Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l'assassino) [DVD]
Screenplay : Giusseppe Barilla, Marcel Fonda, Marcello Fondato, & Mario Bava
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1964
Stars : Mitchell (Max Marian), Eva Bartok (Contessa Cristina), Mary Dawne Arden (Peggy), Dante DiPaolo (Frank Sacalo), Lea Krugher (Isabella), Ariana Gorini (Nicole), Giuliano Raffaelli (Zanchin), Thomas Reiner (Inspector Sylvester), Franco Ressel (Marquis Richard Morell), Massimo Righti (Marco)
The work of Mario Bava, often considered the grandfather of Italian horror, was largely misunderstood while he was alive. Although his first film, 1960's Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio), received a warm critical reception during its initial release, many of his subsequent films did not, including Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l'assassino). For instance, in his otherwise excellent and perceptive history of horror and science fiction films of the classical era (1895-1967), Carlos Clarens misses the mark completely when he describes Blood and Black Lace as a film with "minimal plot" that "consists of a string of brutal murders, each staged with relish and in the most redolent hues, attesting to the fact that Bava is simply trying to titillate a very specialized segment of his audience that requires neither rhyme nor reason."
Although the film does consist chiefly of "a string of brutal murders" that are certainly "staged with relish and in the most redolent hues," it is a gross understatement to assume that Bava is sinking to some lowest common denominator in order to titillate viewers. Unlike the rash of slasher films in the 1980s for which Blood and Black Lace served as a forerunner and model, Bava's film is a complex murder mystery raised to a higher level through artistry and innovation.
Blood and Black Lace is generally considered the first giallo, Italian mystery thrillers that feature graphic violence. The name itself is derived from lurid Italian paperbacks, the covers of which were always yellow. Thus, unlike most slasher films, Blood and Black Lace is set up as a mystery--a whodunit with a significant body count. While there is plenty of violence throughout the film (six beautiful women are murdered in unique and sadistic ways), the violence is but one element of the larger whole. It is not, like some horror films, the sole reason for its being.
The majority of the story takes place at the Christian Haute Couture, a fashion salon in Rome run by Contessa Cristina (Eva Bartok). In the opening scene, a young model named Isabella (Lea Krugher) is murdered outside the salon by someone dressed in a black trench-coat and fedora whose face is covered by a white mask of cloth, which gives the impression of a waxen, featureless visage. It turns out that Isabella had kept a diary in which she recounted the dark secrets of everyone involved the fashion salon. Her small red diary, which changes hands numerous times and becomes a prized object for many (which is why so many characters come under suspicion of the murder), contains information about affairs, blackmail, abortions, and drug use.
However, as the diary changes hands, the death toll grows. One by one, each model is murdered in a particularly nasty way (the worst being one woman who is burned to death by having her face pressed against a red-hot stove), and at various times, the shadow of suspicion falls on different characters. At one point, the frustrated police detective in charge of the investigation (Thomas Reiner) holds five men in prison because he thinks any one of them may be the culprit ... and another murder still occurs.
As with Bava's other films, Blood and Black Lace is a visual marvel. Even those who find the story and violent imagery repulsive cannot help but admire Bava's skill behind the camera. A former cinematographer, Bava had an intricate working knowledge of the effectiveness of lighting and shadow, and he bathes his horror film in showy Technicolor that gives an aura of professionalism and technical polish that betrays the film's meager budget. (The acting, however, is not particularly good; many of the performances are stiff and unconvincing, with the exceptions of Cameron Mitchell and Eva Bartok.)
Appropriately enough, the dominate color in Blood and Black Lace is red, from the crimson curtains that adorn much of the fashion salon, to Isabella's diary cover, to the blood of the victims. Bava gives the film a distinctly modern feel (in contrast to his earlier films, such as Whip and the Body, which take place in historical contexts), but he still manages to incorporate classic whodunit motifs such as hidden passageways and an ominous underground catacomb. He generates suspense and tension by complete control of the camera; although always in motion in complex tracking shots and sudden zooms, he expertly trains the lens only on that which he wants you to see. At times, the killer is readily visible in the corner of the frame, but you don't notice the figure until it is right on top of the victim because Bava keeps your interest focused elsewhere.
