This entry is part of the 2nd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon hosted by my brother Kevin at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Yes, it’s a repost from last years Top 100 Horror Movies project and in fact, this is the third time a post on this particular Bava film has been on my blog. Overkill? Maybe. On Monday I’ll be back with a brand new contribution.
Post-Psycho there would be many films that attempted to trade in on the style that Hitchcock revolutionized (as Jamie so wonderfully described here), trying to push things in a new direction. In Italy, Mario Bava took the visual style he had honed doing Gothic horror and added to it the most notorious aspect of Psycho, the severity of the on-screen murders, the result being Blood and Black Lace. Bava takes us to the next logical place, formulating the basis for the subgenres of the giallo, the bodycount film, and the slasher (and whatever mish-mash you get from all three).
From the opening credits, Bava showcases the playfulness he will use throughout the film. Each character is shown standing next to a mannequin, positioned as to be no more relevant than the dummy itself. It's entirely appropriate, as Bava eschews providing us with character development since these people are merely props used to stage lurid death scenes. Sordid goings-on take place at and around a haute couture fashion house, but these setting seems to be used simply to provide Bava with the setpieces his eye demands. The story is a whodunit procedural involving drug use, blackmail, illicit affairs, and murder, all in the Edgar Wallace mold (as is true of many of the giallo that would follow). But the story is hardly pertinent here and though themes can be gathered (beautiful people committing ugly actions; women being spectacle in the fashion industry as much as they are in Bava's garish murder scenes) I don't find them wholly satisfying. Throw in the fact that the film doesn't provide any great acting and seems to relish in the killing of female characters and you may as well be describing any number of generic 80's slasher films.
So why exactly is this film any better, considering all this?
The answer to that question is apparent upon watching and has everything to do with style. Lush reds, seductive blues, and cool greens seem to drape the entirety of the screen. As always, Bava uses colored gel lighting to place specific colors right where he wants them to be. Here, he also makes great use of ambient light, typified in one scene where a flashing neon sign punctuates every moment of a stalk-and-chase throughout an antique shop. His camera movement and mise-en-scene create an uncanny feeling by masking the shape of surrounding items to make you think you see something amidst the shadows, akin to the chair you see in the middle of the night that you momentarily mistake for a person. Yet here, sometimes that chair (or in this case, mannequin) IS a person. Furthermore, he layers these objects in such a fashion that our eyes are constantly moving from the background, to the foreground, and then the midground in an attempt to scan the entire frame for what may be a threat (a technique which John Carpenter would use to great effect later in Halloween).
Bava has a way of glamorizing the deaths, of which there are six, making them violent, but alarmingly beautiful, some may even say erotic (a style that his protégé, Dario Argento would build upon). Most notable in this respect is the final murder, involving Tao-Li (Claude Dantes). As she is drowned in a bathtub (see the screencap above), our gaze inexplicably becomes mesmerized with her alluring and haunting face (a face that is akin to that of Barbara Steele, the most iconic of the horror actresses with fetishized facial features).
As influential on the genre as anything that came out post-1960 (I didn't even get into how it formed the signature look of the giallo killer), it's a true feast for the eyes, as the following screencaps attest to.