A Commentary to Die For: Blood and Black Lace (1964)

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Watching a film with the commentary on can sometimes be a tedious experience, but that is not the case when it comes to Tim Lucas’ commentary on the 2005 2-disc DVD release of April’s Movie of the MonthBlood and Black Lace. Lucas is known as a highly respected film critic and founder of Video Watchdog magazine, but he’s also a fountain of knowledge when it comes to everything Mario Bava. After spending over 30 years researching Bava’s life and films, he wrote the acclaimed book Mario Bava: All Colors of the Dark, which, at over a thousand pages long, is pretty much a Bava Bible. I’m not sure who decided to have Lucas participate in the Blood and Black Lace commentary, but that individual deserves a big pat on the back for making such an excellent choice.

Lucas talks about so many different things in the commentary, but most of the information he shares deals with the background of the film’s actors. I’m definitely not going to mention everything he discusses in this article because I’m more interested in the fun facts and quirky incidents that occurred behind the scenes during production. Here are my top three favorite facts/comments from the commentary:

1. In the beginning of the film during the fashion show (before the diary fiasco occurs), there is a pretty long shot that stretches on for about a minute or so where the camera is effortlessly gliding from one end of the room to the other. According to Lucas, Bava did not have very much funding for fancy camera equipment, so he propped up the camera on a child’s wagon for this scene. Actually, the budget for the film was less than $125,000, so Bava needed to be as creative as possible. I was pretty surprised by this information. I expected Bava to have had access to the latest and greatest camera equipment during the production of Blood and Black Lace simply because the film is known for its impressive camera work, so it’s completely mind-blowing to know that this wasn’t the case.

2. As I briefly mentioned in the Blood and Black Lace Swampchat, there seems to be a color theme going on in the film. Lucas does mention this a few times in the commentary as well. He examines Isabella’s relationship with the color red (red raincoat, red diary, etc.), and he really draws attention to the color black’s connection with death, especially when it comes to Nicole. She wears a black gown at the fashion show, carries a black purse, and while the majority of telephones in the film are red, the phone that she uses has a black receiver. Spooky!

3. Mary Dawne Arden is the actress that played the role of Peggy, the beautiful model that was burned and tortured before meeting her maker. According to Lucas, she had the worst luck during the film’s production. She spent over 5 days acting as a dead body, and at one point, she almost ended up being an actual dead body. During the scene when she falls out of the car trunk, the trunk’s lid partially opened and then immediately slammed back down. When it slammed down on her, the sharp trunk lock was inches away from stabbing her in the eye. She was in such a state of trauma and shock that Bava stopped shooting to come to her aid. What a gentleman! Thankfully, she only received a wound and small scar from the episode. I have such a huge amount of respect for Arden because not only did she continue to finish her scenes after almost being blinded, but she was apparently never paid for acting in the film.

Bava was so passionate about his art. To produce a film that would become such an influential landmark in cinema with such a small budget is not something that just any director could do. I definitely respected Bava prior to listening to Lucas’ commentary, but I now value his work on Blood and Black Lace more than ever.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, 1964’s Blood and Black Lace, visit our Swampchat on the film, a look at its Bollywood brethren, Veerana (1988), and last week’s fan art ode to the poetry of giallo film titles.

-Britnee Lombas

Fan Art: Giallo Poetry

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As I mentioned in last week’s article on April’s Movie of the Month, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, there’s a finesse to gaillo movie titles that was somewhat lacking in the genre’s Bollywood equivalent Veerana (a title that roughly translates to “Creepy Forrest”). The giallo title is a beautiful, needlessly complicated art form that requires at least six or seven syllables to properly breathe. As the genre’s pioneer, Mario Bava was prescient in many ways and the beauty of his films’ titles is certainly among them. There’s no denying the inherent draw of movies with names like Blood and Black Lace, The Body and the Whip, Planet of the Vampires, and Knives of the Avenger. That’s not to say that longer, more complicated titles always indicate higher quality giallo movies. My favorite films by Dario Argento are Opera & Suspiria, not Four Flies on Grey Velvet & The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. There’s just an undeniable poetry & sense of one-upsmanship with the more complicated titles that feel unique to the genre.

Keeping the poetry of these titles in mind, I attempted compile a poem composed almost entirely of titles of giallo films I have never seen, but admire for their names alone. I have added a few words here or there to make some sort of sense out of madness, but most of the words are drawn directly from the titles in the sequence they appear. Enjoy!

Giallo Poetry

Your vice is a locked room
and only I have the key. We kill
the fatted calf and roast it in the black
belly of the tarantula, my sweet. So perverse, my lizard
in a woman’s skin. Strip nude for your killer. Bring
a hatchet for the honeymoon, a dragonfly
for each corpse, a black veil for Lisa.

The bloodsucker leads the dance
in the house of the yellow carpet. Death walks
on high heels in the house with laughing
windows. The Devil has seven faces, seven blood
stained orchids. The flower with the petals of steel, the twitch
of the death nerve, forbidden photos of a lady above suspicion.

