Mario Bava’s celebrated Italian thriller, Blood and Black Lace, is a landmark in horror cinema and one of the earliest giallo films in existence. It’s also considered to be the first “body count” horror film, so we can thank Bava for all of those campy, raunchy 80s slasher flicks. Watching this film is like taking a walk through an art gallery. It’s chock-full of rich colors, eerie scenery, deep shadows, and impressive camera angles. The outstanding cinematography alone is a good reason to watch the film. I have a special place in my heart for this Bava masterpiece and I’m so thrilled to present it as April’s Movie of the Month.
Blood and Black Lace is set at a fashion salon in Rome that is full of beautiful, young models, but there are quite a few secrets hiding beneath all of their glamour and charm. The models begin to be brutally murdered by a faceless killer (once a very important diary goes missing) and when I say brutal, I mean brutal. These gruesome murder scenes are very bold and in-your-face, which was not very common for films in 1964, but the murder scene shots are executed in such a way that they are breathtakingly gorgeous. After re-watching the film with the Swampflix crew, I realized how the models in the film were more like movie props than actual characters, much like the multicolored mannequins they were surrounded by in the salon. They lacked personality and character development, but I think that’s something that Bava did intentionally.
Brandon, do you agree that the ill-fated models were merely props? If so, what do you think Bava was attempting to convey by doing this?
What are models if not moving, breathing mannequins? I think you’re absolutely right to believe Bava was drawing that connection. Aside from their individual reactions to the discovery of the first victim’s diary, there isn’t much to distinguish one model from another outside their looks. The fact that he chose fashion modeling as the movie’s backdrop in the first place is not only calling attention to the fact that most of the movie’s charms are in its stylistic flairs, but also that the characters are mere mannequins in motion, personality-free objects meant to put Bava’s visual fashion on display. Even the film’s killer, whose face is entirely flat & featureless, is used as a prop here. The killer’s look is about as close to a mannequin as one could get. Bava makes no bones about the fact that his characters are there as both plot devices & living, breathing decoration.
As much as I would like to argue that he made the female characters especially featureless as a comment on sex politics (this is a world where it’s totally cool to call your lover a “little idiot” after all), I believe there’s a much simpler explanation for the women’s lack of character development: misdirection. The 50 years of murder mysteries that followed Blood and Black Lace may have somewhat prepared us as a modern audience for the final couple of twists at the end of the film, but Bava does pull off a clever bit of misdirection with his characters. By leaving the women somewhat blank (although they are awfully interested in that diary) he allows them to fade into the background a bit, never to be considered as suspects in the murders. Later, when the murders continue despite the male characters all being jailed at once it feels like a shock that a woman might be involved. And then it gets even more confusing when the most likely female suspects begin to drop off like flies. Blood and Black Lace may be rightfully remembered most for its intense visual style, which heavily influenced many giallo films to come, but its central mystery cannot be completely discounted as a major draw to the film.
James, do you think that Bava finds a good balance between paying attention to the film’s whodunit murder mystery & its visual eccentricities, or does one overpower the other?
I definitely think that Bava’s visual style overshadows the movie’s central murder mystery but agree with Britnee that this was mostly intentional. The long tracking shots, oblique camera angles, and lurid lighting choices were, for me, far and away the most noteworthy aspects of the film, with the police procedural and central mystery seeming secondary. Although, it must be noted that the effective twist ending does make up for some of that. As I dug around for information on the influential director, I came across this quote that confirms that Bava felt the same way. In regards to Blood and Black Lace, Bava was “bored by the mechanical nature of the whodunit and decided to deemphasize the more accepted cliches of the genre”.
Instead of developing complex characters or an intricate plot that was central to these kind of films in the past, Bava focused on pushing the genre to its limits by stepping outside the accepted boundaries of sex and violence. This seems to further the case that Bava not only invented giallo films, but also slasher flicks, which are basically whodunnits with lots of murder and sex. Blood and Black Lace has plenty of both and what I really appreciated about the film was how it mixed these lowbrow, sensationalist tendencies with high art, something Dario Argento was a master at as well.
Britnee, what do you think of the way Bava mixes lowbrow with highbrow?
Personally, I think Bava did an exceptional job making the film’s uncultured components ultra chic and sophisticated. Blood and Black Lace is a refined slasher flick that pairs well with fine wine and fancy cheeses. When I first viewed the film, I couldn’t figure out why the production was so classy and not the sloppy, morbid mess that I expected it to be. Now, I have a much better idea of the reason why this film is so tasteful. The choices that Bava made for the visual aspects of the film transforms what could’ve been a just another crude horror movie into a literal piece of art.
