If the giallo of the 1970s evolved from the early proto-giallo of Mario Bava, then Bava’s work itself grew out of a fascination with Hitchcockian thrillers. Hitchcock films themselves are a stew of one director’s peculiar vision mixed with the popular parlor room mysteries, espionage thrillers, and whodunits that were so popular during the 1930s and ’40s. Among those early mystery films, some of the most remarkable were those based on the works of British author Edgar Wallace, themselves a throwback to the days of serials and, even earlier, pulp stories. Most of the tenets of giallo cinema trace their roots back to these early mysteries: the preoccupation with a class of elites (in the old whodunits, it was usually wealthy socialites; in giallo it’s usually a group of artists or models); the amateur sleuth who gets involved in solving the mystery; the stack of red herrings that is slowly whittled down as the body count rises. When Hitchcock stepped onto the scene, he brought with him a certain biting wit. Mysteries were never wanting for witty entries: the Bulldog Drummond films, the Thin Man movies — clever banter and smart repartee were their stock in trade. But Hitchcock’s wit was a little…darker. More ironic. Meaner.
When it came time for Mario Bava to turn in his version of a Hitchcock movie, he picked up on that underlying current of malicious giddiness and ratcheted it up. In Blood and Black Lace, Bava is a peasant let loose to demolish a nobleman’s home during the Russian Revolution. There is unbridled celebration in the carnage, but there’s also unsettling tragedy. Bava employs a subtle absurdity, taking delight not just in demolishing the vacant aristocrats in his cast of characters but also in wreaking havoc with the language of cinema and expectations of what was, then and now, acceptable. Blood and Black Lace gave giallo the element that made it so much different from the early whodunits from which it evolved: the snarl. Early mysteries, even as the bodies piled up in someone’s old, dark house, were usually at least somewhat playful, the sinister edge taken off the murders by characters who were snappy, upbeat, and generally bouncy. Bulldog Drummond got as excited as a school child every time a corpse turned up. Blood and Black Lace represents the point at which the playfulness was stripped away, or at least infused with such a nasty edge that it becomes uncomfortable. One might think that decades of Argento, Sollima, Martino, and others would make Bava’s pioneering movie seem quaint and harmless. One would be wrong. Even by today’s standards, and even to a seasoned viewer of such films, Blood and Black Lace is brutal.
Bava’s tale of murder and greed is set among the denizens of an upscale fashion house. Someone is killing off the models in particularly nasty ways: bashing their head repeatedly against a tree, slamming their face into a red hot furnace, raking the face with a glove covered in hooks. It’s obvious that the killer wants something, but it’s also obvious that he relishes his gruesome work. What the killer wants, it turns out, is the diary of a woman murdered during the film’s opening scene. Exactly why the killer wants it is unclear. Complicating retrieval of the diary is the fact that the killer is not alone in the desire to possess it. A lot of the people in the fashion house have reason to think the diary contains something incriminating or embarrassing to them. As the book passes from one set of hands to another, the killer — wearing the trademark black raincoat and fedora that would become the de rigueur uniform of almost all giallo murderers — leaves a trail of mutilated bodies in pursuit of the elusive volume.
Naturally, every man involved with one of the models or the business of the fashion house is a suspect. One is a dope fiend. One is a penniless count. One is just irritatingly twitchy. And one is Cameron Mitchell, who ends up at the top of any list of suspects simply by virtue of being Cameron Mitchell. Although the police are convinced one of the men is the killer, there are also quite a few women at the house who have a reason and ample opportunity to kill. Blood and Black Lace has a pretty good central mystery at its core, but it doesn’t concentrate on the shock of the killer’s identity as much as it does the winding road to the reveal. The best giallo know better than to put all their hopes into the big reveal. Movies that count on the final unmasking of the killer as the high point of the film are almost always disappointing; only a very few of them pull it off. Bava makes sure it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.
