Hatchet for a Honeymoon (1970)

Hoo boy, is this cut a mess. Recently, the one true and original (read: “Austin”) Alamo Drafthouse weekly Terror Tuesday feature screened Creepers, aka the original botched American cut of Dario Argento’s Phenomena, which was trimmed from the full running time of 116 minutes to 86(!). Host Joe Ziemba defended this decision, made by a guest programmer, by noting that this was the cut that he had been raised on. This wasn’t really uncommon at the time, as films were cut both for content and length. I managed to come away with a few treasures from a recent VHS Swap Meet that was held in conjunction with Fantastic Fest, including Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and what appears to be a Rapture preparedness video (I’m saving that one for last), but I also ended up with a heavily butchered (no pun intended) copy of a Mario Bava film that was originally titled Il rosso segno della follia (literally translated as The Red Sign of Madness), released by Charter Entertainment, a home video company that doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page (although there is an extensive library of their covers online). Their edition utilizes the title Hatchet for a Honeymoon, which isn’t consistent with the translated title, the film’s Wikipedia page (which calls it Hatchet for the Honeymoon), or the film’s listing on IMDb (which calls it A Hatchet for the Honeymoon). It’s also not consistent with the film itself, which features a cleaver and exactly zero hatchets.

John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth) is a dressmaker, specializing in wedding dresses and negligees: everything a woman might need for her wedding day—and night. He is also quite mad, as he explains in his opening voiceover; according to the film’s Wikipedia page, he also explains in this monologue that he has an Oedipus Complex and is impotent, but this isn’t in the Charter release outside of subtext throughout the film that would make much more sense with this inclusion. He is married to an “older” woman, Mildred (Laura Betti), with whom he has an openly antagonistic relationship despite the fact that she has funded his fashion house and also flatly refuses to give him the divorce he so desperately desires. Their morning breakfast is interrupted by Inspector Russell (Jesús Puente), who is still trying to learn the fate of three of Harrington’s models suddenly disappeared on their wedding nights; Harrington, of course, reveals in his continuing interior monologue that all three women are currently buried in his hothouse. New model Helen Wood (Dagmar Lassander) appears to take over as a model for the most recent victim, and Harrington is impressed by her moxie and intelligence, but he is distracted when model Alice (Femi Benussi) announces that she will have to leave the business, as she too is marrying. Harrington takes her to his creepy secret vault, in which dozens of mannequins wear various wedding dresses, and tells her to pick the one she wants to wear on her happy day. As soon as she tries one on, however, he hacks into her with his cleaver (again, not a hatchet) and cremates her body in his hothouse furnace and spreads her ashes about as mulch. We also learn that Harrington watched his own mother being murdered as a child, and that he thinks that by killing other women he will be able to acquire all the pieces of this puzzle in order to make sense of his past

Mildred announces that she will visit a sick relative, leaving Harrington alone for a week. He takes advantage of this opportunity to romance Helen, but when he returns home after a night out, Mildred is waiting for him, announcing that she has no intention of ever letting him out of her sight, and that he has failed her test. In a fit of rage, Harrington kills her moments before the inspector arrives with the late Alice’s fiance in tow, demanding to know Alice’s whereabouts and what all the screaming was about. Harrington convinces them that the noises were from the television and they depart, suspicious but empty-handed. Of course, this is when things get really strange: Harrington now finds himself followed by Mildred’s ghost everywhere he goes, but in a twist, it’s not Harrington who sees her specter, but everyone else, other than in the moment when she tells him the rules of this new un-living arrangement, in which he will never be free of her.

Here’s where things actually get interesting, as a heretofore fairly standard, if barely comprehensible, giallo proto-slasher takes on a bizarre supernatural element. Much like our most recent Movie of the Month The Pit mixes together conflicting horror: the psychological horror of having witnessed a murder as a child and not knowing who was responsible; the standard slasher horror of a murderer who fetishizes something and seeks particular victims because of it; and, finally, a strangely gothic ghost story straight out of the 1800s. It’s got everything! Even with all the cuts to the film, this twist happens too late, as it’s the most interesting thing to happen. Harrington even goes so far as to dig up Mildred to make sure she’s dead and then cremating her like his other victims, then trying to get rid of said ashes multiple times. The best scenes follow this, like Harrington tossing the ash-filled valise out, only to have it show back up in his house, or when he takes the bag of ashes with him to a bar and the waiter patiently waits for Mildred’s spirit, which Harrington and the audience cannot see, to place an order. Harrington also tries to throw the ashes out in the middle of a rainstorm, and it’s pure poetry.  The reversal of the normal “only you can see me” ghost story trope is surprisingly fresh, and it’s a shame that it’s stuck in this otherwise mediocre movie.

