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Blood and Black Lace (Blu-ray/DVD)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Arrow Video
Dual Format BD/DVD
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Mario Bava
Eva Bartok
Cameron Mitchell
Thomas Reiner
Ariana Gorini
Claude Dantes
Bottom Line: 
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Even without the benefit of this ground-breaking 1964 giallo, “Blood and Black Lace” (Italian title: “Sei donne per l'assassino”), in his filmography, Mario Bava would’ve been more than worthy of the reputation he currently enjoys as one of the most important figures to have emerged from the Italian film industry during the period of its most commercially prosperous activity, despite the relative lack of respect shown this consummate craftsman of cinema in his own lifetime, or contemporary critical acknowledgement of the merits of his distinctive body of work across a wide range of popular genres which include the Italian Gothic horror thriller, science fiction, sword & sandal peplum, the sex comedy and the Spaghetti Western. His knowledge of art, sculpture and painting and his expertise as a cameraman, director of photography and special effects artist helped imbue his directorial work with an especially pronounced visually-based potency, stamping a diverse collection of commercial films forged in a variety of popular genres with a uniquely distinctive sense of artistry that has continued to be unrivalled by anyone working in this area of cinema since, except perhaps by Dario Argento in his heyday. Whilst continuing to work in a derided area of commercial cinema throughout his life, taking pulpy, ‘throwaway’ b-movie material and turning it into pictorially dazzling art became Bava’s forte and the cause to which he dedicated his career in film, resulting in his enthronement, many decades later, as one of the leading architects of baroque Italian horror. The highly ornate, decorative stylisation and sumptuous lighting he brought to the Gothic horror genre in particular was indicative of Bava’s aesthetic approach as an artisan of fantastical imagery and bravura sequences that hold the attention through sheer ravishment of the eye, leading to a luridly macabre auteurist aesthetic foregrounding the emotional power of the image over narrative; a stylistic trait which fan and critic Troy Howarth, in his book The Haunted World of Mario Bava, has identified as ‘combining the seemingly contradictory principles of surrealism and realism.’   With “Blood and Black Lace” Bava inadvertently applied this lurid gloss to a developing subgenre that brought such competing tendencies into sharp relief, and stumbled unwittingly in the process onto a unique, distinctively Italian film take on the traditional thriller format.

Written by Marcello Fondato (who also contributed to “Black Sabbath” and later became a director in his own right) with contributions from Giuseppe Barilla as well as Bava himself, “Blood and Black Lace” in terms of narrative style is a somewhat conventional Agatha Christie-style whodunit full of multiple suspects, each who harbour a plenitude of secrets they wish to hide, red herrings and a masked, faceless killer who sets about decimating the supporting cast with gusto in the manner dictated by the “Ten Little Indians” format of plot originally patented by Christie. The action centres upon the glamorous fashion models, upmarket proprietors, failing aristocrats and sundry hangers-on frequenting an Italian haute couture fashion house owned by the widowed Countess Christina Como (Hungarian actress Eva Bartok). After the brutal murder of one of the models, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro) -- throttled and beaten to death in some woods near the grounds of the fashion house during a violent storm -- attention shifts to the dead girl’s apparently purloined diary. Isabella was blackmailing a host of her fellow models and their lovers or partners, each of whom have various vices they don’t want discovered by their peers or society at large. Drug addiction, abortion, debt and a secret medical condition provide some of the motives for the illicit diary passing amongst a host of supporting characters involved with the fashion world, as they each attempt to cover their tracks. Unfortunately, one of their number also has a motive for murdering anyone who comes into the offending article’s possession, since one of its secrets is particularly damaging to the reputation of the important personage concerned.

Nominally this is fairly standard thriller material of course, but, coincidentally, the supporting cast list of suspects runs a gauntlet of performers who were also important in Bava’s cinema: from one of his most frequently cast actors, Cameron Mitchell, who plays Countess Como’s lover Max; to Dante DiPaolo who plays a shifty antiques dealer and appeared in Bava’s first giallo-type thriller “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” ; also providing some neat symmetry, Lea Krugher, playing one of the unfortunate model murder victims, Greta, also appeared in his last ever giallo, “Rabid Dogs”! The plot incorporates ideas frequently encountered in the work of British crime writer Edgar Wallace (particularly that of a phantom-like killer with a stocking-covered face) and West German co-financing makes it apparent that the film was probably intended originally as a copycat version of one of the many cult black & white ‘Krimi’ thrillers being produced by Danish company Rialto Film throughout the sixties, and which were popular in West Germany at the time. After the box office success enjoyed by Bava’s Gothic horror “Black Sunday”, though, the Italian maestro found himself afforded total creative control over his material, which enabled him to set about transforming the thriller with a series of aesthetic innovations and formal choices of emphasis that brought about a revolution with lasting implications for both the Krimi sub-genre and the nascent Italian thriller, which each began hence forward to blend into each other, producing works such as Dario Argento’s “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” – a film nowadays  considered a seminal work in giallo, but which was marketed as a Krimi in Germany at the time of its original release.

