Having put Italian horror on the map with Black Sunday, Mario Bava continued to redefine the genre and essentially invented giallo which became the de facto horror genre in Italy for most of the '70s and '80s and ultimately inspired the slasher genre that was so popular in the United States in that same era. Bava’s 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much is often credited as the first ever giallo film, but it was filmed in black and white not in the garish colors the genre is so recognized for. A year later he made Blood and Black Lace in glorious technicolor, and changed horror forever.
Bava’s use of color was revolutionary. Horror at the time was shot in black and white. Think of films that came out around that time, Psycho, Eyes without a Face, The Haunting, and Bava’s own Black Sunday, all were shot in back and white. There was something about the genre that didn’t need color. Maybe the sight of blood and the dead in color was too much for the censors (and audiences). Maybe the way black and white film can so dramatically use light and shadows speaks to horror in some perfect way. Whatever it was that’s how horror movies were made. There were horror films to come out in the early '60s in color, The Birds comes to mind immediately, but their use of color was perfunctory. Certainly a director of Hitchock’s caliber knew what he was doing with color schemes, but when you think of The Birds (or any of his color films), it's not the color scheme you immediately think of. But when you talk about giallo, one of the first things you are going to mention is its use of color.
We have Bava to thank for that. Blood and Black Lace is full of wild colors. Purples and reds and blacks fill the screen. They practically scream at you. The major set for the film, a fashion house, is a cornucopia of color. It is swathed in it. Enormous curtains of red and blue and purple hang everywhere. Mannequins of reds and greens litter the place. The models are robbed in colors of all kind. The best murder scene takes place in an enormous antique shop. Its cavernous rooms are littered with bric a brac, creating a feast for the senses. Blue lights break through the black shadows, flickering on and off, giving us a glimpse of the killer and then he’s gone. Bava’s camera sits at odd angles, unnerving us just as his actress is unnerved being chased by a madman, creating yet another hallmark in the genre.
Bava was an artist and cinematographer before he was a director. He was a master at creating fascinating visuals. The opening credits show his actresses sitting in small curtained rooms, bathed in blue and red lights, posing with mannequins who looks as if they are about to kill. It is such an odd, beautiful, and perfect way to begin this glorious film.
Someone is killing off models from the Cristiana Haute Couture fashion house. Everyone is a suspect, until all the suspects start getting killed as well. Could the diary of the first girl killed be a clue? Why is everyone so interested in it when it is discovered? Could one of the men working at the house be the killer? How can the killer be in two places seemingly at once? The film does give us answers, though they aren’t always sensible But sensible answers and straightforward plot machinations aren’t really what giallo is about. Giallo is about style and Blood and Black Lace is brimming with style. The killer is dressed in a black trench coat with a black fedora and a mask that looks like Rorschach from Watchmen (or given the timelines I guess Rorschach looks like this killer). Like all good movie killers, he doesn't do it simply with a gun, but by chasing them through dark hallways, stabbing them repeatedly with knives, or drowning their half-naked bodies in the bath tub. The police are interesting characters but not all that adept at police work. The solution is unremarkable but one hardly cares for the getting there is so much fun.
If you want to understand Italian horror in general, and giallo in particular, or take on a history of the slasher genre, then start with Blood and Black Lace. It is both the beginning and one of the highest points of the genre.
VCI Entertainment has just released a new 2K restoration from the original negative in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This is important as Arrow Videos recent release of the film came with an aspect ratio of 1.67:1 causing some fans a bit of distress. I haven’t seen Arrow’s release so I can’t comment on its quality, but I can say this MVD transfer looks quite good. There seems to have been some fairly aggressive filtering, causing some boosting to the purple and blues, giving it a less natural quality. It will be enough to bother those who are bothered by such things but for the average viewer it still comes out nicely.
Like most Italian films at the time the actors didn’t all speak the same language. In this case, they all spoke the dialogue in English even if they didn’t know what they were saying and then it was later dubbed in during post production. The sync is a bit loose giving it an odd feel at times. The dialogue does come in clear as does the music, though it can sometimes sound a bit tinnny.
Extras include a commentary by Kat Ellinger, Editor-in-Chief of Diabolique Magazine and another commentary by C. Courtney Joyner. Both are quite informative but I wish it also included the commentary by Tim Lucas, who is considered the Mario Bava expert and whose commentary was included on the Arrow Release. Also included are an interview with Mary Dawn Arden and archival interviews with star Cameron Mitchell and David Del Valle. There’s also a nice feature which demonstrates the differences between the American and European cuts. The European cut includes a bit more violence in all the deaths. It would have been nice if they’d actually included the European cut in this release, but this feature at least exposes that we really aren’t missing that much. There are also the usual trailers, photo galleries, and some music tracks.
Blood and Black Lace is a no-brainer purchase for horror fans of all stripes and an absolute must for giallo lovers. It is a stunning film both technically and visually. VCI has put together a very nice release. I don’t know that I’d recommend it over the Arrow version, but if you were really bothered by their aspect ratio, then you can find the corrected version here.