Of course, even a bad Bava is still Bava, so there are some visuals that are at turns intriguing and gorgeous, despite the lack of depth in character and storytelling. The vault in which Harrington keeps his mannequins, all adorned with wedding dresses, is a sight to behold both for its creepiness and ethereal beauty. When we see flashbacks to the young Harrington sneaking out of bed to figure out what’s wrong with his mother, he pulls his lacy white blanket over his head and it trails behind him like a bridal dress train, which makes for some lovely visual symmetry. There’s even a Psycho-esque scene in which Harrington tries to evict the inspector from his home before he notices the hand hanging over the upstairs banister, slowly dripping blood onto the carpet below. Strangely enough, I had just seen Phantom Thread in the morning before watching this film at night; not only are they thematically similar in that each film revolves around a European dressmaker whose bridal gowns are renowned and play a pivotal role in the story before his wife enforces behavioral changes through drastic means, but there’s even a scene in which the married couple eat breakfast passive aggressively, right down to the scraping of burnt toast.

The average movie viewer won’t find much to love here, but if you’re a Bava fan, there’s enough visual magic to offset the unimpressive screenplay and distracting histrionics of the lead. It’s not a Halloween classic, but for a completist, it’s worthwhile.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Kill, Baby, Kill (1966)

I got a fair amount of enjoyment out of the recent Helen Mirren haunted house Gothic horror Winchester that most audiences did not seem to share. It’s a critical reaction that did not really surprise me, as the best example of the Gothic horror in recent memory, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, was also met with an unenthused shrug. I suppose it’s a subgenre that’s grown long out of fashion in the decades since its heyday in the Hammer horror & the Corman-Poe Cycle era of the 1960s, but I’m glad there are at least a few minor modern attempts to keep its undead spirit ”alive.” It’s foolish to maintain a tradition without looking back to the heights that make its practice worthwhile, though, which is partly why I felt compelled to seek out Mario Bava’s Gothic horror classic Kill, Baby, Kill for the first time. Like Roger Corman’s intensely colorful nightmare The Masque of the Read Death, Kill, Baby, Kill is an over-the-top stylistic indulgence that plays beautifully into the heightened atmosphere of the Gothic horror template, making the genre appear as ripe for directorial experimentation as any slasher, space horror, or psychedelic subgenre you could name. Bava brings to the Gothic horror the same aesthetic obsessions that helped define the giallo as a medium in films like Blood & Black Lace and carved out the atmospheric space horror vibes later perfected in Alien with Planet of the Vampires. Kill, Baby, Kill is not his first or best-known experiment in the genre; Black Sunday might be the premiere example there. It is likely his most intensely colorful & idiosyncratically personal, though. It also stands as proof that the Gothic horror can be done exceptionally well on a miniscule budget, further encouragement for keeping the tradition alive.

Kill, Baby, Kill was afforded a much smaller production budget than Bava was used to working with by the mid-60s. A critically acclaimed director with most of his best works already behind him, Bava found himself in the unusual position of running short on funding & working with an incomplete script mid-shoot, making it a miracle that Kill, Baby, Kill was ever completed at all. Reportedly, the director’s crew completed the shoot partially unpaid for their efforts, out of respect for his art. You’d never be able to tell anything was out of the ordinary, though, as the Gothic horror template is very forgiving to low-budget enterprises. All you really need to pull one off convincingly is an old, spooky set and creative imagination for how to achieve a ghostly atmosphere. Bava worked around his limited resources through inventive, practical techniques: setting most of the story in an accessible European castle; creating distorted imagery in-camera via panes of glass; employing a seesaw where he couldn’t afford a camera crane, etc. A lesser director on the same time & budgetary constraints would’ve delivered an incomprehensible, glaringly incomplete mess (see: the infamous Roger Corman cheapie The Terror), but Bava pulls through by sheer will. Some of the most violent, jarring details of the film are his intense giallo lighting choices and the rapid zoom-ins & whip-pans to character’s stone-cold faces. He even fudged his ability to properly cast the ghost girl central to the movie’s plot on time & on budget by dressing the son of an employee in femme clothing. You’d never notice that production detail if you were never told—partly because young children are essentially genderless, but also because Bava finds a way to make it work. Kill, Baby, Kill is a kind of low-budget alchemy that turns shitty production conditions into horror classic gold.

