Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Mario Bava | 1hr 24min

An artistic paradox like Blood and Black Lace is hard to reckon with – aside from the awful screenplay, performances, and dubbing, Mario Bava crafts a visually spectacular slasher film that places an eerily uncomfortable tone and atmosphere above all else. Fourteen years later, Dario Argento would take inspiration from Bava’s lighting, colours, and camerawork to create a flawed masterpiece plagued with similar issues in Suspiria. Although Blood and Black Lace does not reach the same transcendent heights, the audacious, bloody style of this early Italian giallo film remains a singularly jaw-dropping accomplishment of horror filmmaking, disturbing our senses as much as our sensibilities.

When a masked killer starts knocking off models in a Roman fashion house one by one, a mystery emerges around whose identity lies beneath that stretched piece of white fabric and fedora, as well as a diary that seems to hold dark secrets. Narratively, Blood and Black Lace falls in the Psycho lineage of slasher films, particularly in the dual identities that reside within a single, featureless figure. Visually though, Bava’s film has more in common with Michael Powell’s psychological thriller Peeping Tom, as vividly clashing colours wage wars across his expressionistic mise-en-scene.

Shocking jolts of red bursting through the mise-en-scène, especially in these unusually vivid mannequins – like humans drenched in blood and sex.

There may not be a more appropriate setting for such a transgressive display of stylistic bravado than the fashion house of creatively brutal murders which Bava presents us with here. Aggressively eye-catching aesthetics are just as important to him as it is to this ensemble of models and designers, with its green, pink, purple, and blue lighting setups turning dressing rooms and hallways into a Technicolor fever dream. Sometimes these lights pulse rhythmically along with the suspenseful pace of the scene, like a silent ticker counting down to the next murder, and in one shot Bava even backlights the silhouette of an outreached hand against a wall, turning the killer into a Nosferatu-like figure. The boldest visual choice here though is by far the prominent red palette bursting through in unusually vibrant mannequins, curtains, costumes, and set decorations. Its significance isn’t hard to pick out in a narrative that so blatantly features bloody murders and sexual perversities.

A Nosferatu-like hand reaching out across a wall – expressionism in its visuals and references.
Bava’s camera wanders from room to room, soaking in the lighting and production design with eerie anticipation.

Supplementing Bava’s outrageous production design is his rolling camera, tracking through his dangerously stunning sets with an air of anticipation about it, at times quietly swinging from side to side as if keeping an anxious lookout. It is even active in the masterfully creative opening credits right at the start, moving across frozen tableaux of the cast striking poses like the models they are playing in the film, or perhaps like the disposable figurines Bava himself is using them as in his violently murderous plot. It is evident that he didn’t cast them for their talent, after all.

Few films have opening credits this beautifully inventive, as Bava’s camera tracks across these actors striking poses.

Much like Hitchcock there is also a distinct objectification of the human body in the camerawork, not so much gazing with sexual intent than to give us the cold perspective of a killer. With equal fascination, Bava also lingers on ordinary items given extraordinary significance within the narrative. As several characters eye off and swirl around a handbag containing the scandalous diary like a slow seduction, his point-of-view shots come at the object from several angles at a time, uneasily anticipating one of them to snatch it away.

A Hitchcockian focus on objects of desire, and a particularly effective shot here keeping the fashion show in the background of it all.

In the hands of almost anyone else, Blood and Black Lace could have easily been an utter failure. There is little that is redeeming about this screenplay of absurd logic leaps, and yet the audacity and tension of Bava’s expressive cinematic style is impossible to argue with. This is a giallo director who loves his pulp and lifts it up on the highest artistic pedestal, and in this dramatic inconsistency we find a wholly unique vision of horror as a genre that, for better and for worse, can reach across the full spectrum of cultured and trashy tastes.

Blood and Black Lace is currently available to stream on Tubi.

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