With Blood and Black Lace, Mario Bava took a major step toward recasting the term giallo, literally Italian for yellow, which was once more generically associated with detective-type thrillers, particularly paperbacks with yellow covers that included the work of writers such as Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace. Due to the subsequent film careers of Bava and famed compatriots like Dario Argento, giallo came to be associated with a violently free-associative blend of crime and horror film. As Bava’s biographer Tim Lucas observes in the audio commentary on this disc, the giallo remains alive today, when other distinctively Italian film subgenres have faded into the past.
Lucas’s commentary allows modern viewers to imagine the newness that Blood and Black Lace represented for the thriller genre at the time of its release, though it was a financial disappointment that gained cultural cache retrospectively. In fact, the film still feels new—particularly Bava’s astonishing use of color, especially compared to the anemic palettes in which contemporary American horror films routinely traffic. Diverging from the black-and-white aesthetic of many noirs, and of prior thrillers and horror films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Black Sunday, Bava lavishes Blood and Black Lace with an explosive tapestry of hues that suggests a fevered dream state, mirroring the repressed desires and crimes of the characters.
Bava floods the eye with stimulation, overwhelming our senses so much that the subtle and ingenious plot rushes by in a blur—an effect that would come to be a major component of the giallo. Purples, reds, golds, greens, blues, and occasional stark whites inform the images, motivated by subjective rather than objective instincts. Telephones are as bright a red as the lush curtains that divide the private chambers of the fashion salon setting—a beautiful inexplicability that’s deeply disturbing in a film with many such gestures. (Though, as Lucas observes, at least one phone is black when used by a character not long for this Earth.)
There are gorgeous Italian countryside landscapes, and elaborate interiors that are marked not only by stylish colors, but by seemingly endless bric-a-brac that inspires a palpably uncomfortable sensation of clutter. The salon is rendered in intricate tableaus that show the women—not only the models, but crafts-women and hangers-on—as figures in an elaborate caste preoccupied by addictions and resentments. Boxes are strewn everywhere, statues dot the floor, while irrationally colored mannequins haunt the rooms like prior victims or stalled demons. Various kinds of scrims separate the planes of the setting, suggesting differing recesses of this society’s private and public skin, or multiple strands of consciousness.
An antique store the size of a warehouse provides the stage for Blood and Black Lace’s most famous set piece, the second of a string of fashion-model killings that fuel the narrative. The images of the antique store are so overloaded with stimuli that one’s tempted to freeze the frames merely to do an inventory, as it’s festooned with armor, lamps, columns, artwork, ornate mirrors, fainting couches. This isn’t including the cinematography in this sequence, which includes a haunting strobe effect and splashes of magenta that signal death. Not to mention a masked killer who vanishes in front of the intended victim’s eye in a boldly reality-bending flourish.
Bava’s occupation with stuff is tethered to a deeper purpose than self-amusement, though he has a wicked sense of humor. When the masked, blank-faced killer (who suggests a more malevolent, sanded-down mannequin) murders someone, the acts of violence disrupt the furniture of the settings, communicating a primordial sense of violation that informs the extraordinary events with an element of the everyday. Most audiences can’t relate to the notions of either committing or resisting murder, but we do grasp the unsettling possibility of a room torn upside down. Bava conjoins these sensations, making murder sort of relatable. The filmmaker creates these elaborate settings only to have them brutally thrashed. This chaos is accentuated by long dolly takes that refuse us the relief of quick cutting while proffering two implications that would become common to giallo and to later American slasher films: the audience or the director as killer/fetishist.
The killings in Blood and Black Lace are still disturbing, yet have the vitality of pop art. As in most gialli, the killings suggest the price that’s to be paid for fetishism, for regarding the shapely, strategically unclothed female forms and all the other eye- and ear-tickling stimulation that governs the aesthetic, as well as serving as the ultimate heightening of this stimulation. When the killer strangles a model near the beginning of the film, against a woodsy fairy-tale backdrop, Bava positions the camera low so that we can feel the weight and heft of the bodies. The woman is wearing a deep-red jacket, an article that matters for its gorgeous portentousness. The killer strangles her at an off angle, bending her toward the left foreground of the frame, giving us a sense of constriction and prolonged struggle. We’re aware of the bodies as they yield and push in conflict with each other, and this resistance is intensified by the victim’s anguished cries. In another killing, a woman is thrown by the masked interloper across a room from the foreground to the background of the image, knocking over a large bureau, the tumbling of the furniture wedding with the movement of the thrown body to impart to a forceful sensation that’s shocking and weirdly exhilarating.