The script by Marcello Fondato isn’t particularly notable. Judged on the merits of the writing alone, Blood and Black Lace would be one of the many “first example of a genre” that is important for historical purposes but ultimately not a particularly good entry in the genre it would create. However, Blood and Black Lace is a director’s movie. The script is almost required to be bland so as not to get in the way of what the director uses to really tell the story: the images. When he was younger, Bava’s wanted to be a painter. When Mario couldn’t make a living as a painter, he followed his father into the film business. The elder Bava was also cinematographer on two of the biggest epics of the silent era, 1912’s Quo Vadis? and 1914’s Cabiria, as well as an accomplished special effects man. Like his father, Mario worked first as a cinematographer, and just as his father had worked on two of the biggest sword and sandal epics of the silent era, Mario worked on two of the biggest epics (Hercules and Hercules Unchained) of the sword and sandal revival. When director Riccardo Freda was unable (or unwilling, depending on who you talk to) to complete filming of two movies in 1956 (I Vampiri and Caltiki the Undying Monster), Bava stepped in to finish the job. He did the same thing for Jacques Tournier with 1958’s Giant of Marathon. In 1960 he finally got his first on-screen directorial credit, for Black Sunday.
Looking back on his body of work, it’s easy to recognize Bava’s early training as a painter. His films are exquisitely staged, every scene meticulously arranged, every image shot in a way to maximize its effect. In 1961, he got to direct his first color film, the phantasmagorical supernatural sword and sandal adventure Hercules in the Haunted World. Saddled with a typically minuscule budget and tight turn-around time, Bava relied on creativity to make the movie something much more special than it would have been in the hands of another director. The familiar world of the ’60s peplum movie became a psychedelic nightmare. Hades was awash in multi-colored lighting that bathed otherwise bland cardboard and Styrofoam sets in eerie green, purple, blue, and red glows. Even though dozens of “Hercules” movies had been made by 1961, none of them were quite like Hercules in the Haunted World. It remains one of the few films in that much maligned genre to garner any critical acclaim.
Bava made several movies between Hercules in the Haunted World and Blood and Black Lace, including: the all-too-often-ignored The Whip and the Body, starring his Hercules in the Haunted World villain, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee; Black Sabbath starring Boris Karloff; and The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which along with Blood and Black Lace is heralded as the opening salvo in what became the giallo genre. It was in 1964, however, that all the pieces fell together, though at the time not everyone was impressed by the way those pieces were assembled. Blood and Black Lace was a big leap in what a filmmaker was willing to put on screen in terms of sex and violence. Many critics were aghast. The film was decried as misanthropic, vile, and sadistic. In the United States, the film was hacked to pieces, edited, reassembled, poorly dubbed, and distributed as “just another sleazy horror film.” Since then, it has been reassessed and rightfully hailed as a groundbreaking, visually brilliant film. Simple cellars become warped nightmare worlds similar to something real but also not quite right. A room full of mannequins is just a room full of mannequins until Bava puts a bright red one in the middle of all the white wireframes.
It’s not gratuitous reveling in the visual medium purely for the sake of excess. This is how the story is told, with images rather than words. His garish sets and candy-colored palette are not just window dressing. This is the language he uses to tell his story. In no shot is this more effectively conveyed than the very first, when we see the sign for the fashion house being buffeted by a windstorm, finally coming completely unhinged and revealing the house behind it, so full of equally unhinged characters. It’s exactly the kind of movie you’d expect a painter to make. Bava’s predilection toward kaleidoscopic candy coloring makes for a visual feast. Bava bathes the movie in a wash of psychedelic hues, but no color is more important to the film than red. The very opening is a shot of the strange red mannequin, so starkly different from the plain, white mannequins surrounding it. It seems to move through the story like a solitary figure from a Greek chorus, finding itself in different rooms and places, observing the self-destructive nature of the humans around it.
