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Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Daliah Lavi, Christopher Lee, Tony Kendall, Ida Galli, Harriet Medin, Gustavo De Nardo, Luciano Pigozzi, Jacques Herlin
Length: 87 min
Label: Kino Lorber
Release Date: 17 December 2013
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English, Italian, French: LPCM Audio 2.0
- Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas, author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark
- Theatrical trailer
- Trailers of other Bava films
Mario Bava’s underrated classic The Whip and the Body (1963) is often ignored alongside his giallo forerunners like The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) or Gothic horror classics such as The Mask of Satan (1960) or Black Sabbath (1963). Fortunately Kino Lorber will be releasing it on Blu-ray later this December as part of their growing Bava collection.
With a script from cult screenwriting-maestro Ernesto Gastaldi and Luciano Martino, who produced and co-wrote many of his brother Sergio Martino’s later giallo films, The Whip and the Body aka La frusta e il corpo is one of Bava’s most accomplished works. Part gothic horror and part psychological murder mystery, what seems like a Hammer clone early on quickly goes in another direction entirely. The exiled Kurt (Christopher Lee) returns to his family’s seaside estate. His father (Gustavo de Nardo) has directed Kurt’s brother (Tony Kendall) Christian to marry Kurt’s old love Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), though Christian secretly loves their cousin Katia (Ida Galli). Soon Kurt reawakens Nevenka’s love and lust by brutally whipping her, but he is abruptly killed not long after. Nevenka is convinced Kurt is still alive, or worse, haunting her, because the whippings continue from some unseen assailant.
The Whip and the Body is the most mature expression of the themes Bava explored in earlier films like The Mask of the Satan and “The Wurdalak” segment of Black Sabbath. All three of these stories revolve around familial guilt and revenge, perverse sexuality, characters physically marked by evil, and the deceptive nature of appearances. As with many of his early works, there is a final confrontation in a foggy, cobweb-streaked crypt, though the sado-sexual whipping scenes are more controversial and disorienting than anything prior in Bava’s canon. This highly recommended film is an excellent example of Sadeian cinema, where non-normative sexuality is a central motif.
Speaking of Sadeian cinema, screenwriter Gastaldi also penned The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), another early Italian horror masterpiece about love and death released the year prior to The Whip and the Body. Hichcock was directed by Bava’s mentor, Riccardo Freda, and includes some of the themes seen in The Whip and the Body, such as subversive, perverse love and a murder mystery. A doctor accidentally kills his first wife and tries to resurrect her in his second marriage by drugging his new wife and forcing her to engage in necrophiliac sex games.
It seems obvious that The Whip and Body borrowed from Hichcock, though there are also elements of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe series. By 1963, House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum had been released and like both of these, The Whip and the Body is full of Gothic tropes like crumbling castles, shadowy corridors, secret passageways, a spooky crypt, and corrupt aristocratic families. As with House of Usher, red is the dominating color. It is cleverly tied in with thematic elements and character arcs: the stinging welts on Nevenka’s back after Kurt whips her, a bloody dagger, the bloody bandage around the neck of Kurt’s ghost, and the roses she brings to his tomb.
Ubaldo Terzano and Bava, though uncredited, were responsible for the incredible cinematography. Terzano regularly worked with Bava and on a number of other genre films, including Paul Morrisey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Dario Argento’s Deep Red. The lush, dreamy visuals were not hampered by the pitiful budget and, like all Bava’s films, are the most remarkable element. Bava was not only uncredited cinematographer; he also worked on the special effects and sets without receiving special credit, showing his usual drive to complete his most ideal version of a film possible despite the small budget.
The film is driven by great performances from Christopher Lee, (despite the fact that he is sadly overdubbed), and Israeli actress Daliah Lavi. Though the first time I watched this film several years ago, Lavi seemed like a Barbara Steele substitute, upon subsequent viewings, it is obvious that she is so much more. Lacking Steele’s coldness and austere reserve, Lavi is perfect as Nevenka, a woman scorned who can barely contain her fiery, unusual passions. Tony Kendall (Django Against Sartana) and giallo regular Ida Galli (La Dolce Vita) memorably co-star, though of course pale in comparison to Lee and Lavi.
The original U.S. release was bizarrely re-titled What! and so heavily cut and re-edited that it avoids direct depictions of masochism. Many of Bava’s films met similar fates. Fortunately the Kino Blu-ray is the uncut, unrated European version. It was mastered from a French 35mm print and looks wonderful, if a little dark. This film always did look dark, and while there are still many instances of black crush, the image depth and the level of detail in even the darkest shadows gains significantly over all previous home video releases. Film grain remains intact, but is usually not intrusive, and thankfully there is no sign of digital tinkering. What is arguably Bava’s most beautiful film is presented with all its rich textures and bold colors intact. I suspect that this may not be the final word on The Whip and the Body as far as remastered releases go, but it looks great compared to all of the grainier, washed out earlier editions.
Kino has really outdone themselves with the three audio tracks all presented in linear LPCM. There is the original Italian track, remastered, with optional English subtitles. Also included are English and French dubbed tracks. The dubbed tracks are occasionally awkward, though the dialogue is always clear and Carlo Rustichelli’s romantic, if occasionally overly melodramatic score sounds great. There is still a little thinness in the music recording (especially noticeable during the opening credits), but this is inherent in the original recording and is not the fault of the mastering. Sadly none of the audio tracks feature Christopher Lee’s rich, memorable voice due to common dubbing and recording practices.
The only extras included are a few trailers of other Bava films released by Kino and an excellent commentary track from Tim Lucas. So far I’ve loved his growing body of tracks, mostly for Bava and Jess Franco films, and the sheer amount of information and enthusiasm he presents makes up for the lack of other special features.
The Whip and the Body is one of Bava’s finest and most underrated films and comes highly recommended. A combination of murder mystery, Gothic romance, and psychosexual horror film, it is a unique, compelling effort that still has the power to shock, if not as graphically as in the early ‘60s. Though it was formerly available on DVD from VCI, Kino’s new Blu-ray is currently the best way to see it, despite the somewhat dark print.