which looked beautiful (he began his career as a cinematographer) but was laced with violent imagery, including an incredibly gruesome opening sequence where a spiked mask is hammered into a suspected witch's face. This caught people's attention and is still considered one of Bava's best films. A few years later, he directed what is considered the first real giallo (violent Italian 'whodunit' thrillers to put it simply), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (a.k.a The Evil Eye) in 1963. He is also believed to have created possibly the first slasher film with A Bay of Blood (a.k.a. Twitch of the Death Nerve) in 1971. His violent, stylish brand of filmmaking, which often set plot aside to let the mood, tone and visuals replace/provide the substance, was hugely influential on numerous horror and thriller directors, particularly other Italian masters such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci.
Blood and Black Lace came shortly after The Girl Who Knew Too Much and a few years before A Bay of Blood but is equally as important. It more clearly defined the giallo genre than its predecessor and also contains a number of the tropes of the slasher movie, meaning it could also be considered one of the films to forge that sub-genre. The importance of this film certainly must have been felt by the genre-loving folk over at Arrow Video as they have just released a gorgeously well remastered and loaded dual format blu-ray/DVD set. I was lucky enough to be sent a copy to review so below are my thoughts on the film and extra features.
The story of Blood and Black Lace is typical whodunit fare. A young fashion model is viciously murdered by a mysterious masked figure outside a boarding house owned by Max Marian (Cameron Mitchell) and run by his lover Contessa Cristina Como (Eva Bartok). A number of the residents, some of their boyfriends and other members of the local fashion scene are all suspects. Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner) sets out to find the killer, but as suspicion builds and shifts between characters, more of them get knocked off by the faceless murderer.
Like in most giallo, the plot doesn't always make total sense and isn't particularly well formed. Silvester never solves anything and doesn't even get to arrest/stop them himself, the audience are just shown the truth 20 minutes before the end and the finale plays out without the inspector present until it's too late.
However, there is still fun to be had with the story as the lack of a clear lead or villain makes it difficult to initially guess who the culprit could be (the diary of the first victim provides some red herrings and such) and of course there are a few twists and turns thrown in to keep you interested. Blood and Black Lace isn't nearly as convoluted and confusing as some other giallo though, which works both in its favour and to its detriment as it's a less inventive or goofily entertaining story as some others.
You don't watch the work of Bava and Argento etc. for the plot though. Bava is a master of style and he delivers this in spades. In The Girl Who Knew Too Much he provided some gorgeously moody high contrast black and white photography, but here he cracks out the colour and it truly is jaw dropping. Wonderfully garish, the film is filled with eye-popping reds, greens, pinks, purples etc. Naturalism is thrown out of the window as Bava uses his gel-covered lights and moving camera to create one of the most gorgeous looking films of the 60's and beyond.
Aided by some sharp editing and a cool jazzy score by Carlo Rustichelli, the film oozes style from every frame. Being a giallo, the most impressive scenes of course are the murders and each one is shot and cut masterfully. I wouldn't say any of them were particularly scary, but they remain disturbingly aggressive and expertly presented. There are some truly sadistic torture sequences too (you could claim this was an early precursor to the 'torture-porn' sub-genre) as one victim has her hand and face forcefully burnt on a hot stove.
Yes, much of the film has dated. The performances can be ropey, the gore looks a bit naff and the dubbing is as wobbly as in most Italian films of the era. The muddy plot weakens the overall drama too. However, if you can attune yourself to its style you're in for a treat. It rattles through, rarely wasting time and presenting the audience with enough impressive murder set pieces to keep you gripped. And ultimately, from a visual and aural standpoint, few films come close to the feast Bava has expertly prepared.
Blood and Black Lace is out now in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Arrow Video. Arrow commissioned a new transfer for this and the results are fantastic. The film looks gorgeous – I watched it projected and it was a joy to behold on the big(ish) screen. The audio comes through clean and clear too, with both Italian and English tracks available. I watched the Italian version if anyone's interested.
The amount of special features is staggering, so please excuse me for just ripping the list from Arrow's website:
- Brand new audio commentary by Mario Bava’s biographer Tim Lucas
- Psycho Analysis – a new documentary on Blood and Black Lace and the origins of the giallo genre featuring interviews with directors Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Lamberto Bava (Demons), screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (All the Colors of the Dark) critics Roberto Curti and Steve Della Casa, and crime novelists Sandrone Dazieri and Carlo Lucarelli
- An appreciation by Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, the creative duo behind Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears
- Yellow – the much-acclaimed neo-giallo by Ryan Haysom & Jon Britt [Blu-ray exclusive] - Gender and Giallo – a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the giallo’s relationship with the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s
- Panel discussion on Mario Bava featuring Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve Della Casa, recorded at the 2014 Courmayeur Film Festival
- The Sinister Image: Cameron Mitchell – an episode of David Del Valle’s television series, devoted to the star of Blood and Black Lace and presented in full
- The alternative US opening titles, sourced from Joe Dante’s private print and scanned in 2K especially for this release
- Original theatrical trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
- Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Howard Hughes, author of Cinema Italiano and Mario Bava: Destination Terror, an interview with Joe Dante, David Del Valle on Cameron Mitchell and more, all illustrated with archive stills and posters
I must admit I haven't got through every feature yet, but I've seen the main doc and the visual essay as well as listened to the commentary and was very impressed by all three. These aren't throwaway fluff pieces added merely to make the set look more impressive, they're incredibly well informed and researched pieces that really dig into the film and the giallo genre as a whole. I saw Yellow, the 26 minute short included here, a few years ago at a film festival and can remember being impressed, so that's another great addition.
In fact there's so much here I'd highly recommend the blu-ray to anyone with even a passing interest in giallo or Italian genre cinema, regardless of whether you like the film or not. I can't praise Arrow enough for delivering one of the most impressive blu-ray releases I've seen.