Like most Gothic horror tales, Kill, Baby, Kill is a traditional ghost story about a haunted manor. In this case, the ghost of a little girl terrorizes an 18th century European village that’s deeply rooted in Old World superstitions. In a Dracula-style plot, an outsider doctor is called into town to perform an autopsy on the ghost’s latest victim, disregarding the locals’ warnings that the practice will only exacerbate the ghost’s curse. Of course, his rational view of the world is proven to be ineffective as the ghost’s attacks on the townspeople only get increasingly worse and he starts seeing her spooky visage himself. It’s not an especially novel plot and its mysterious twists aren’t nearly as compelling as its aesthetic interests—something the Gothic horror shares with the giallo genre that Bava helped pioneer. Kill, Baby, Kill is less interested in the ghost story’s potential metaphor as an expression of unresolved trauma or even its own premise of New World logic bucking against Old World wisdom than it is in crafting a beautiful image. Delicate child shoes & white lace dangle from a tree swing outside a graveyard to the sound of playful laughter. Creepy doll faces superimpose over twisting spiral staircases. The doctor erotically peers in on a witch’s homeopathic flogging ritual. A silver coin is pulled from a dead woman’s heart. (Is that last one already a giallo title?) Kill, Baby, Kill leaves an impression through intensely artificial lighting & imagery and then rapidly zooms in to single out an isolated detail as a kind of unconventional jump scare. I never fully bought the significance of the ghost girl’s vengeance on her townspeople victims. I did, however, get a huge kick out of watching her play with her creepy dolls and menacingly peer into the villagers’ windows, freaking everybody out. I imagine Bava’s own interests were on a similar wavelength.

The remarkable thing about Kill, Baby Kill’s scrappy resilience as a seemingly doomed project is that it isn’t even a cult classic that was reevaluated after the fact. Critics were willing to gush about Bava’s directorial touch in the film immediately upon its release. You can feel its influence trickling down through projects as varied as FearDotCom (which also features a white lace-dressed ghost girl playing with a white rubber ball) and The Love Witch (which boasts very similar witch costuming, just with better eye makeup). Kill, Baby, Kill is Mario Bava at his best, intensifying the effect of every creepy doll, ghost girl jump scare, and witchcraft ritual as best he can in any given frame. The only things holding the movie back from perfection are a slashed budget and a lackadaisical sense of pacing. It’s genre heights like these that make the efforts of a Winchester or a Marrowbone worthwhile in keeping the Gothic horror tradition alive, even if they aren’t as well appreciated in their time. Any director hoping to visually experiment within an extremely limited budget can look to this film as inspiration for how to establish a memorable atmosphere on the cheap. All you need is an interesting location, a vague story about a ghost, and strong personal aesthetic. Having a crew that’s willing to starve for you is likely also a plus.

-Brandon Ledet

Crimson Peak’s Giallo Treats

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A lot has been made about the genre mashups to be found in Guillermo del Toro’s most recent foray into horror: Crimson Peak. As Erin mentioned in her review, the film boasts an oldschool horror vibe that longingly looks back to the infamous Hammer horror productions of the 50s & 60s, while also recalling the romantic parlor dramas & ghost stories of the Victorian era. Indeed, those points of reference are worn proudly on the film’s sleeve. It’s impossible to look at the ancient, spooky, castle-like haunts that plague the film’s three central characters (played by Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Waskowska) without conjuring thoughts of the Hammer horror style. The romantic, Victorian ghost story aesthetic is referenced by Mia Wasikowska’s protagonist directly (along with apt name-checks for Jane Austen & Mary Shelly for good measure) because she herself is writing one & submitting it for publication. Something I could not stop thinking about while I was watching Crimson Peak, however, (and I’m sure I’m far from alone) was the stylistic influences of the Italian giallo genre of the 1960s & 70s, particularly the work of Dario Argento & Mario Bava.

While the narrative of Crimson Peak is much more closely related to the Hammer horror classics & Victorian ghost stories mentioned, the film’s visual palette & style-over-substance mentality are deeply rooted in giallo. I’m not talking the traditional murder mystery giallo films where the genre gets its name (though there certainly is a good bit of that), such as Bava’s Blood & Black Lace, but more of the spooky witchery in works that came later, like in Argento’s Suspiria. The most easily recognizable giallo element at work in Crimson Peak is the film’s lighting. Stark red, blue, green, and yellow lights clash in the film’s internal spaces as if Bava himself were alive & running del Toro’s lighting on set. Also present is Argento & Bava’s love of a gleaming straight razor just begging to slit a throat, as well as a masked, gloved, mostly offscreen killer shrouded in black-clad secrecy until the last-minute reveal. The giallo influences get more specific from there– be they the creepy dolls from Deep Red, Phenomena‘s fascination with close-up shots of insects, or the image of characters spying through keyholes, which is so prevalent in giallo that it appears in two of the genre’s recent pastiche tributes: Amer & The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.

