Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Directed by: Mario Bava
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariana Gorini, Dante DiPaolo, Mary Arden, Franco Ressel, Claude Dantes, Luciano Pigozzi, Lea Lander, Massimo Righi, Francesca Ungaro, Giuliano Raffaelli, Harriet Medin
(out of 4)
This seminal giallo shocker from Italian director Mario Bava begins with a groovy title sequence in which all the major players stand still in mannequin-like poses, imitating the old style dress forms that decorate the “Christian Haute Couture” fashion house, where a masked killer is hunting down beautiful models. The brutality of the crimes lead police inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner) to suspect that it’s the work of a sex maniac who “hates beautiful women” but the truth is more complex – giving a certain weight to the movie that later slasher pics don’t possess. Blood and Black Lace isn’t really a slasher, though; it’s more of a murder mystery with some exploitation elements. The beautiful models are objectified and fetishized, but isn’t that what the fashion world does? The inhabitants of Bava’s salon environment are petty and self-absorbed, with all sorts of shameful details hidden beneath their perfect exterior. Blood and Black Lace shows what happens when all that sordid stuff is turned over.
Beginning with the murder of Isabella (Francesca Ungaro) by a trenchcoat wearing assailant with a blank face, the movie dives into haute couture intrigue with salon owner Max Marian (Mitchell), the Countess Cristina Como (Bartok), model girls Nicole (Ariana Gorini), Greta (Lea Lander), Peggy (Mary Arden), and Tao-Li (Claude Dantes). The discovery of Isabella’s red diary becomes a catalyst for further murders, as the killer, along with everybody else, wonders if there’s damning information contained inside it. In one of the film’s best scenes, the diary sits inside a purse, and the purse itself almost becomes a character as Bava’s camera gives us a look at it from different angles (character points of view), with the cast circling it like vultures. Bava will throw in a number of red herrings, and there will be more than a few references to Hitchcock’s films – the giallo owing a lot to Hitchcock, and Blood and Black Lace can be considered among the first of the genre (Bava first got the ball rolling with The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and would later expand upon it with the slasher/giallo Bay Of Blood). The performances are decent, as long as you can get through the English soundtrack, which uses the dubbing of voiceover king Paul Frees. Mitchell is impressive, especially if you only know him through his 70s/80s output, and Bartok is gorgeous.
As for the murders, they are suitably disturbing. Not gory, but surprisingly brutal for the time, especially one victim who is beaten before her face is pressed against a hot stove. There’s another scene of a woman drowned in a bathtub, where blood flows into the frame with her looking like a blooming flower. If anybody knows how to make murder scenes “beautiful” it’s Bava, who shoots the entire picture in vivid Technicolor, something that just wasn’t done for these types of films at the time. But murder sequences punctuated with flashing neon lights, impressive, sweeping camera movements (Bava couldn’t afford a dolly – the camera is sitting on a wagon!) and a great exotica score by composer Carlo Rustichelli show just how underrated the director was in his time. Highly influential, too – the nature of the faceless killer’s identity (and the concept of the “faceless” mask) would later be replicated by Wes Craven in Scream some 32 years later.
A noticeable weakness in Blood and Black Lace, besides the dubbing (which is par for the course on most of these Italian shockers) involves the curious decisions made by certain characters towards the end (one of the models discovers a body in her trunk and tries to hide it instead of doing the logical thing and calling the cops). But this is a film that gets by mostly on its candy-colored style – gorgeous looking and crafty in the manner of other Bava films of the period like Kill Baby Kill and Planet of the Vampires. The movie’s politics, involving the apparent misogyny and commodification of women (perhaps best evidenced by the mixing of beautiful girls with well placed wire-mesh mannequins), are made more complicated when it throws a curveball towards the end with an important unmasking. (Related to this is the fact that the director was careful not to give the faceless, fedora-wearing killer any particular personality.) Nowhere near as disturbing as it was in 1964 (only 4 years after Psycho upped the violence ante), Blood and Black Lace is nonetheless worth a viewing for its historical trailblazing.
- Bill Gordon
VCI releases Blood & Black Lace in anamorphic widescreen with lots of extras, including an interview with Cameron Mitchell and Mary Arden (who also helped rewrite the script). Tim Lucas, the editor of Video Watchdog, gives more information on the audio commentary than you’ll ever care to know. The man is a real authority when it comes to Mario Bava’s work. Blood and Black Lace was known in Italy as Sei donne per l’assassino (“Six Women for the Murderer”).