Speaking of visuals, color plays such an important role in Blood and Black Lace. I noticed that there is a particular color that is prominent with some of the victims, and the color is present in the lighting, props, costumes, etc. For example, Tao-Li wears a lot of white clothing and is killed wearing white lingerie in an all-white bathroom. We didn’t really intend to have our Movie of the Month choices connect with one another, but there is a definite connection between The Masque of the Red Death and Blood and Black Lace when it comes to the color-coding that takes prominence in each film. I don’t believe that The Masque of the Red Death film had any impact on Blood and Black Lace because both films were released in 1964, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the colored rooms in Poe’s famous tale influenced Bava’s masterpiece.
Brandon, since you are the expert on The Masque of the Red Death, I was wondering what you thought of this connection? Is there even a connection between the two films at all?
Brandon: Like you said, the two works were released more or less as contemporaries so it’s less likely that one influenced the other and more just a coincidence that both Corman & Bava had an intense interest in rich, saturated color schemes. It’s obviously possible that Bava could have been influenced by Poe’s classic tale (I know that one was a stand-out favorite for me as a teen, even when it was assigned reading in countless English classes), but the connection might be more simple than that. By the mid-60s Technicolor film prints had more or less fallen out of fashion with major studios (because of the time & money involved, if nothing else) but both Masque & Black Lace are holding on to the saturated color associated with the Technicolor technique. Once a practical process used to bring vibrant color to early films, Technicolor was later used by Bava & Corman, among others, as more of an artistic aesthetic.
Bava’s exploitation of the rich color of Technicolor prints was put to great artistic effect in horror classics like Blood and Black Lace, The Whip and The Body, and Planet of the Vampires. It’s a stylistic choice that not only visually connects it to The Masque of the Red Death, but also establishes it as an early touchstone of the giallo genre. It’s not at all surprising that one of the final Technicolor transfers was used by Bava-descendent/giallo legend Dario Argento to produce his best known film, Suspiria. Bava’s attention to color in Blood and Black Lace is echoed through almost every giallo film that followed it, especially in Argento’s work.
James, besides the rich, saturated colors in Blood and Black Lace, what other elements of the film do you see passed down to the giallo movies that followed it?
James: The technical aspects of Blood and Black Lace are the easiest to spot in the gaillo films that followed. Dizzying cinematography, off kilter camera angles, bizarre framing, and violent close ups are used almost universally by other gaillo filmmakers, though few apply the surreal art house flair so effectively as Bava and Argento. I suspect Bava’s art house tendencies are also the reason for the film’s disorienting, somewhat disjointed murder mystery, another element I’ve seen in a genre that focuses more on style than plot and character development. Blood and Black Lace‘s lurid mix of eroticism and horror has also influenced countless films in and outside of the gaillo genre, the paranoia surrounding a masked killer preying on beautiful women being a recurring theme in gaillo and slasher/splatter movies of the 70s and 80s.
Brandon: The one thing I’m surprised we didn’t touch on yet was the music in the film. Although the stylistic violence, the mentions of cocaine abuse, and the intrigue of the murder investigations suggest a morbid affair, the score relies on a very swanky brand of lounge music that makes the movie feel a lot goofier than it would look on paper. The disparity between the swanky score & the severity of the plot is apparent from the get-go, with the actors/characters being introduced in the opening credits as if they’re starring in a particularly violent 60s TV show about police investigations instead of a proto-slasher art film. It eventually fades into some more mood-appropriate chamber music late in the film, but the generally lighthearted nature of the Blood and Black Lace‘s soundtrack is just as strange of a detail as its brutal-for-its-era violence or Bava’s penchant for saturated colors in his lighting.
Britnee: Blood and Black Lace is really all about the visuals. Ingenious camera work and the innovative use of vivid colors steal the show and outshine all other aspects of the film. The plot isn’t horrible by any means, but it’s definitely not the backbone of this movie. Actually, I enjoyed the weak plot because it draws more attention to the film’s groundbreaking visual elements, and this serves as a reminder that there’s more to a film than just its storyline. Kudos to Bava for being brave and thinking outside of the box.
James: Considering that Blood and Black Lace was released in 1964, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to call the movie groundbreaking. The way the film focuses more on the gruesome killings than the characters and its unsettling erotic violence must have shocked audiences in the 60s, but it set the precedent for the next 20 years of horror films (at least). I was really drawn to Bava’s mixture of art house theatrics and lowbrow subject matter and admire his technical chops and over the top stylistic tendencies. Blood and Black Lace was a great introduction to an influential director, and I can’t wait to delve deeper into Bava’s filmography.
Upcoming Movie of the Months
May: Brandon presents Crimes of Passion (1984)
June: James presents Blow Out (1981)