What’s most striking about Crimson Peak‘s giallo heritage, though, is just as elementary as the Mario Bava lighting, but also important enough to be referenced in the film’s title: blood. There is a ludicrous amount of blood in this film. Just ridiculous. It flows from the sink & the bathtub faucet. It seeps through the floorboards & runs down the walls. Characters cry blood. They cough it up. Snow is blood-red in Crimson Peak, as are the film’s beautiful CGI ghosts. I should mention here that most of this “blood” is actually the red clay that rests below the trio of central characters’ haunted household. The effect is, of course, intentional, allowing del Toro to fill the frame with absurd amounts of a thick, blood-red substance (stored even in gigantic bloody vats in the house’s basement/workroom), without relying on a supernatural source for it. It can be no mistake either that the film’s blood-red clay is much more akin to the vibrant hue you’d see in an acrylic paint or a ripe tomato. Giallo films were particularly fond of this cartooonish style of stage blood as well, tending to shy away from the more brownish hues of the real stuff.

So, if you happen to have any buddies out there who are huge giallo nerds & haven’t yet shown an interest in Crimson Peak (is that possible?) it might be worthwhile to shoot them a recommendation. The film’s tendency to value visual style over narrative substance should fit in snugly with their tastes, as should its over-the-top lighting & untold gallons of crimson blood. Of course, the film will play even better if these hypothetical giallo nerds also have a taste for Hammer horror & Victorian ghost stories. I’m sure there’s a great deal of overlap on that Venn diagram & the movie will eventually find a sizeable cult following, even if it currently isn’t doing so hot at the box office. It genuinely deserves it, if nothing else, just based on its visual accomplishments alone.

-Brandon Ledet

Inferno (1980)

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threehalfstar

After the surprising international success of Suspiria, Twentieth Century Fox offered to help co-fund Argento’s next project, a sequel of sorts to that film titled Inferno. The conceit of Inferno (and, later, Mother of Tears) is that Helena Markos, aka Mater Suspiriorum (“The Mother of Sighs”), the villian of Suspiria, was only one of a trinity of powerful witches. According to the supporting materials, these witches use their great power to manipulate events “on a global scale.” I place those words in quotation marks because, although they appear frequently in the Argento apocrypha, neither of these stories feels global; Suspiria was a relatively confined story, as most haunted house plots are, and Inferno, despite featuring a narrative that takes place in both New York and Rome, also fails to feel like it takes place on a significantly larger scale. This isn’t meant to disparage either film, necessarily, but it does imply that Argento was shooting for something here that he doesn’t quite pull off.

Suspiria took its name from the title of an unfinished work, Suspiria de Profundis, by Thomas de Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. Although the book was never completed, the section entitled “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” was, and its concept, that there are three Sorrows just as there are three Fates and three Graces, was the initial inspiration for Suspiria, although you wouldn’t know that simply from watching the movie. After all, Suspiria was a largely self-contained story, with nothing to imply that Markos was one of these three Sorrows, or that her power reached far beyond Freiberg, or that her influence did not begin and end with her coven. Even if this was always intended to be the case, an audience who is not familiar with this idea can’t help but feel that Inferno is attempting to graft new plot elements onto Suspiria retroactively, in a way that cheapens the earlier film’s nigh-perfection; Inferno feels like a cheat and a knock-off at the same time.

The film opens with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle, who was hired for her ability to hold her breath for a long time—no kidding), a poet living in the most baroquely Old World apartment building in New York. She reads in a book titled The Three Mothers that there are three evil sisters who rule the world with tears, sorrow, and darkness, and that the book’s author, an architect and alchemist named Varelli, was hired by the sisters to build a home for each one: in Freiberg, Rome, and New York. Rose has become obsessed with the idea that the building she lives in was one such home, based on clues left in the book. She writes a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a musicology student living in Rome, asking him to visit her. Mark is distracted by a beautiful woman (Anna Pieroni) in his classroom who is mouthing words at him* and loses the letter, which is collected and read by his friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi).

After reading the letter, Sara tracks down a copy of the book but is attacked by a strange figure who recognizes the tome. Sara narrowly escapes this person and returns to her apartment building, where she asks her neighbor Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, who previously appeared in Profondo rosso as Carlo, although they cannot possibly be the same character) to stay with her while her nerves settle, only for both of them to be murdered by an unseen figure. Mark arrives at her apartment and finds their bodies, before seeing the same woman from his class leaving the area in a taxi. He calls Rose, who begs him to come to New York before she is murdered herself.

