Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Blood and Black Lace (aka Sei donne per l'assassino, Six Women for the Murderer, Fashion House of Death)

A painter and cinematographer turned director, a craftsman turned celluloid dreamer, an industry veteran who created, almost single-handedly, the uniquely Italian genre of baroque horror known as “giallo,” he directed the most graceful and deliriously mad horror films of the 1960s and early 1970s. Always better at imagery than explanation, at set piece than story, Bava’s films are at their best dream worlds and nightmare visions. Check your logic at the door
                                                                                                      --- Sean Axmaker

It felt appropriate to kick this whole thing off with a Bava flick. The reason is simple enough: just read that great paragraph above from Sean Axmaker; it says it all. Everything we associate with Bava we associate with all of Italian horror. It is in Bava’s films that we come to an understanding of how to approach the later entries in the subgenre. You want to leave your logic at the door and just enjoy the fever dream of a Fulci movie? Look to Bava. You want to enjoy the beautifully choreographed gore scenes and baroque aesthetics of an Argento film? Look to Bava. You want plot and character development to take a back seat to a heavily stylized, ethereal tone a la the films of Soavi? Look to Bava. What’s most interesting about the maestro is that no matter what your fancy may be – cannibals, zombies, or witches – he pretty much laid the foundation for it all.

The story takes place on (get this) a dark and stormy night at a fashion house. A houseful of models are gathered for a shoot, and to no one in the audiences surprise, they start getting offed one-by-one. The stalk and slash horror story is old hat when one looks at the film today, but in 1964 this particular trope hadn’t been established yet. In fact, just a year earlier Bava had established the giallo – a form of the “whodunit” or “Krimi” – where a series of murders take place and are investigated by the police only to have their leads fall through, which usually leads to the protagonist investigating the murder on their own. So in a two-year span, Bava had established what would be for decades after the two most popular type of horror film.

As the ladies of the fashion house are offed, all we know is that a person wearing a featureless mask – donned in black hat and gloves, of course – is the one responsible for the killing. This is the primary reason Blood and Black Lace doesn’t really play as a giallo. In a giallo, we usually see only the killer’s gloves and witness things from their point of view, the killer is revealed at the very end of the film, and the film’s procedural elements almost always take precedent over the violence. However, Bava’s approach is more akin to what we would see in the ‘80s with the slasher film: we see the killer (and the killer is revealed prior to the third act) dispose of the bodies, we don’t witness the murders through their point of view, and the there is almost a poetic, stylized approach to the violence (certainly in regards to the pulpy misogyny on display).

Blood and Black Lace introduced us to a lot of the tropes that would be popularized in both the giallo film of the ‘70s –protégé Dario Argento and his film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which popularized the next wave of gialli in the ‘70s, was heavily influenced by this film  – and the slasher film (Bay of Blood was a major influence, too, in terms of gore-to-story/character development ratio, essentially introducing us to the Dead Teenager formula and influencing the more specific era of the slasher: 1981-1984). Whether it’s the masked killer, the stalk and slash, gruesome murders that the camera lingers on, et al., Bava essentially did it first. So it wasn’t just that Bava paved the way for other Italian horror tropes; it’s that with Blood and Black Lace we see an essential piece to the horror canon that’s on a par with Psycho’s influence on the subgenre.

What we’re really here to talk about though is Bava’s style. Like all of the great Italian horror films – and Bava made some of the very best – the pleasures of Blood and Black Lace lie in the aesthetics: the baroque setting, ethereal lighting, its jazz score juxtaposed with the gruesome murders; all of the things one comes to except from an Italian horror maestro like Bava. He was never as adept as some of his contemporaries in making interesting gialli where the procedural aspect of the story engaged the viewer throughout. In fact, he had become bored with the idea of the “whodunit” after The Girl Who Knew Too Much and decided to de-emphasize that aspect in his follow-up films. So, what we’re really interested in with Blood and Black Lace is how he sees things. When we think of the great stylistic filmmakers, we often think of control freaks, and Bava was no different. He was rarely credited as cinematographer on his own films, but, like a lot of stylists, he took control of almost every technical aspect on set (his previous films were so popular that he was given carte blanche when making this film): moving the dolly, setting the lights, creating optical effects, et al.

