What better way to kick off the month of Halloween with some ripe sex and violence. No film genre is as ripe, at least when it comes to this aspect, than the Italian giallo. Giallo also rhymes with hallow, so makes it perfect for “Gialloween”: a suggested playlist of 31 films from the genre, published over the next 31 days. So, if you are stuck on ideas for what to watch this season, why not play along and let us know some of your own favourites too.
Today, for the first installment, I am going to have to go with the one that started it all: Mario Bava’s seminal classic Blood and Black Lace (1964). Anything else would just be rude.
Admittedly Blood and Black Lace wasn’t Bava’s first foray into the genre — that honour goes to his earlier film The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), which was much more of a nod to Hitchcock, and not to mention conventional, when compared with Blood and Black Lace — but it was “the” film that set down some of the formula the genre would later follow, such as black gloved killers and highly stylised murder set pieces.
The plot follows a simple body count by numbers formula, much like Bava’s later giallo films — Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), and proto-slasher A Bay of Blood (1971) — throwing in a melodramatic inheritance line, blackmail, dark secrets, and more red herrings than you can shake a stick at. The whys and wherefores take a back seat to the action though. Set at the Christian Haute Couture fashion house, a masked black gloved killer is going around beautiful young models in sadistic and horrific ways — for example; one woman gets the side of her face burnt off by a hot lamp just prior to her violent murder; another, a medieval claw glove right in the kisser. Suspect after suspect is drawn out from the large ensemble cast, with every twist and turn pulling up another secret from the past, or dead body, and sometimes both.
The film draws an overall distinct influence from Arne Mattsson’s Mannequin in Red (1958), with just a sprinkling of Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1945) evident in some of the early scenes. But where Mattson’s film is a Swedish riff on the German krimi, and as a result a by-the-numbers detective story in many ways (complete with comic relief), Bava eschews the bodycount tradition of the period to focus on violence as an artistic statement. Blood and Black Lace is literally a lurid pulp novel come to life. And while it is more about the visuals than the nitty gritty narrative details, this isn’t at all a case of style over substance — and Blood and Black Lace is all about the style, right down to the smoky jazz score courtesy of Carlo Rustichelli. In this case: the style is the substance.
The one thing I love about Mario Bava, and this is especially evident in his earlier films, was his ability to make every genre he worked in, darker, and more Gothic, than ever seen before (in the sense of Gothic as a genre of transgression), as well as extremely perverse. He could even make non-Gothic genres, Gothic, just by his touch — for example Planet of the Vampires (1965), which was an obvious forerunner to Alien (1979); or Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), which features Hades and necromancers in a sword and sandal framework. When he was working in the horror genre his proclivity to gravitate towards perverse Gothic themes was amplified tenfold. So, while Hammer were churning out Frankenstein and Dracula sequels, Bava was turning to Russian decadent literature and folktales, like Viy, to make his solo debut Black Sunday (1960); or the work of Aleksey Tolstoy for the I Wurdalak segment of his anthology film Black Sabbath (1964). While his epic S&M ghostly love story, The Whip and the Body (1963), found new and graphic ways to explore the concept of subversive female desire within a Gothic setting on screen. The spirit of invention, and Gothic flavour, is no less prominent in Blood and Black Lace. Although the director may have been inspired by other filmmakers, and the Giallo overall also owes a huge debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom of the same year, Bava pushed the genre into entirely new and distinctly Bavian territory. Thus leading the way for an entire boom of likeminded films to flourish in the seventies Italian cinema.
I am obviously biased when it comes to Bava because I think he was a true master, and one who has been underappreciated over the years, although I am happy to see the tide is turning on that front. Not everyone will agree with me (I’m looking at you Leonard Maltin, one and a half stars out of four for Blood and Black Lace; really??). And if people want take umbrage with my unbashed gushing, it’s not really going to keep me awake at night. All I know is, Bava’s films have given me so much pure joy over the years that I can’t be anything other than highly enthusiastic about them. When it comes to Blood and Black Lace, my ardour and passion is turned up to eleven. I rate it amongst Bava’s best films, alongside Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), as well as the highly underrated Shock (1977).
What I love about Blood and Black Lace the most is the fashion house appears to exist in an entirely different universe to reality. Even though the exteriors of the Christian Haute Couture fashion house were filmed in the very real world setting of Villa Sciarra Rome, with Bava’s exceptional ability to capture mood and atmosphere through the use of contrasting bold lighting effects — another key aspect of his sixties and some of his early seventies films — his settings take on an otherworldly quality; fantastical even (although there is nothing fantastical about the storyline, unlike some of his more outright Gothic films). And because of this, watching Blood and Black Lace becomes a sublime experience where light, colour, and sound, become characters in their own right. This is the reason Bava was a master, because despite the fact he was working on a shoestring budget, his wild imagination and position as a skilled craftsman enabled him to weave magic on screen out of virtually nothing.
Blood and Black Lace conjures a dark world indeed, much like many of Bava’s other universes. It is a savage place, where no shadow is safe, and each whispering corridor comes luridly lit and brimming with potential violence. The film may be a morality tale on the perils of greed and avarice, where almost every character is rotten and corrupt, but it is a beautifully sensuous one too, and one which, at least to me, remains forever irresistible.
Oh, and it comes with a brilliant ensemble cast too (some of them who worked with the director multiple times): Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Luciano Pigozzi (aka Alan Collins, the Italian Peter Lorre), Harriet White Medin and Thomas Reiner. So, do yourself a favour and kick October off right with your own Gialloween, and the first film that started it all.