Like Hitchock's Vertigo (1958), the screenplay for Blood and Black Lace takes a serious gamble in revealing the solution to the mystery well before the end of the film. While it does not take place halfway through the narrative, the identity of the black-clad murderer is revealed with a good 20 minutes left in the film, which opens new possibilities and reveals further complications in motive and deception. Although the complete narrative is not as clear as it probably could have been, Blood and Black Lace maintains the ability to surprise right up until the very end, which is always the hallmark of a good giallo.
|Blood and Black Lace: Uncut European Version DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary with Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog editor and Mario Bava biographer |
Separate musical score
Original theatrical trailer (English, French, Italian)
Theatrical trailers for Erik the Conqueror and Whip and the Body
French title sequence
American title sequence
Interview with Cameron Mitchell
Interview with Mary Dawne Arden
Cast and crew biographies/filmographies
|Distributor||VCI Home Video|
|Blood and Black Lace is presented in a new widescreen transfer in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and in its complete, uncut form. Bava's visually striking use of Technicolor is well rendered, and the extensive use of the color red, which proves problematic on some transfers, is kept in check. The image is well saturated, and the more intense colors resist bleeding and there is hardly any grain to be found. There appears to have been a slight amount of fading, and some of the darker scenes are lacking in the sharpness and clarity of the well-lit scenes. This is likely due to the unfortunate fact that the transfer is not anamorphic, which greatly reduces the potential resolution.|
|The disc has the option of viewing the film in either English or Italian (with optional English subtitles). The film was originally shot with the actors speaking English, and all of the dialogue was dubbed in both languages during postproduction. Both soundtracks, rendered in Dolby 1.0 monaural, sound relatively good, despite the inherent limitations. Carlo Rustichelli's jazzy score is a little overbearing at times, but generally well-rendered (some of the higher tones tend to be a bit tinny). The dialogue is always clear and understandable, although not particularly satisfying due to the fact that it was all looped.|
| VCI Home Video has put together a nice array of supplements for this much-anticipated release. Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog, a publication for video collectors and fans of paracinema, contributes a screen-specific audio commentary in which he discusses the film in detail, from the histories of the actors to Bava's unique filming style. Lucas is lucent and interesting in his discussion, and he adds a great deal of depth and nuance to what many people would like to write off as just another sadistic horror movie. |
The disc also features two interviews. One, with actor Cameron Mitchell, appears to have been done sometime in the mid-1980s on a TV show called Sinister Image hosted by journalist David Del Valle. Mitchell is energetic, if a bit incoherent in what he says, as he praises Mario Bava and the experience he had working with him. The other interview, with actress Mary Dawne Arden (who played Peggy, the model who dies by being burned to death on the stove), is more of a direct address to the viewer. Arden, who is now an image consultant and communications instructor at New York University, details her experience working with Bava and what she has been up to for the past 37 years.
Also included is a photo gallery of production stills and international poster art (while the collection is good, the pictures are too small to see well). The disc also features theatrical trailers for Blood and Black Lace in English, Italian, and French, as well as bonus trailers of two other Bava films, Erik the Conqueror and Whip and the Body (which is also available on DVD from VCI). You can also watch the original credits sequence for the French and American versions of the film. The French version seems to be exactly the same as the Italian version, with the exception that the credits are in French, while the American version is an entirely different montage of images.
For fans of the film's soundtrack, the DVD features four musical tracks for the film score which are presented in stereo. Lastly, the disc features brief biographies and selected filmographies for Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Mary Dawne Arden, and Mario Bava.
©2001 James Kendrick