Mark arrives in New York and meets the building’s caretaker Carol (Alida Valli, previously Miss Tanner in Suspiria), elderly and infirm tenant Professor Arnold (Feodor Chaliapin Jr), Arnold’s nurse (Veronica Lazar), Rose’s rich but sickly friend and fellow tenant Elise van Adler (Daria Nicolodi, Gianna Brezzi in Profondo rosso and Argento’s wife and writing partner at the time), van Adler’s creepy butler (Leopoldo Mastelloni), and neighboring antiques dealer Kazanian (Sacha PitoËff), who sold Rose The Three Mothers in the first place. Each of these people come to a tragic end, save for the nurse, who turns out to be Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness, as revealed to Mark by Professor Arnold, who is actually the ancient Varelli. The apartment building burns to the ground (accidentally, which says more about the nonsensical nature of this plot and the irrelevance of all intentional character action than I ever could), and Mark escapes while Tenebrarum seems to be crushed by falling rubble.

Inferno is… not a very good movie. It has too many good moments in it to be a bad movie, but the overall structure leaves much to be desired and the experimental approach to narrative is rather frustrating. Like Suspiria, Inferno has an intentionally dreamlike ambience, but lacks the former’s vivid color and narrative intensity and is (somehow) an overall less coherent movie, despite the fact that there are parts of Inferno that are superior. Inferno feels like a series of vignettes, each one designed to exploit a particular fear; devoid of context, they are actually scarier, creepier, or more unsettling than analogous scenes in Suspiria, save for the fact that each one goes on just long enough that the impact is diminished, and that they are held together with a narrative so flimsy that it ultimately does a disservice to the dark imagery and mood contained within itself. Argento’s decision to forsake the previous film’s focus on witchcraft for an investigation of alchemy is ironic, given that even he could not turn the disparate, good parts of this film into a cohesive whole.

The score, composed by Keith Emerson, is particularly awful, especially when compared to Argento’s collaborations with Goblin; it features terrible rock organ music paired with Omen-esque Latin chanting, and the result is far too silly to be effectively unsettling. The sets, some of which were designed by the great Mario Bava himself, are fantastic, however. As for other elements that are effective, Rose’s underwater scene near the start of the film is a particular highlight, as is every scene with Nicolodi (who contributed to the story for this film as she had for Suspiria, but she had to fight so hard for her on-screen credit in that film that she decided not to bother to do the same here). The death of Sara and Carlo is extremely well done, as the record Sara is playing cuts in and out along with the lights as the electricity flickers. The scene in which Kazanian attempts to drown a bag of cats (evil cats which do the bidding of Tenebrarum, it should be pointed out, although it is still horrifying) only to be eaten by hundreds of rats is also well-done despite the scene’s inexplicable conclusion. If anything, “inexplicable” is the watchword here, as much of the narrative is clunky and scenes fail to flow organically from one to the next.

This is perhaps best evinced in Rome: Sara, inspired by Rose’s letter, goes to an unidentified building for some reason. There, in a library, she finds the copy of The Three Mothers, and then descends into the building’s basement for some reason, rather than checking the book out or coming back the next day. She somehow finds a room where, like, potions are being made, and she tries to communicate with the misshapen person tending the pots for some reason. Apparently she knew that this library would be the place to find this book, and that this library was also (maybe) the home of the third sister, somehow? It’s creepy and effectively unnerving, but it doesn’t hold up to even the most passive narrative scrutiny, which is the best description of the film as a whole as well. There are elements here that work very well, but this is more of a clip show of ideas Argento couldn’t put anywhere else than a movie. If you do choose to check it out, make sure to rent/buy the Blue Underground DVD release, which features Italian audio and English subtitles, as well as interviews with Argento, Miracle, and assistant director Lamberto Bava, son of Mario.

*I can’t decide if this is an effective misdirection or the vestigial remnant of a cut subplot. If you know how Argento works, this first seems like one of his giallo trademarks–the misunderstood early clue that is later explained, much like the unheard words said by Pat at the beginning of Suspiria. Even if you’ve never seen an Argento movie before, the focus on and attention paid to these unheard words seems like a clue. Regardless, nothing ever comes of it, and this character does not reappear after Mark leaves Rome, although it can be inferred that she might be Mater Lachrymarum. We’ve got nearly three decades of Argento movies to get through before we reach Mother of Tears, though, so I wouldn’t expect an answer soon.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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

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)