Bava had a number of thematic obsessions, and most of them show up here and would become ingraine din the very fabric of the genre. First is the unreliability of appearance. Hell, there wouldn’t even be a mystery genre if everything was as it appeared to be. Murder mysteries rely on sleight of hand. The sweaty, twitching gardener peeping on an undressing woman is rarely the killer. Bava’s unique take on this trope is to make it part of the visuals. He lights, decorates, and films his sets in a way that makes them not quite right. They seem normal at first glance, but something just a little bit off, just a little bit sinister, catches in the corner of your eye and makes you uneasy. Bava’s outlandish use of colors could be seen as a massive artistic release after decades of reprssion; first under the grueling thumb of Italian fascism and then the era of grim neorealism. One can see how a more flamboyant spirit might chafe under the bleak films that dominated the immediate post-war years. Director Pietro Francisci once remarked that his film, La Fatiche di Ercole, was a reaction to decades of “white telephone” (romantic comedies set among Italy’s elite, popular during the fascist era) and neorealist movies. Francisci just wanted to slough off the shackles and sadness and embrace spectacle, celebrate humanity “in times of greatness.” In its way, Blood and Black Lace carries on the tradition.
The film also showcases Bava’s distrust of authority figures, another predilection born of growing up under an oppressive fascist regime. Captains of industry (well, captains of the fashion industry), the rich, the glamorous — Bava launches into a merciless savaging of society’s elite. Even the cops are ineffectual and unimaginative. Gone are the plucky do-gooder socialites of the Thin Man days. Absent is the amateur sleuth that was a staple of the old mystery movies and would become a staple of the giallo that followed in Bava’s wake. No one at the fashion house takes an interest in solving the murders. In fact, the murders are never “solved” on screen. When the killer is revealed, it isn’t because someone discovers the identity or follows the clues. It’s revealed simply as another part of the narrative. The reaction of these people, vacant as the mannequins that surround them, to the grisly crimes ranges from emotionless distance to panic that they will be implicated, but no one picks up the spiked gauntlet and tries to solve the case on their own.
Also absent are wide-innocents caught up in a deadly game. Here, everyone is seedy. Even the innocent are revealed to be shady, and ultimately no one in Blood and Black Lace is innocent as much as they are just not guilty of this particular crime. In fact, the more innocent a character is, the more meaningless their death ends up being within the plot. Bava revels in creating characters who do not possess the capacity for normal human emotion. If there’s any character who flirts with being sympathetic, it’s the poor young girl who is married to the penniless count. In the midst of the murders, with her husband locked up as a suspect, she begs her fellow models to let her stay with one of them for the night rather than force her to go home alone to her isolated house on the outskirts of town. This simple request would be met with agreement by almost any decent human, but she is turned down by everyone for reasons as trite as “I don’t feel like it” and “don’t be such a baby.” These cold reactions to a fellow human’s simple request serve to illustrate Bava’s core characters as cynical and disconnected. Their beauty, their success, their wealth, and their status in society has made them jaded, incapable of loving or feeling compassion. It’s not even that any of them are being mean when they turn the poor girl out; they are simply incapable of feeling as if they should help. Such empathy has become alien to them.
Bava also sees no reason to sympathize with the killer any more than we do with the characters being killed. This is no “love to hate him” villain, no character with a back story that tempers the killings. When the motivations for the murders is finally revealed, it is thoroughly base and selfish. The murders themselves, while largely bloodless, are so violent that any sense of “rooting for the killer,” as was common in some of the slasher films of the ’80s, is eliminated. There is no “joy” to be extracted from the murders, no tacit approval of the act as there is in so many other films. There is a sadistic glee in Bava’s decimation of the cast, but the film doesn’t extend that gleeful feeling to the audience. The killing in Blood and Black Lace has the effect of Bava holding your eyes open and forcing you to watch something upsetting. They are nasty and brutal and hard to stomach, a sensation made all the more bizarre by the fact that Bava’s visual style lends everything such a deceptively colorful and care-free atmosphere. Blood and Black Lace is like stumbling across a mutilated corpse in a candy store.