Encouraged to make Blood and Black Lace in black and white, Bava opted to shoot the film in color instead, and the result is stunning. I’ve seen people compare Bava’s Technicolor compositions to that of something akin to what Powell/Pressburger did in The Red Shoes, and I actually don’t think that’s too crazy of a compliment; Bava’s that good. Bava’s fluid camera moves throughout the fashion house with a spry energy that captures stunning and haunting color images. No scene better exemplifies this than a chase that takes place through an antique shop: bright greens and reds that seem designed to displace (a favorite Italian horror trope of mine) saturate the screen, mannequin outlines and other odd shapes take our eyes from the foreground towards the periphery of the screen utilizing the entire width of the frame (John Carpenter would do this to perfection in his own “faceless masked killer” movie, Halloween), and shadows that play with our sense of place so that we’re never sure where the killer is going to appear in the frame. It’s one of Bava’s standout setpieces.

Blood and Black Lace is definitely a departure from Bava’s more “classic” – or Gothic – takes on the horror genre. It’s not as outré as something by, say, Fulci, but it was much different than what constituted “horror” in the ‘60s. Sure, there are some cheesy moments in the film when the film gets into its expository moments. The script was written in English to make it more marketable to the U.S., and you can tell with stilted lines like the ones found in this exchange:

“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 with homicidal fury.”
“Against beautiful women.”
“Yes, perhaps the site of beauty makes him lose control of himself and kill.”
But that’s what we come to expect from Italian horror; this kind of expository lying out of the motives and possibilities (when in reality, as any astute horror lover knows, these are all just red herrings) of who is the killer and what motivates them. We don’t watch a movie called Blood and Black Lace for its dialogue, and as previously mentioned, Bava was never really interested in the “whodunit” aspect of his post-The Girl Who Knew Too Much films. The maestro was more about atmosphere than anything else, and that’s why we like him so much and still consider him the father of Italian horror. He was a cinematographer who happened to be directing movies, and he did the job that all cinematographers should: make the style the substance. From his mise-en-scene, Bava is able to evoke the appropriate psychological responses without having to worry about how silly the exposition is or how inane the plot comes across (something we would definitely see with Fulci in the ‘80s). This is why I love Italian horror so much, and this is why I wanted to start with a Mario Bava movie for this year’s blogathon.

Here are some screenshots because…well, because it's Bava:


  1. Phenomenal job contextualising Bava's work in the greater culture of '60s Italian filmmaking. Thanks for that.

    I haven't seen this one since I was a very wee Italian horror fan just starting to find out what it was all about - I think, in fact, it was my very first Bava - and I've been needing to revisit it for a long time now. And those screenshots - particularly the ones involving the cherry-red mannequin - have coupled "need to" with "OH MY GOD I FORGOT HOW PRETTY IT WAS". So thanks even more for that.

    1. Thanks, Tim. Yeah, I knew that if I was going to a Bava, that I was going to have to post some screenshots because it's much more effective to show people Bava than it is to simply describe it.

      No matter how much I adore Argento and Fulci and Soavi and other lesser known directors like Pupi Avati, I will always look to Bava (and this film in particular) as one of the essentials of the subgenre; a perfect gateway for Italian horror neophytes to ingratiate themselves into the subgenre. It's just so damn nice to look at without being too brutal to turn people off.

  2. Great review, Kevin. Like many others, I was introduced to the Italian horror film via Fulci, Argento and the younger Bava - Lamberto - whose Demons is the only Italian horror film I managed to see in a theater during its initial release. Those films are flashy, gory and loud, and I will always love them for the impact they had on me, but the best thing about them is that they led me to look backward and discover the works of Mario Bava. His utter genius as a filmmaker surpasses them all, and he has become one of my favorite directors in any genre.

    The great thing about Blood and Black Lace is that, even though it's a contemporary thriller (or was at the time), you can still see elements of Bava's Gothic horror films in it. Looking at many of the screenshots you chose, you can't really tell that the film takes place in the 1960s.

    1. Thanks, Michael.I like what you say about Bava's style; it's true, he kept a lot of the style from his Gothic horror films in his gialli. It isn't until the '70s when he was making stuff like Lisa and the Devil, Shock, and Twitch of the Death Nerve that it became more that the films were clearly of their decade. I love some of those movies, don't get me wrong, but they aren't the same in terms of having the ability to pull the viewer in, allowing them to get lost in the atmosphere.