Of all of the gialli that Mario Bava directed in his early career, Blood and Black Lace stands out for several reasons. As usual, Bava, a genre filmmaker that was as talented as he was prolific, uses lurid lighting cues and baroque sets to create an otherworldly atmosphere of anticipatory dread. His camera was never as lithe as it was in Blood and Black Lace: Tracking shots whisk us around mannequins, octagonal mirrors, and five-candle candelabras, and usher us through doors adorned with red velvet drapes. What's unique about Blood and Black Lace is that its emotional impact doesn't rely on stilted dialogue to deliver its pay-off like much of Bava's other gialli did, but rather on the director's aforementioned aesthetic strengths, specifically in how they inform one crucial climactic scene.
The whodunit at the heart of Blood and Black Lace is conceptually basic but ornate in every other respect. On a dark and story night, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), a model at the Cristi's high-fashion clothing boutique, is murdered by a Vic Sage-type killer wearing a trenchcoat and a sheer stocking masking his/her face. Everyone working at Cristi's is a potential suspect, including Cesare (Luciano Pigozzi), a fashion designer and Peter Lorre lookalike, and Frank Scalo (Dante DiPaolo), a heroin junkie and Isabella's last boyfriend. Once the police discover that Isabella kept a diary, all eyes fall on it hungrily. A masterful scene that deliberately recalls the follow-that-key sequence form Hitchcock's Notorious shows everyone sneaking a peek at a purse holding Isabella's secrets. Everyone knows, or at least suspects, that they're implicated in Isabella's little black book, making culpability a relative concept. Naturally, more murders ensue.
The most bewitching aspect of Blood and Black Lace is the way that Bava expresses a perennial concern of the giallo genre, namely the objectification and punishment of beautiful women. The film's grisly, sadistic murder scenes are characteristically filmed in a weirdly erotic way but—spoilers!—Bava defies claims of misogyny by suggesting that, while the killer has immediate reasons for his/her actions, they're all perpetuated out of a misguided sense of jealousy that Bava makes a point of curing.
The guilty party secretly likes to look at his/her victims without being seen (hence the mask). But he/she isn't trying to punish them for their beauty, but rather the immediacy of their charms. The girls look like dolls—and hence the killer assumes that they're the same as the myriad objects Bava fills every frame with, especially the locations where the killer strikes. A pivotal scene comes when the killer looks at his/her last victim and, looking past the dead girl's lacquered, claw-like nails, sees an old scar over her wrist. It's a revelation that almost never comes, in any form, in most gialli: the realization that these women are not just the pretty young things they're made out to be for the majority of the film.
Moreover, that scene's revelatory power lies in its mostly implied delivery. The killer has taken off his/her mask and is already quaking while unfolding a razor blade and lowering it to his/her victim's flesh. There's no dialogue to interrupt this moment nor an expository explanation from the killer later about what he/she was thinking at the time. There's just a flash of the dead girl's wrist, then a slow but deliberate cut from the razor, and then a sudden pounding at the door. The killer's conscious is shown to exist, in spite of the fact that he/she can't stop him/herself. With that complex notion, Bava proves why he's the best Italian horror filmmaker of them all.
Though Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas praises the film's high-quality video transfer on his informative and sharp audio commentary soundtrack, he couldn't be farther from the truth. It's apparent VCI did nothing to digitally remaster the film before slapping it onto a disc: The colors aren't as sharp as they should be, the print is full of grain, and the picture quality has a general pervasive fuzziness to it that makes it look like that of a VHS tape's. The film's different audio options are likewise not as crisp as they should be, though the Italian soundtrack is a bit more resonant than the English one, which is a bit more flat, mashing together music, sound effects, and dialogue on what sounds like the same soundtrack.
The special features in VCI's two-disc set are a mixed bag. On the one hand, Lucas's commentary track is fantastic; he traces the origins of the film and its various characters as well as his own involvement in the film (Lucas touched up the film's script, as it was originally written in English but the dialogue had no colloquial flair). There's also a short-and-sweet interview segment with regular Bava actor Cameron Mitchell, who marvels at the various ways Bava tricked viewers into believing he was working with a bigger budget than he was. But the best feature after Lucas's commentary has to be the inclusion of the individual musical compositions from Carlo Rustichelli's swaggering rococo score. On disc two you'll find alternate opening credits sequences for the film's French and American releases and a 12-minute interview with actress Mary Dawne Arden, whose personal anecdotes aren't nearly as what she thinks, as when she gushes on and on about how excited she is to have the opportunity to speak on about the film.
VCI's new release is a lousy transfer of a very sharp giallo; rent it before buying.