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BLOOD AND BLACK LACE
 (DEVIL’S ADVOCATES) *****

Written by Roberto Curti 120pp RRP: £9.99

Out now from Auteur Publishing.

 

The worst full-length academic studies of horror films can feel like the printed page equivalent of partaking in Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES (either version): a couple of hours in their company leaves you with the sense of having been lectured into a state of total ennui, with the unpleasant after-effect of feeling guilty about loving horror films in the first place. The best – and to that list add Roberto Curti’s wonderful Devil’s Advocate monograph on Mario Bava’s seventh solo feature – culminate with the rapturous feeling of having learned more, and appreciated more, about movies you have long enjoyed and admired, but now have even more justification for doing so.

 

If you have the kind of stable bank account that allows for regular consumption of McFarland’s hefty, often impressive tomes of horror movie analysis, you may have already encountered Curti’s engaging dissections of continental shockers – notably his “Italian Gothic Horror Films” trilogy, covering in glorious detail the country’s horrific output from the late 1950’s through to the end of the 1980’s. He has also written extensively on Italian crime movies and covered an octet of oft-overlooked filmmakers with “Mavericks of Italian Cinema”. He writes with affection, humour and thoughtful insight – and his study of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE immediately punctures any fear that we’re in for a dry book-length intellectual study by reminding us of Bava’s own unpretentious outlook. When asked about the significance of his game-changing film’s visual bookends by “Cahiers du Cinema”, the beloved filmmaker admitted he couldn’t even remember how said film ended.

 

The book captures the industrial climate in which this tightly budgeted French-German co-production arrived, the surge in post-Hammer Italian horror filmmaking and the importance of Germany’s Krimi cycle. Individual chapters allow for a detailed exploration of the film’s most compelling, and contentious, elements. The movie’s Grand Guignol-style transformation of murder into a spectacular sideshow is positioned as the natural evolution of the violence directed at the female body in Bava’s earlier horror pictures. Despite the obvious titillation factor, Curti reminds us of the lack of actual sex on screen and the disinterest Bava had in the mystery plot that would seem so key to its popularity. The director’s priority here, and in subsequent, thematically similar movies, was in the lovingly staged murder set pieces linking together the relatively stiff dialogue scenes. The focus on the attractive female cast’s bodies (and the garments adorning them) combines with the framing and comic panel-style shot composition to render BLOOD AND BLACK LACE a cinematic cousin to Italian erotic photo novels and the increasingly Gothic-styled “fumetti” (comic books).

 

Given the translation of the original Italian title (“Six Women for the Assassin”), it’s only appropriate that a key part of Curti’s analysis is a breakdown of each of the core murder sequences, complete with duration, setting, the victims’ outfits, the mutilation they suffer and the aftermath. The killings make up over 20 minutes of the film’s relatively short running time, and the author considers the fetishization of the victimised women – typically in their underwear or with thighs / garters exposed – the use of different lenses, the iconography of the killer and the fixation, echoing BLACK SUNDAY, on facial mutilation. While acknowledging the influence of Hitchcock, Curti finds parallels to the rising Italian western in moving away from deaths that were merely a bloodless, painless “banal pantomime”. He also conveys the necrophiliac nature of the killer’s post-mortem posing of the victims – capturing an antagonist as window-dresser and performance artist, and paving the way for the many carefully arranged corpse tableaux of major American and Canadian slasher films to come.

 

Bava’s background is defined by a mischievous, dark sense of humour, a fondness for blurring the animate and inanimate and significant experience in painting and sculpture. Curti positions BLOOD AND BLACK LACE in what he calls the director’s “cinema of mannequins”, beautifully capturing a “macabre pantomime” in which all the players are pawns in a warped fashion show set to its creator’s own arbitrary rules. The fashion house is characterised as a modern incarnation of Gothic horror’s traditional castles – complete with an intro set on a dark and stormy night – and Bava’s use of light, shadow and sound as a holdover from his earlier period-set horrors. Recognisable Hitchcock tropes – the fetishizing of female underwear, the telephone as instrument of terrorisation and the narrative’s McGuffins – are noted, while Bava’s stylistic bag of tricks (voyeuristic tracking shots, use of the zoom lens) links into the ways in which the filmmaker disowned the “human factor”.

 

Considered as an anti-whodunnit, despite its promotion as a conventional mystery thriller, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is a prime example of its director’s favouring of inanimate objects over humans. The absence of either a strong detective figure or a bonafide hero reduces that “human factor” and highlights Bava’s dislike (like that of Hitchcock) of police procedural “filler”. Some of the female victims look very similar – like mannequins come to life – and the audience has no specific point of identification, so instead it becomes a ghoulishly pleasurable manifestation of Bava’s cynicism toward humanity. Useful comparisons between the original script and the final film reveal how the internal logic of the plot was stripped away by the director to home in on the “bare attractions” of the killings. The comparison reveals how dated and pedestrian the screenplay was, using the very last line of the script – alongside its cinematic incarnation – as a prime example, and capturing the transformation of relatively mediocre material into one of the great movies of its time.

 

The closing chapters breeze through the film’s critical reception, its stronger commercial performance in the U.S. than in Italy and the crucial differences between the keynote Bava giallo and the popular Argento movies that were just a few years away from fruition. Curti reminds us of the enduring influence of this almost sixty-year-old film, from its prominent position in Almodovar’s MATADOR to the two killers of SCREAM and the spiked glove of a certain Mr. Krueger. This Devil’s Advocate entry offers a highly engaging, personalised celebration in the context of its creator’s sense of ironic detachment and his fondness for morbid punchlines. The use of original Italian titles throughout makes some of the reference points more confusing than need be, but it’s such a captivating study, it seems churlish to grumble. Most importantly, Curti leaves us with the immediate desire to return once again to BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, encouraging us - in his words – to “watch it and smile with Bava”.

 

Steven West.

 

 

 

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FrightFest is the registered trade mark of London FrightFest Limited.
 © 2000 - 2018