Mario Bava is my favorite director. Second place (either Kurusawa or Kubrick) isn’t even close.
I am not arguing that he is the greatest director. I am not saying that Baron Blood or any of his films are the equal of SEVEN SAMURAI or PATHS OF GLORY. But, if I were stranded on a desert island with only one director’s oeuvre, Bava would be the one.
So, it was a special kind of fun to be at the beach at a house my family rented for the week, complete with a basement entertainment room with a big screen TV and stadium seating to watch Arrow Video’s Blu-Ray of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, arguably (HIGHLY arguably) the most influential film of Bava’s long career.
Until the publication of Tim Lucas’ epic biography “Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Night” (perhaps the greatest book about a filmmaker ever and certainly the only one that is itself a work of art), he was seldom spoken of with the same degree of respect given many of his fellow Italian filmmakers. He was a working class filmmaker, having risen up through the ranks as a cinematographer, special effects technician and lighting genius. To the very end his experience as a craftsman allowed him to create ingenious set pieces in films that lacked the budget for such flourishes. It isn’t hard to tell a Bava film from anyone else’s, with masterful composition, brilliant lighting and set design, and, when in color, color. Oh, such colors.
His influence is staggering. THE DAY THE SKY EXPLODED ushered in a wave of Italian sci-fi films. BLACK SUNDAY did the same for gothic horror. HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD was one of the earliest and best of the sword and sandal peplum epics. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES inspired ALIEN. DANGER DIABOLIQUE was a comic book movie that puts many of the current ones to shame. KILL, BABY…KILL! anticipated the J-Horror genre of THE GRUDGE and THE RING. BAY OF BLOOD provided a template for the slasher films (and saw some of its best kills copied in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2). Many filmmakers have cited his influence and it can be best seen in the works of Guillermo del Toro (the contrasting color lighting in CRIMSON PEAK is an homage of the very best kind.)
So why have so few people heard of him? He made only one American film (and it was possibly his worst film, the dreadful DR GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI BOMBS and I don’t think anyone could have spun gold from that pile of straw) He never became proficient in English. He was, by all accounts, a modest man not given to the sort of self promotion that makes the news. And he made a lot of films, in every possible genre. That gets you labeled a hack. If you make a movie every 10 years you get called an artist.
I’ll take the hacks.
How many filmmakers can make the serious claim to creating a genre? George Romero single handedly is responsible for an entire category of films. That’s something few celebrated directors can claim. With BLOOD AND BLACK LACE and his earlier THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Bava can stake the claim on the creation of the giallo film, a genre that is only now getting its deserved reappraisal.
Named after the yellowing paper stock of cheap crime novels, giallo films tend to be crime thrillers with a strong horror and/or erotic element, the predecessor to the far less artistic and interesting slasher film. You can usually tell a giallo film by its beautiful women, brutal but often beautiful violence, elaborate camera work, masked killer, and style over substance.
All of which BLOOD AND BLACK LACE brings in abundance. The film opens with typical Bava style, sets painted in light and it isn’t 5 minutes before a young woman is murdered by a killer who looks like Steve Ditko’s The Question, a simple but stunningly effective combination of trench coat, hat and featureless white cloth mask. The killings center around a fashion house, the better to show lots of gorgeous women in ultra mod dresses and some of the creepiest mannequins ever put on film. Holy crap, are they scary. I’ve never seen crimson red mannequins before but the damn things show up in every other frame.
The murdered girl was one of the models employed by the recently widowed Countess Cristina Como and her lover Max, played by the always welcome Cameron Mitchell. Mitchell was a hardworking, hard drinking actor who had alimony payments to make. He did not turn down many roles and pops up in some pretty dreadful pictures but he also shows up in several of Bava’s films and there was an obvious mutual regard between the men. We are introduced to the cast of characters and it soon becomes apparent that the place is a virtual vipers’ nest of blackmail, greed, infidelity, drugs and corruption. Everyone is a suspect although the number of suspects dwindles as the film progresses, with bodies piling up.
The setting allows Bava to engage in what would become a characteristic of giallo; the contrast of life and death, beauty and graphic physical violence. A woman has her face hideously burned against a red hot furnace; another has a spiked glove smashed into her face; another is drowned in a bathtub and has her wrists slit, the blood billowing about her in a lovely tableau. Bava preferred sets to actual locations, as they allowed him to control the lighting (and he was a brilliant at exploiting light. Only the Hammer films of Terence Fisher compare.)
In a film like this the story usually comes a distant second to the storytelling. The mystery is needlessly complicated and requires some of the characters to behave stupidly. One flaw, and this is a particular irritant of mine, is that there is not really anyone to root for. One might assume that it would be the police, doggedly tracking down the killer. The film is not big on humor but I had to laugh at how Bava subverts expectations; the detective is handsome, confident, unflappable and utterly, utterly, useless. Inspector Clouseau has a better chance of catching the killer but although he is ever wrong he is never in doubt. Even the movie loses interest in him and the expected revelation of the killer comes without any of his input. Other elements betray its age; the portrayal of drug addiction is like something out of reefer madness and while Cameron wisely underplays his performance some of the other suspects go for the cheap seats with eye rolling hamminess.
This film was made for blu-ray. The colors and contrast are eye-popping beautiful and will make you wonder why so much of our current filmmaking has defaulted to a dreary washed out palette of hues (The aforementioned Mr. del Toro being a significant exception).
The film has my highest recommendation and is an excellent introduction to both giallo and the works of Bava. After the film was over one of my nephews turned to me and asked “This was made in 1964???” It seems hard to believe. In contrast, Americ’s best known contribution to that years crop of horror films would be H.G. Lewis’ 2000 MANIACS.
Arrow Video has been knocking it out of the park with their blu ray releases and this is no exception. the 2k restoration puts all the previous copies I’ve watched to shame. (This is a film better left unwatched than seen in sub par conditions. I was watching a documentary on scary moments in cinema and they had the first kill included but used a hideously washed out print that was so drained of color to be virtually monochromatic, while the soundtrack consisted of filmmakers lauding it for its amazing reds and blues!) It has both English dubbing and subtitles–I always prefer the subtitled versions but your mileage may vary. It comes loaded with interesting secondary features such as a documentary on the giallo genre full of interviews with the likes of Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava; an appreciation of Cameron Mitchell; an alternative opening; an interview with the folks behind AMER, a more recent exploration of giallo style imagery; and best of all, a terrific commentary track by Tim Lucas, who is both the world’s expert on Bava and a seasoned pro who knows how to make a commentary track interesting.