Bava’s mixing of emotionally motivated color and object-centric tactility set the visceral template for the giallo. Thematically, Blood and Black Lace offers the giallo an irresolvable obsession with female violation that’s simultaneously cruel and heartfelt. Here, the murders are understood to reflect a debasement that suggests a furthering of the debasement of modeling, a suggestion that’s literalized by the killer’s placement of the bodies in hideous poses, and by a purposefully fake substitution of a dummy for an actress in a drowning scene. This thematic is complicated further by the identity of the killer, who reflects the fashion industry’s self-loathing and self-consumption, driven by a mixture of profound self-interest and neurosis that would be enormously influential to the subgenre at large. In a giallo, a woman’s worst enemy is often a woman driven to shirk the chains of status quo that shackle her.
This new 2K restoration of the original camera negative is absolutely gorgeous—one of the most beautiful transfers this critic has seen of a classic giallo. Colors are ripe and hallucinatory, most impressively and subtly the blacks, which are deep and well-differentiated. Flesh tones and textures are densely detailed, intensifying our impressions of the victims’ vulnerabilities. Image clarity is revelatory, though grit and grain are still present and balanced in a pleasing and print-honoring fashion. There are still what appear to be a few transitional blips, most notably at the beginning of a sequence in which a purse is placed at the foreground of the image, but these scan as honoring the fidelity of the source material, and are aesthetically striking and resonant anyway. The various Italian and English monaural tracks have been mixed with equal care, with an exacting grasp of diegetic/non-diegetic harmony. Carlo Rustichelli’s remarkable jazz score really sings here, allowing one to parse individual instrumentation on one plane, while bold violence is heard on another. This transfer accomplishes something that’s nearly as important as allowing the film to look and sound its best, offering abundant testament to the depth and intensity of the artistry exhibited by Mario Bava and his many gifted collaborators.
Tim Lucas’s audio commentary contextualizes Blood and Black Lace within Bava’s career, while providing fascinating histories for most of the participants. Lucas also springs choice purple phrasing that captures the film’s overheated aesthetic, such as describing the killer as "this monster of black and white let loose in a hot house of color." "Psycho Analysis" is a terrific new documentary on Blood and Black Lace and the origins of the giallo genre, tracing how the movement sprung from countless other inspirations, such as the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Hammer Studios, as well as the aforementioned "yellow" paperbacks. Lamberto Bava, Mario’s son and a director in his own right, evocatively notes his father’s craftsmanship, such as his propensity for drawing and hand-making artifacts. This information is complemented by additional interview footage provided in the panel discussion with Lamberto, Dario Argento, and several influential film critics, who wrestle throughout these supplements with the proper way to describe the ineffable mixture of control and chaos that defines the giallo.
Michael Mackenzie’s video essay, "Gender and Giallo," is a brilliant examination of the male and female dynamics that inform thrillers that are often too easily dismissed for their misogyny. Mackenzie connects the giallo to the political and social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, using footage from a variety of films to reveal how the giallo explored a man’s increasing confusion in the age of a more assertive woman, who was often drawn by these films as a psychotic killer. Mackenzie compares "m giallos" to "f giallos," illuminating how films with male protagonists differ from those with a female at their center. He acknowledges certain predictable patterns (males are allowed to be more active than their reactive female counterparts) while elucidating the less easily compartmentalized sense of loss that informs films that are often critical of society, likening it to a series of hypocritical cages with characters of authority who rarely discern the actual truth. Mackenzie doesn’t make this connection, but he lays the roadwork for a hypothesis that I’ve long personally held: that the respective careers of Douglas Sirk and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are significant influences on the giallo.
A variety of other odds and ends have been included in this exhaustive package: Yellow, a short giallo homage that lacks the playfulness of the subgenre; an appreciation by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, the creative duo behind Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears; a two-part episode of The Sinister Image concerned with Blood and Black Lace star Cameron Mitchell; a different version of the opening credits, restored from Joe Dante’s private print, and the trailer, as well as a host of artwork and essays that are included in a beautiful booklet. This set is a dream come true for horror fans.
Arrow Video’s gorgeous and supplements-rich package perfectly complements the bounty of sensory delights offered by Mario Bava’s influential and still extraordinary giallo thriller.