Mario Bava turns from spooky gothic tales to a relentlessly violent murder spree in the glossy world of high fashion. The large cast gives us a fistful of prime suspects, while the main draw is Bava’s powerful direction and razor-keen images – and in this excellent transfer, the colors can only be described as hallucinatory.
Blood and Black Lace
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Video U.S.
1964 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 89 min. / Sei donne per l’assassino / available through MVD Entertainment / Street Date July 5, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariana Gorini, Dante DiPaolo, Mary Arden, Franco Ressel, Claude Dantes, Luciano Pigozzi, Lea Lander, Massimo Righi, Francesca Ungaro, Giuliano Raffaelli, Harriet White Medin.
Cinematography Ubaldo Terzano
Editor Mario Serandrei
Original Music Carlo Rustichelli
Written by Marcello Fondato, Giuseppe Barilla, Mario Bava
Produced by Alfredo Mirabile, Massimo Patrizi
<Directed by Mario Bava
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
When Arrow Video released a U.K. Blu-ray a year ago April of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l’assassino), there were as many groans as cheers — although it was listed as Region A+B, most American disc buyers don’t reach overseas to buy. In the interim the company has been busy expanding into our domestic market. There may be more pressing political goals in this world than the removal of international barriers to disc distribution, but try telling that to an angry mob of horror fans.
American fans that first saw this shocker in 1965 have surely been wondering all that time if it could possibly be as dazzlingly colorful as they remember. For all I know, European viewers haven’t been seeing it in tip-top condition either, especially the way it was censored in some countries. My first taste came in 1993 at the American Cinematheque; the occasion is a strong personal memory.
Blood and Black Lace has already been the focus of a dozen studies by international experts on horror and the Italian giallo subgenre of suspense thriller. It’s certainly central to the work of Mario Bava, the visual artist who consistently took color fantasy imagery beyond normal limits. Bava uses color the way Ennio Morricone uses instruments — pure and clean, not trying to hide each primary hue’s individual qualities. Animator Robert Swarthe once cut off my verbal defense of Bava with the axiom that ‘great art direction does not a director make.’ Bava’s powerful images are never simply decorative, never just pretty pictures or clever art direction. As Bava’s many champions say, his work is prime cinema because the moving pictures are doing the talking, creating emotional reactions directly, without the intervention of words.
There’s plenty of talk in Blood and Black Lace, an annihilating serial murder mystery that locks a dozen distinct characters in a web of dishonesty and double-crossing. Yet a goodly portion of the movie is wordless, backed only by Carlo Rustichelli’s jazzy score. Some of the mystery mechanics are rather good, and the only klunky moment comes in a flurry of explanations at the finale. I confess that I’m too distracted by the movie’s visuals to worry much about Agatha Christie- style whodunnit logic.
On a dark and stormy night, fashion salon manager Massimo Morlacchi (Cameron Mitchell) and owner Contessa Cristina Como (Eva Bartok) are busy riding herd on their staff of models and assistants. When a compromising diary turns up among the effects of a murdered fashion model, a masked maniac with a clawed glove goes into action. All associated with the salon have sordid, even criminal reasons for keeping the diary secret, as drug use and blackmail are very much a part of the salon scene. As if in retribution for their sins, one by one the top models are eliminated, with each killing more horrible than the last. Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner) slaps all the male suspects in jail, only to see them exonerated when the masked killer strikes again. The grisly slaughter shows no sign of letting up.
Blood and Black Lace is acknowledged as the first full-bore modern giallo. It introduces a fixation on sadistic killings by a diabolical mystery figure with nightmarish visual properties — a faceless mask, exotic weapons. Older thrillers were more reticent about the rough stuff, often cutting from a screaming face to an aftermath where someone tells us what’s been done to the body. Although there’s a lot to be said for understatement, Bava overturns that applecart by veering in the opposite direction. The string of beautiful, disposable females per l’assassino scream and suffer for the express purpose of titillating the audience. The sensually charged images encourage us to anticipate the next gruesome killing, briefly converting us all into sex killers. Fashion is about surface beauty, and Bava’s visuals highlight contrasts of texture — warm skin, cold plastic coats, lush furs, silky hair, sparkling eyes, glittering blood. The Contessa’s gorgeous models invite us into the fast lane of excitement and luxury. The killer goes about his business as if committing gory acts of art.
Bava’s pictures offer the argument that visual style can in itself create engaging cinema. Often described as ‘delirious;’ his images become disturbing when sexual excitement is met with bloody death. But nearly the entire picture is a sensual delight for the retina. Every third shot is an ‘ooh-ahh’ moment, whether it be a backlit figure in a red plastic mackintosh navigating a misty corridor of trees, or a single close-up of a nervous model, with Bava’s lighting making her look as glossy as a piece of candy.
Sex and sadism have traditionally landed horror films in trouble — censors once went crazy over any blending of the two. It’s hard to understand how some ’30s movies could even have been released, just for suggesting this taboo — Murders in the Rue Morgue, Island of Lost Souls. In a holdover from ’40s Freud-fad movies, Hitchcock’s Psycho went psycho-clinical with its shocks, encouraging a generation of horror movies derived from twisted secrets of the personality. Bava took the other fork: instead of lecturing us on psychology, he confronts us with expressionist horrors direct from our morbid fantasies. The motivations are strictly conventional: greed, lust, shame. The dimension of visual delirium displaces outright supernatural elements incompatible with a slick, realistic thriller. Bava’s horrors are all too physical. The killer’s eye-gouging claw isn’t even sharp and therefore seems all the more brutal. A stove used to sear a human face glows as if it were red-hot. Seeing is Feeling in Bava. We almost expect the victim’s head to burst into flame.