The night Evelyn came out of the grave, the young,
the evil and the savage committed the crimes of the black
cat. It was on the short night of the glass dolls, five dolls
for an august moon. The weapon, the hour, and the motive
cast a bloodstained shadow on all the colors of the dark.
The case of the bloody iris was cracked by the perfume
of the lady in black, who asked that we don’t torture

a duckling. Can I get you anything, my nine
guests for a crime, my iguana with the tongue
of fire, my man with icy eyes? No thanks,
coffee makes me nervous. Now smile
before death & watch me when I kill. Naked,
you die, reflections in black, nothing
underneath. The killer reserved nine seats.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, 1964’s Blood and Black Lace, visit our Swampchat on the film & last week’s article on its Bollywood brethren, Veerana (1988).

-Brandon Ledet

Bava Goes Bollywood: Veerana (1988)

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There’s no denying the widespread influence Mari Bava has had on cinema, especially horror. Bava’s masterful 1964 crime thriller Blood & Black Lace, April’s Movie of the Month, has been credited as ground zero for not only giallo as a film gene, but also body count slasher films at large. Its influence can also be detected in unexpected places, such as William Friedkin’s controversial Cruising and essentially any film ever directed by Brian DePalma. Even these connections are less surprising to me, however, than the influence Blood & Black Lace had on the 1988 Bollywood horror film Veerana.

Admittedly, I have a limited knowledge of Bollywood films as a genre, having only seen a couple titles here or there, so there was plenty of room for Veerana to surprise me. It was most certainly the very first Bollywood horror film I had ever seen, so there was an almost complete lack of genre expectations I may have had if I’d seen, say, any other film produced by the infamous Ramsay Brothers before. What I found the most surprising was how easily the film gets easily distracted. At a whopping 145 minutes, Veerana is undeniably overstuffed, having no qualms with putting its horror movie plot on hold for extended song & dance sequences, underwhelming martial arts, and painfully corny stabs at humor. However, if you re-cut the film with about 45 min less of the dillydallying (about a third of the run-time), I honestly believe you’d have a verifiable masterpiece on your hands.

The horror movie at the heart of Veerana is a beautiful work of art. Smoke, bats, black magic, Satanic statues, cartoon lightning, humanoid rocks, telepathy, ghosts, witches & warlocks all haunt the screen in a dazzling display. The film wastes no time getting there either. The opening scene & credits plunder the Mario Bava aesthetic immediately, attacking the viewer with strangely colored lights, intense sound design, and ludicrous camera angles. The synths that accompany these images sound like they could be an experimental side-project from giallo soundtrack legends Goblin where they tried to incorporate more Eastern influences in their work. The film is downright overwhelming in these stretches, but in an admirably eccentric way. The juxtaposition with the horror segments with the more traditional Bollywood tropes in the humor & dance numbers is fascinating (and somewhat of a relief), but it’s in the depictions of black magic & evil deeds that the film truly shines as a unique work.

Produced over two decades after Blood & Black Lace, Veerana helps to solidify Bava’s classic whodunit as a seminal work with a stylistic influence that was felt literally across the world. There are some basic genre tropes that the Bollywood version gets wrong about giallo, especially in its tendency to over-explain why everything looks & sounds the way it does. An opening warning urges the audience to “watch this film only for entertainment,” explaining, “This film has no connection to reality,” but is instead “influenced by old folklores.” There’s also the push to blame the visual witchcraft on straight-forward Satan worship (or “evil god” worship), which leads to truly beautiful imagery like a towering demon statue on fire, but feels oddly old-fashioned when compared to more eccentric, detached-from-reality giallo like Argento’s Phenomena or the much more recent The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.

It’s interesting what Veerana did & did not pick up from the genre Bava inadvertently birthed with Blood & Black Lace. In addition to the stylistic tropes mentioned above, it also borrowed ideas like site-specific kills (in this case a lumber yard) and a general air of mysticism. However, it also missed the mark a bit on where that mysticism originates as well as an opportunity to give itself the obnoxiously long, complicated titles that accompany giallo movies (“Veerana” is translated as “Creepy Forrest”; not all that awe-inspiring when other genre titles include Black Belly of the Tarantula & The Devil Has Seven Faces). Veerana is an interesting film for giallo fans to see where it lines up with its Bava ancestry as well as where it deviates. It 100% delivers on the premise of Bava Meets Bollywood, displaying a healthy dose of both seemingly irreconcilable genres. Sometimes they mix perfectly and other times they sit side by side, confusing the audience thoroughly, but it’s a fascinating clash even when it doesn’t work.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, 1964’s Blood & Black Lace, visit our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Blood and Black Lace (1964)

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Every month one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made James & Brandon watch Blood and Black Lace (1964).

Britnee:
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?

Brandon:
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?

James:
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?

Britnee:
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.

Lagniappe

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)