(1964) Directed by Mario Bava; Written by Marcello Fondato, Giuseppe Barilla and Mario Bava; Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariana Gorini and Mary Arden; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“He (Mario Bava) is a true renaissance man. He was one of the directors that actually did his own lighting, as well as making sure that the set and everything else was to his aesthetic taste, which was absolutely beautiful…” – Mary Arden (from 2000 interview)
Giallo (the name is derived from the covers of Italian pulp mystery novels) movies are typified by lurid storylines, stylish murder sequences, an unknown killer and deliciously imaginative titles. Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (also known by its Italian title, Sei Donne per L'assassino, or “Six Women for the Murder”), is widely credited with launching the enduring genre. Shot for the equivalent of $100,000, give or take a few lira, the multi-national co-production (from Italy, Germany and Monaco) was shot in English*/** to take advantage of the international market.
* Fun fact: According to Mary Arden, who appears as the third victim, the cast members spoke nine different languages. For consistency’s sake, she helped Bava re-write dialogue in colloquial English.
** Fun fact #2: According to Tim Lucas’ DVD commentary, prolific American voice actor Paul Frees was responsible for dubbing most of the male characters in the English language soundtrack.
Most of the action takes place inside and around a fashion house, run by the stern Countess Como (Eva Bartok) and her business partner Max Marian (Cameron Mitchell). After one of the models (Francesca Ungaro) is brutally murdered on the premises, a police inspector (Thomas Reiner) launches an investigation, and everyone’s an instant suspect. A faceless killer, clad in a trench coat, is killing off the models one by one, employing increasingly horrific methods. The chain of grisly murders* not only helped distinguish a new genre, but influenced horror filmmakers in later decades. Sean S. Cunningham of Friday the 13th fame (or infamy) acknowledged Bava as a primary influence. One of the most disturbing sequences involves a bathtub drowning (compare to a similar scene in Dario Argento’s 1975 film, Deep Red).
* While filming a scene where her “dead” body was stuffed in a trunk, Arden injured her nose, and nearly lost an eye when the trunk lid was slammed at the wrong time. To add insult to injury, she was never paid for her performance.
Bava, who started out in Italian cinema as a cameraman (borrowing a page from his father Eugenio, who was also a cinematographer), was involved in many aspects of the production, paying special attention to the lighting and appearance of each scene. He employed innovative techniques to achieve the desired results, including using a kids’ wagon for dolly shots. The Technicolor cinematography is more than just a pretty show, adding layers of symbolism to the scenes. Bold displays of color abound, not as random splashes, but as an intentional device to set the mood. In Bava’s skilled hands, the colors tell a story, frequently as a harbinger of evil or the death of innocence. While unpleasant to behold, the heavily stylized violence carries a visceral, yet ethereal quality, elevating the imagery above mere shock value.
Blood and Black Lace keeps the audience guessing until the final act, introducing several characters that could be plausible candidates for the murderer. The long line of suspects includes a dress designer played by Luciano Pigozzi (who bears a strong resemblance to Peter Lorre) and Marco (Massimo Righi), a drug addict. Even the models themselves are not above suspicion. Arguably, however, the characters play second fiddle to the lush atmosphere. With Bava, as well as his myriad giallo imitators, the style is the thing.
What does one say about Blood and Black Lace that hasn’t already been said? From a modern perspective, it’s easy to be jaded, having seen it all before in numerous (mostly inferior) knock-offs, but that would be dismissing this film’s level of innovation and craftsmanship. More often than not, the modern filmmakers that followed could play the notes, but were tone deaf when it came to the music. Much of what would have been fresh to audiences from the 60s has been recycled ad nauseam, with little regard to appearance or subtext. Any fledgling filmmaker interested in reviving gialli (plural) has an obligation to study this film. While Blood and Black Lace might not be the most imaginative or sublime example of the genre, it’s important to acknowledge the huge debt of gratitude the genre owes to Mr. Bava.