*This article contains spoilers*
There is something downright uncanny about Mario Bava’s masterpiece of 1963, The Whip and The Body. It is deeply ingrained in the gothic storytelling tradition, while feeling completely refreshing at the same time. Bava’s filmography is full of dark desires, but The Whip and The Body holds a singular fixation on sadomasochism that is very unique in his oeuvre. The movie is a luminous and smoldering slow burn that audiences can practically drown in. Its murky depths are timeless.
The Whip and The Body begins at a manor overlooking the sea, with the arrogant sadist Kurt “I’m not in the habit of waiting” Menliff (Christopher Lee) returning to a family where he is not particularly welcome. He left after a servant named Tania committed suicide over an affair she was having with him; now, Kurt’s former lover Navenka (Daliah Lavi) has married his brother Christian (Tony Kendall), something that Kurt can’t resist disrupting. He may have returned because of their wedding, but not to celebrate. The film is very much Navenka’s story, and the stoking of her dormant masochistic desires that Kurt triggers within her.
About twenty minutes into the film, Kurt is murdered by what appears to be a possessed window curtain–or rather someone hiding behind said curtain. What follows is a tense whodunit, and Kurt’s return as an avenging apparition, or perhaps just a figment of Navenka’s feverish imagination.
The most iconic scene in the film occurs quite early on. Navenka sits on the beach, lost in thought, aimlessly playing around with her horse-riding whip in hand. It seems like a daydream, and what comes next is difficult to discern as fantasy or a representation of reality. Suddenly Kurt is in front of her, the end of the whip under his boot. They kiss, and he takes the whip away from her as she attempts to thrash him with it. As he uses the weapon on her, ripping open the back of her dress, wounding her back, he plays the villain, saying, “You haven’t changed, I see. You always loved violence.” They kiss again and the melodramatic score hits a crescendo. The Whip and The Body encountered censorship issues in a variety of different countries because sadomasochism was very much at the forefront of the story. While the filmmakers were found not guilty in a court case, a heavily edited version hit the market, which took out these scenes of torture and hidden desire. Seeing as how the name of the film directly suggests this kind of behavior, it is bizarre to imagine seeing an incomprehensible version of it. However, this may explain the ridiculous title it was given in the American market, which was simply “What.”
Bava’s film is luridly kinky, only benefiting further from the use of gothic tropes. The film may seem unnecessarily slow to some audience members, but these scenes of fear and tension are the cornerstones of the work. We observe Kurt doing very little in the way of cinematic mugging in the scene in which he is finally killed. It are the scenes of Navenka in particular, creeping uncertainly through the residence that are purely gothic. She slowly searches out the source of a whipping sound that we eventually find out is a tree branch blowing against a window. This scene is similar to a climactic, suspenseful one in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s highly influential Les Diaboliques (1955), when a highly anxious woman tracks down the sound of a typewriter in use. Bava used this scenario in his other classic film is 1963, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka The Evil Eye) in which Leticia Roman discovers the sound of a recording that attracts her through a vacant apartment building. All of these instances can probably be traced back to passages of Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 novel The Mysteries of Udolpho. There we find the protagonist Emily searching out the source of supernatural music, embodying the gothic heroine. Bava combines Ms Radcliffe’s writerly flourishes with her pornographic contemporary, The Marquis de Sade. It is worth noting that the film ultimately has more in common with the latter, although it shows influence of and appreciation for the former.
In one of the more complex sequences, we watch as Navenka stands in front of a mirror, feeling her body rapturously. Soon enough, she sees not only herself reflecting back, but Kurt–as if he is standing behind her–as well. The implication is pretty obvious–she holds the dominance and violence Kurt once used against her, and continues to use from beyond the grave. Navenka feels complicit and guilty of her taking enjoyment from pain and humiliation. Once this becomes apparent, viewers can easily imagine how this story will end.
Soon after, her father-in-law, the patriarch of the house, is found dead in his bed. Navenka is convinced that Kurt, in ghoulish form, is the murderer. She yells, “It is revenge, he’ll kill us all! Because we’re all to blame.” The hysteria that she displays indicates that she does not only feel guilty about her own victimhood, but for the other acts of violence occurring around her as well. She is also saying that everyone in the family is complicit in the violence against her, since they don’t do very much to stop it. Viewers seeking out a movie about cold, calculating, self-aware characters from either end of the sadomasochistic spectrum may be disappointed by the alternating somnambulistic and frenzied behaviors on display in The Whip and The Body. Like most gothic tales, it is caught up in wild fantasies in which doom and liberation are closely related.
I have always been a bit disappointed in the ending of The Whip and The Body. After Christian and the Peter Lorre-like servant Losat (Luciano Pigozzi) light the remains of Kurt’s body on fire, the man continues to exist at least in Navenka’s imagination. As she embraces her lover, she aims to stab him in the back, in actuality lethally stabbing herself in the chest. It would have been nice to see a tortured woman emerge from her self-imposed torment and gain some amount of control, but alas The Whip and The Body, written by the Italian genre cinema facet Ernesto Gastaldi, decides to go the way of grand tragedy with desire acting as a fatal error. A great example of a woman of kinky Italian genre cinema who comes out on top is Edwige Fenech’s eponymous character in Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971), also co-written by Gastaldi; director Martino incidentally worked as second assistant director early in his career on The Whip and The Body.
With all this talk regarding gender and power, however, it is worth taking in ideas on how this film destabilizes traditional roles. In his book Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture, Ian Olney writes, “Bava keeps us oscillating between active and passive and male and female subject positions. He encourages us to play the role of sadist and masochist, opening up a range of possibilities for viewer identification and prompting recognition of the fluid nature of sexuality.” (p. 150) On closer inspection, it is apparent that many European horror films from the 1960s and 70s deal with these themes in a similar way. Other recommended reading on the often adjacent genres of horror and pornography includes Linda Williams’ classic Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.”
In his commentary track for the Kino Lorber release of the film, historian Tim Lucas refers to Navenka as “Bava’s most unforgettable heroine,” and after some thought this is probably true. Nora, protagonist of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, doesn’t hold a candle to Navenka’s possessed horror and fury, and a number of Bava’s gialli have an ensemble of characters, none of which are as singular is our protagonist in The Whip and The Body. Navenka is very much a Sadeian heroine like those original creations of the divine marquis, Justine and Juliette.