The first and most immediately striking innovation is Bava’s use of lurid colour and strange, otherworldly, ‘irrational’ lighting gel effects relocated within an apparently totally realist context. On the most basic level, Bava was simply imitating the garish illustrated yellow covers of the giallo thrillers published in Italy by the publishing firm Mondadori from the 1920s onward, imbuing the film with comic book textures rendered particularly magnificent by DP Ubaldo Terzano, rather than the noir atmospheres of the Krimi series. This use of colour also allows symbolic meaning to accrue in the film’s narrative, with the vivid red of the leather cover of the missing diary continuingly recurring throughout the film as reminder of its apparent importance to the plot, and being presaged in the storm-lashed red sign of the fashion house or in a swinging telephone lead at the end of the film (in fact, these two images bookend the film), or even the red leather mac of Isabella herself. Meanwhile, the black dress she was to have worn as part of the next collection, becomes a harbinger of death as it gets passed, like the diary, from victim to victim. But more radically, Bava’s use of those exquisitely arranged candy-coloured lighting effects helped turn locations that appear humdrum or mundane on the surface when they are seen by day, into cavernous, womb-like Gothic spaces mired in dreamlike threat and unpredictability by night. Thus the sumptuous trappings of glamour and wealth as represented by the up-market fashion house around which the plot spirals, are revealed as binding strands in an inescapable but hidden web of corruption and vice. Sinuous, peripatetic camera moves attached to no particular point of view (famously achieved by a cash-starved Bava by mounting the camera on a child’s toy wagon) and an irrational palette of emeralds, magentas and blues drum home the hallucinogenic transformation of the ordinary into a den of uncertainty -- providing a confining Gothic-like space for the film’s kinetically choreographed set-pieces of eroticised violence to take place within.

The deceptiveness of appearances is Bava’s key theme, running throughout almost all his work; here, it is as pessimistically conveyed as ever: all the characters are untrustworthy or unlikable and corrupt and Bava loads the film with ironic visual jokes in which people become as puppets, manipulated and abused by each other until they resemble the lifeless mannequin frameworks that litter the fashion house just like the suits of armour which usually furnish Bava’s more conventionally Gothic films. The ironic, misanthropic sensibility is always delivered with a wink of the eye, though -- as is conveyed by Carlo Rustichelli’s slinky Bossa nova jazz score -- particularly in the way the murdered and mutilated models continue to enjoy screen time even after the set-pieces that have resulted in their deaths, being ferried from location to location, dragged away or otherwise arranged in exquisitely composed tableaux.  As the French filmmakers and giallo aficionados Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani note in one of the many featurettes created for Arrow Video’s stunning new, restoration-showcasing Blu-ray special edition, “Blood and Black Lace” provides the aesthetic blueprint for the giallo genre while Bava’s black-and-white Hitchockian comedy thriller “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” provides the actual narrative elements which came to dominate later entries in the form, particularly concerning the killer’s outlandishly warped psychology and twisted psychotic motives for his/her crimes. Here the motive is conventional greed, but “Blood and Black Lace” was also ahead of its time in the way it reconvenes the “Ten Little Indians” body count formula into an orgy of fetishistic and highly sadistic sexualised violence, putting the film way beyond the purview of AIP, who at the time usually distributed Bava’s films in the US. The killer in this film actually enjoys his work; and by arranging and orchestrating the deaths and their aftermaths with such deliberate care in brilliant set pieces, Bava became one of the first directors to emphasis the aesthetic qualities of the act of killing, paving the way both for the commercial slasher genre and for the arthouse inclinations of Dario Argento, whose 1980s film “Inferno” comes closest to recreating the vivid surrealistic lustre Bava delivers here. Bava, of course, also worked as a special effects artist on that film -- fittingly one of his last assignments.

It’s impossible to adequately convey just how gorgeous this new Arrow Video 2K restoration actually is. Without exaggeration, “Blood and Black Lace” now looks exactly how it has always looked in my imagination, and it’s a truly stunning achievement. English and Italian dubbed audio tracks are featured in mono along with appropriate English subtitles for both, and Bava biographer Tim Lucas provides a brand new audio commentary (his second for the film) full of all the necessary background information. But Arrow have also sought to make this release the ideal primer that delivers everything the giallo novice would need to give herself a thorough grounding in the subgenre, while also providing satisfaction for the true aficionado. The extras are spread across two standard definition DVD discs and a single Blu-ray, and are headed by the hour-long documentary “Psycho Analysis” in which a host of giallo experts and practitioners attempt to pin down this most elusive and indefinable of thriller subgenres, with contributions from Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava, and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani deliver their own perceptive appreciation of Bava’s masterpiece (10, 35 secs); while Movie Matters Podcast co-host Michael Mackenzie serves up a particularly thoughtful and incisive 40 minute audio essay thesis on the socio-economic conditions that underscore the themes often encountered in the giallo genre throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, with particular reference to the varying function of male and female central characters and protagonists in films with as varying emphasis as Argento’s “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” and Sergio Martino’s “All The Colours of the Dark”. A ten minute excerpt from a film festival panel discussion on the significance of Mario Bava to giallo (including Argento and Lamberto Bava in conversation) and two episodes of David Del Valle’s public access television series ‘The Sinister Image” featuring Cameron Mitchell talking about his extremely varied and eventful career in film, rounds up the main extras haul, but the film theatrical trailer and an alternative US opening credits sequence are also featured, as is a 26-minute modern giallo short entitled “Yellow”, created by Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt and shot in Berlin, and here receiving its Blu-ray debut. This is a stylish tribute to “Tenebrea” and “Opera” era Argento (with nods to Buñuel and Dali) in which an aging, mute, crucifix toting protagonist hunts a black leather-clad, razor and scissor-wielding nemesis through an hallucinogenic landscape or reflected chrome and blinking neon, soundtracked by a pumping Carpenter- and Goblin-esque exercise in ‘80s electronica by Antoni Maiovvi. As exquisitely rendered as anything Cattet and Forzani achieved with “Amer” or “The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears”, “Yellow” cannot help but make one pine for this last great moment in Argento’s downward spiralling career …

.. .And finally, a full-colour booklet loaded with essays, reviews and article extracts rounds off this fantastic release. Housed in a case featuring a reversible sleeve with a choice of new art or an original poster reproduction, this is the ultimate home presentation of a founding text in Italian horror cinema.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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