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.


Marnie (1964)

Alfred Hitchcock | 2hr 10min

Alfred Hitchcock was getting clumsy as he moved into the later stages of his illustrious career, or at least in the case of Marnie, inconsistent. One could also say the same for Tippi Hedren, though she never exactly reached the same great heights. The result of their collaboration here is a film that is certainly flawed, but which still successfully weaves a captivating mystery through Marnie Edgar’s traumatic triggers, all to discover why she compulsively steals, reacts viscerally to the colour red, and is shaken so deeply by thunderstorms.

She is first introduced to us as a sum of her actions and body parts – a stolen yellow handbag, a yellow key, hands ruffling through wads of cash, hair dye washing down a sink, the point of a heel, and of course, a gloriously dramatic face reveal as she whips her newly-dyed blonde hair back, shedding her old disguise. Hitchcock’s camera follows her around with a beguiled fascination, slyly tracking the back of her head through office spaces, lifting into magnificent crane shots as she loses control of her horse running across open fields, and in moments of panic, tracking in on her face as if to close the world in around her.

An excellent introduction to this character, tracking her from behind and remaining in close-ups of her action until the face reveal.
A fantastic crane shot as Marnie loses control of her horse on this open field, Hitchcock lifting his camera to dizzying heights.

The first time we see Marnie’s aversion to the colour red, it is when she catches sight of some gladiolas in a vase. Later, she faints when accidentally dripping some red ink onto her white outfit, and each time Hitchcock flashes red across his frame, enveloping her in a mindset where there is nothing else but that which causes her deep terror. Its manifestation rarely takes a single form, but simply in associating the colour with different objects and ideas, Hitchcock layers Marnie’s aversion to it with implications of romantic passion, blood, and later when she hallucinates a thunderstorm flashing red lightning through the room, the presence of physical danger.

The frame flashing red whenever Marnie’s triggers appear, a formally repeating motif tying her inextricably to the colour red.
The storm flashing red lightning, a hallucination that further builds out Marnie’s unstable psyche.

Perhaps this is why Hitchcock dresses her predominantly in cool colours, as she tries to maintain an icy distance from others. Serving a parallel purpose to this is her thieving, allowing her to indirectly interact with the world while keeping up a barrier. In an expertly composed wide shot within an office building, Hitchcock splits his frame down the middle with a wall that isolates Marnie through a doorway off to the right, trying to crack a safe. On the left-hand side, a janitor slowly advances towards the camera, leisurely mopping the floors, and with neither realising the other’s presence, the dramatic irony is thick in the air. Though she narrowly escapes in this incident, she isn’t so lucky when wealthy publisher Mark Rutland sees through the façade. In his intrigue, he decides to solve the mystery of her compulsive habits and bizarre triggers, becoming a bridge (though certainly a troublesome one) between her and the outside world that she has strived to avoid.

Hitchcock often rightly gets credit for his ability to create tension from camera movements and editing, but here the frame is completely static, and he lets his blocking of actors speak for itself.
A short, sharp cutaway of Marnie’s heel falling to the ground as she tries to make her silent escape, caught in an unexpected canted angle.

Mark is somewhat of our vessel down this winding path to discover the single, unifying explanation behind Marnie’s erratic behaviours, though Sean Connery also has no qualms about playing him as a bit of jerk. Despite this selfishness, Hitchcock frequently binds us to his observations of Marnie as a subject of fascination, and when she briefly goes missing on a cruise ship, his panicked run through its hallways and across its decks proves to be a great opportunity for Hitchcock to build out the intricate architecture of the space, shooting him against low ceilings and down narrow hallways that take on the appearance of a claustrophobic labyrinth.

Mark running through this labyrinth of corridors caught in low angles, closing in around him as he searches for a missing Marnie.

And indeed, we do eventually get answers, though unlike so many of Hitchcock’s greater films these revelations leave us hanging on an unfinished note, as if he is not sure what to do with this information. It certainly isn’t helped by Hedren’s overwrought handling of Marnie’s final breakdown immediately preceding this moment either. It is rather Hitchcock’s ability to make us lean forward in moments of unbearable intrigue and tension that turns this film into an enthralling study of compulsive behaviour, rotating through visual motifs that come to define the troubled mind at its centre. There may be a great deal more consistent psychological thrillers out there, but the dramatic unravelling of one of Hitchcock’s greatest characters gives it a power that so many others barely even touch.

Hitchcock returning to his famous dolly zoom to send us into this flashback, warping the proportions of the entire frame.

Marnie is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.