Blood and Black Lace counterpoints its gruesomeness with a beauty that enchants even this reviewer’s prudish instincts. Most of the giallos of the 1970s only stand out by virtue of a narrative or situational gimmick. Hitchcock might have liked the idea of a witness trapped between two glass walls, as in Argento’s first giallo. This picture leaves me stunned every time — especially now in this incredible restoration — and prompts an uncharacteristic vote in favor of its gleeful sadistic excess.
Bava’s large cast is clearly into the movie’s spirit. His actors usually look good and his actresses always look fabulous, and that’s enough to get an enthusiastic performance out of any actor. The ensemble plays well together. Did Bava ever handle this many active characters on screen at one time? This new disc restores the original Italian title sequence, which introduces most of the main characters in ‘moving portraits’ as striking as a layout in a glossy Italian fashion or architectural magazine. The ‘six dolls’ are haute couture victims for our delectation. Like women in a men’s magazine, they’re packaged as a commodity, gorgeous and interchangeable.
One of the donne is so distinctive that it would seem impossible for her to be confused with anybody. The first time I saw the TV show N.C.I.S. I did a double-take at Pauley Perrette’s character Abby Sciuto. How to say this properly… her general type immediately reminded me of a ‘good girl’ version of Black Lace’s Tao-Li, the model played by actress Claude Dantes. The difference is that Ms. Dantes’ wicked allure isn’t just a tease. With her exaggerated eyebrows, Dantes’ face is in itself a shocking graphic assault, a graphic-novel illustration of sexual excess… or exotic male sex fantasies. The cutaways to her portrait close-ups are some of the film’s most arresting shots, and her murder is the most shocking in the film — those staring eyes! The power of il maestro is such that even the moralistic prude Savant responds — it’s murder aestheticized. The beauty of Dantes’ dead stare, with the cloud of crimson billowing through the bathwater, is a psychopath’s nightmare. This is the scene that Spain’s great Pedro Almodóvar — another lover of unusual, striking faces — chose to excerpt in his perverse horror thriller Matador.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray + DVD of Blood and Black Lace is by far the most beautiful home video rendering of a Bava film to date. Black Sunday and Danger: Diabolik are his only features I’ve seen in original 35mm of perfect quality, and this 2K encoding could only be bettered by a perfect original Technicolor print, which are no longer made.
The 1:66 aspect ratio would seem correct and the audio is extremely clear. The Italian mix is excellent, especially its rendering of Carlo Rustichelli’s music score. Although it’s been pointed out many times, it’s still fun to play the police lineup scene and listen to the English language track. Joe Dante wasn’t exaggerating — now that we’ve heard enough of Paul Frees to recognize the many voices his pretzel vocal chords could produce, we can verify that several, maybe all, of the males in the lineup scene are voiced by the same man.
The disc set will also be available in a collector SteelBook, on July 12.
The prime extra is Tim Lucas’ all-encompassing audio commentary. The amount of research in the track is of course prodigious, and Tim’s personal connections enhance the feeling of closeness to what was for many years a remote vein of European filmmaking. I liked being reminded that Lea Lander returned ten years later for Bava’s Rabid Dogs, and then thirty years later to rescue that film. Tim’s riposte to the charge that Sei donne is anti-women is that the fashion industry does more psychological harm to the female sex than do sadistic movies about mutilating them. That’s true, but it doesn’t make Bava’s adult, edgy movie more benign. Nor should we worry about that: Art has no responsibility to be socially uplifting. This picture is agreeably malign today, and in 1964 it must have been the pinnacle of violence porn. More power to it.
Several lengthy documentaries cover Blood and Black Lace and the giallo thriller as a subgenre. The longest lets a battery of experts loose on the broad subject, including Bava’s son & director Lamberto and writer-director Dario Argento. A pair of European makers of neo-Giallo films also rate a featurette to express their ideas. Scots critic Michael MacKenzie hosts another lengthy but visually astute look at the giallo from a historical-cultural perspective.
David Del Valle contributes his series of Cameron Mitchell interviews from public access television in the late 1980s. Cameron is having a fine time. The ragged-quality film clips then available serve as good examples of what we older fans had to suffer, before the advent of DVD.
We’re also given Yellow, a 25-minute bonus giallo from Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt. It’s a Blu-ray exclusive. To show the elaborate American title sequence for the Woolner Brothers release, Arrow scanned Joe Dante’s 16mm print, the very same one we saw at the American Cinematheque in 1993. The colorful insert booklet has informative essays by Howard Hughes, plus interviews with Joe Dante and David Del Valle, who speaks of Cameron Mitchell.
Arrow’s Blood and Black Lace made the top slot on Savant’s ‘best of list for 2015. I suggested that some daring disc company should step forward to do the same with the rest of classic Euro-fantasy, beginning with Bava’s Hercules pictures and Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. As of this writing Olive Films has announced a U.S. Region A disc of the latter film, the English-language version.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Blood and Black Lace Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Sound: Italian and English
Supplements: Audio commentary by Mario Bava’s biographer Tim Lucas; Psycho Analysis, a documentary with directors Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, critics Roberto Curti and Steve Della Casa, and crime novelists Sandrone Dazieri and Carlo Lucarelli; an appreciation by filmmakers Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani; Yellow, a film by Ryan Haysom & Jon Britt; Gender and Giallo, a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie; a panel discussion on Mario Bava featuring Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve Della Casa, from the 2014 Courmayeur Film Festival; The Sinister Image: Cameron Mitchell, TV interview shows with Mitchell and David Del Valle; alternate US opening titles; trailer. Plus an illustrated collector’s booklet with writing by Howard Hughes, an interview with Joe Dante, and David Del Valle on Cameron Mitchell.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: Italian and English
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD disc in Keep case
Reviewed: July 1, 2015
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson