My love of Mario Bava‘s filmography has a lot more to do with the way he made horror films than it does with the fact that they are horror films. There’s an immense care for light, shadow, color, score, and overall mood surrounding the horrific; even if the scary bits tend to be especially brutal, they’re nevertheless beautiful in their own way. Each shot, a kind of macabre painting.
No film in his catalog exemplifies this more than his 1964 magnum opus, Blood and Black Lace (Italian title Sei donne per l’assassino or Six Women for the Murderer). And just as the title suggests, this proto-slasher movie lines up its victims and delivers on that horrible promise.
While Bava certainly made a fair amount of supernatural or occult horror films, as well as quite a few other types of films, it was his contribution to the giallo that remains his most important. Those films are characterized by their sumptuous color schemes, horrific and visually arresting set-piece murders, and often completely incoherent plot. Blood and Black Lace only features two of these, actually having quite a straightforward and believable plot. It’s something straight out of an Agatha Christie novel for the nihilist set: a group of young models is systematically attacked and murdered by a man dressed in black with a white, featureless mask as he attempts to obtain a diary which has damning secrets of everyone else in the Fashion House where the action takes place.
The movie begins with a roll-call style opening credits sequence, with each actor given a title card accompanied by slinky, dirty tango music. At this point, we don’t know which of these people will be victims, but we’re pretty sure all or most of them will be suspects, because, as we’ll soon find out, they all have something incriminating written about them in the diary. The American release of the movie curiously removed this sequence in favor of a “scarier” skull image paired with much more typical horror movie music. But there’s something of a parlor room mystery about the movie that benefits from this kind of opening.
I know which I prefer.
The movie begins during a storm and we see a woman named Nicole meeting with her lover Franco who is desperate for some kind of drug fix. She says she’ll take care of him after her shift at the Fashion House ends. We then see another model, Isabella, leaving the house through the wooded path where she is suddenly beset upon by the masked killer who throws a cord around her neck and strangles her while bashing her face into a tree. It’s a particularly nasty way to start, but it would be by far the least nasty death. He’s looking for this diary of hers, but she doesn’t have it. One dead and nothing to show for it.
The plot of the movie, and the diary itself, are merely MacGuffins in the truest of Hitchcockian ways; it’s the book of secrets that everyone wants to get their hands on, giving everyone motive. We meet a group of other characters (more models, people in charge, a police inspector, a fashion designer, boyfriends, blackmailers, and the rest), any of whom could be the killer. It’s important to note that Bava hired a completely different actor to play the killer so that not even the murders could betray the identity of the one what did it.
The murders are all directed with particular color schemes and methods of demise; one woman gets an ancient spiked-weapon to the face in an antiques shop, another woman gets burned on a red hot lamp, and still another most famously gets drowned in a perfectly white bathroom, wearing white, and made to look like a suicide by slitting her wrists. Bava fills his frame with interesting objects and shadows, colors and patterns. The characters are simply the focal point of the scenes but they’re definitely not the only thing to look at. The killer is in the shadows, but so is everyone else, and likewise, he’s also in the broad, full light of certain scenes. Bava shoots him with the same care and intention as everyone else. He’s distinctive with his trench coat, fedora, gloves, and mask, but he’s not some mythic embodiment of evil; he’s a base, animalistic human, afraid for his own skin and reputation, just like everyone else, which I think makes the killings all the more ghastly.
After the success of Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, Bava was given full creative control over this picture, however because he refused to make the movie a typical police procedural mystery, instead focusing on the horror elements, the stalking and killing, he was only given a budget of $150,000, which even in the early-’60s was a very small sum for a feature film. This limitation is part of what makes the movie that much more impressive. He was able to employ new filmmaking techniques and his most gorgeous color film to date on a relatively paltry budget. He was truly a master of making something out of nothing, and the result is one of the purest visions of Italian horror ever put on celluloid.
Blood and Black Lace is one of the most important films in the genre. Without this movie, it’s safe to say Dario Argento would never have made the movies he made. Visually, though not at all in plot, Suspiria and Deep Red owe a great deal to this, and to Bava in general. Bava would later return to this subgenre with Five Dolls for an August Moon and Hatchet for the Honeymoon in 1970 and A Bay of Blood (a/k/a Twitch of the Death Nerve) in 1971, the latter of which would be a direct precursor to Friday the 13th in terms of gore effects and brutality.
While I think I’ve sort of outgrown Argento and certainly Lucio Fulci in terms of Italian horror maestros, my adoration for Bava and his evil eye for detail continues to swell.