Writer: Marcello Fondato, Guiseppe Barilla, Mario Bava
Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Mary Dawne Arden
Running time: 89mins
Blu-ray region: A+B
The lowdown: Mario Bava’s magnificent giallo receives the home video treatment it deserves with Arrow Film’s stunning Blu-ray. A killer is stalking and slashing models in an haute couture fashion house, which doubles as a hotbed of blackmail, drug addiction, infidelity and betrayal. Hugely influential, the film redefined big screen murder-mysteries, paved the way for the slasher movie and, 51 years later, remains a key example of how to shoot a thriller in bold, near hallucinogenic colour. What other film has inspired both Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun?
The full verdict: Arrow Films continue bringing cult classics gloriously back to life with this stunning 2K Blu-ray transfer. The cliché “it didn’t look this good at the time” must apply here; with this presentation Bava’s deliriously colourful giallo becomes a contender for most beautiful horror film ever made.
The plot is helpfully distilled into the original Italian title – Sei donne per l’assassino (Six women for the murderer). While there is intrigue and betrayal here, Bava’s interest lays in sustaining an atmosphere of fevered menace (assisted by Carlo Rustichelli’s woozily seductive score), executing striking suspense sequences and, as Bava biographer Tim Lucas says on the commentary, finding “the angel in the wreckage”, i.e. the beauty in the murder.
Before Blood and Black Lace, murder-mysteries had focused on mystery over murder, closer to what would today be dubbed procedurals.
With this movie the director reset the rules and solidified the visual and thematic core of the giallo, that relatively short lived but hugely influential sub-genre of Italian crime cinema still inspiring filmmakers today.
To achieve this, the director amalgamated the three films he made during the fruitful year of 1963: prototype giallo The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Telephone, the erotic-horror episode of portmanteau Black Sabbath, and the expressionistic colour riot that was The Whip and the Body.
New was the sustained visual delirium, evident from opening credits depicting cast members posed as mannequins. As is suggested by this, character development is paid lip service, the players used solely for propulsion of the plot, until even plot is jettisoned as sensational thrills are favoured in the final act.
But, this is no vacuous stalk and slasher. Blood and Black Lace has a rich visual sophistication, illustrating why lead actor Cameron Mitchell declared Bava the most underrated director with whom he’d worked.
The opening and closing shots mirror one another, colour coding links costumes and props and signposts imminent danger, and one character’s burning of an incriminating diary foreshadows her vicious encounter with a hot stove.
The giallo killer also received his/her/? archetypal wardrobe here: black hat, black gloves, black raincoat – a look of timeless cool and menace. Bava also has his killer don a white cloth mask, totally impractical but elevating the role of assassin to mythic proportions. It could be anyone, or more, and frequently is.
Blending lurid eroticism and violence, slain characters are positioned in bizarre sexual poses, one model pinned beneath a suit of armour, two others nestled one on top of the other. Showing who is really pulling the strings, Bava references this again at the end using those responsible for the preceding mayhem.
The cast acquit well themselves in markedly physical roles, Bava subscribing to the “show don’t tell” rule of filmmaking. Cameron Mitchell and Eva Bartok are striking nominal leads, but the film belongs to Mary Dawne Arden as tremulous model Peggy, the heart of the film whose terrorisation at the hands of the killer provide the strongest moments.
Blood and Black Lace’s legacy can be seen in the rain-soaked opening to Suspiria, a visual reference to blood in the bath tub in Scorsese’s Kundun and in various suspense sequences in Amer to name but three films from three decades.
But, more importantly it still succeeds in the original intent to thrill, and does it more gorgeously and grisly now than ever before.
Picture: Arrow are swiftly gaining a reputation as cult cinema’s premiere label and this release may solidify it. The restoration here is breathtaking, with the flawless image transforming every frame into a masterpiece of pop art.
Extras: Matching the superlative Blu-ray transfer are extras that provide fascinating detail on both Blood and Black Lace and the giallo genre.
Tim Lucas’ newly recorded commentary is the fact-filled talk track you’d expect from someone who dedicated a large portion of his life to being Bava’s definitive biographer. There is crossover with the 2000 commentary he recorded for the American VCI DVD release, but he updates that with more information on cast biographies and references work done on the Blu-ray restoration (in which he participated). Lucas also points out Bava’s clever camera framing and colour schemes that signal imminent peril and identifies tricks Bava would employ to make his films appear visually richer than his budget should have allowed.
Psycho-analysis is a worthwhile 55-minute long new documentary featuring input from Dario Argento and Bava’s son, Lamberto, All the Colors of the Dark screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and more. The standout interviewee here is critic Roberto Curti, who speaks insightfully about how the giallo movement reflected the political climate of the time, and makes informed comments about the charges of misogyny that have always dogged the movies. Curti is considered and critical of the films on this point, offering a more cogent argument than fellow critic Steve Della Casa, who claims because women are so often the perpetrators of the violence in the (typically male written and directed) films, no charge of misogyny could stand.
This theme is explored again in Michael Mackenzie’s excellent 38-minute video essay Gender and Giallo. Dividing the sub-genre by gender into M(ale)-giallo and F(emale)-giallo, he delves into the socio-political issues reflected in the films. M-giallo, Mackenzie argues, reflects anxieties of change and emasculation, a key example being The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
F-giallo focusses on female psychoanalysis, sexual repression and neglect, one of its antecedents being the Gothic tradition; The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh a good case in point.
Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani offer an 11-minute appreciation of the giallo, noting that the mise-en-scene was always the true star and although a mainstream sub-genre, gialli were boldly experimental.
An 11-minute audio only panel discussion between Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve Della Casa, recorded at 2014’s Courmayeur Film Festival where the restored Blood and Black Lace was presented, is a short, but lively reminisce. Mario Bava’s input into Argento’s Inferno sees Argento on good anecdote form when recalling how actor Sacha Pitoeff’s drunken excesses made for a lively night shoot.
Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt’s neo-giallo 26-minute short Yellow is featured in its entirety, but unfortunately does not match expectations generated by positive buzz.. A guessable German set thriller about a man hunting a vicious murderer across the country, its steely remoteness and grim tone place it beneath such recent giallo tributes as Amer and Berberian Sound Studio.
A full 56-minute episode of the 1980s US TV series The Sinister Image focusses on Cameron Mitchell’s career, with Mitchell himself a relaxed, entertaining interview subject.
Filling out the package is the original Italian trailer, the pulpy but stylish alternative US opening titles sourced from Joe Dante’s personal print, and an informative booklet featuring writings by Cinema Italiano author Howard Hughes, a Joe Dante interview and more.
An excellent, exhaustive but not exhausting package for one of horror cinema’s most important movies, this is an early contender for Blu-ray release of the year.