The roots of the Hollywood slasher are often traced back to Blood and Black Lace, yet Mario Bava’s seminal giallo has a richness of texture and complexity of gaze that have kept its elaborate carnage scintillating even following decades of leeching from genre vultures. A blood-drenched mod-whodunit, it kicks off with a young woman ambling through the misty woods, only to be strangled by a trenchcoated, fedoraed figure—her body is dragged out of the frame just as the camera pans left to reveal statues of cherubs in the garden. Christiana is the name of the haute couture fashion house where the other characters are assembled, though spiritual salvation may be the last thing in their minds; presided over by salon owner Cameron Mitchell and recently widowed countess Eva Bartok, the place is, under its coolly elegant surface, a seething vipers’ nest of greed, drugs, abortions, blackmail, and, especially, sadistic slaughter, for the killer is barely getting started. Decadent visualist as well as severe moralist, Bava locates the macabre beauty at the heart of his art in this fashion-world dollhouse, where the models, both human and inanimate, become the main canvases for the sensual lushness of the mise en scène; the witty opening credits already suggest the link by posing the cast in sinister tableau, and mannequins are trenchantly arranged throughout as mute witnesses to the spectacle of human malice.
Whereas mannequins in the later Hatchet for the Honeymoon form an indictment of idealized femininity immobilized by masculine possession, the dummies here reflect a society’s ruthless commoditization of the body and flesh, a notion of morbid beauty that Bava examines by extending it to the killings themselves. Thus, Ariana Gorini’s antique-shop murder is filmed as a pulsating Minnelli set piece, Mary Arden’s burned face is doted over the way Barbara Steele’s scarred visage was fetishized in Black Sunday, and, emblematically, blood billows ravishingly through the water as Claude Dantes sinks to the bottom of a bathtub. A magnificent eye-level tracking shot through a shadowy living room suggests the killer’s POV, until we see the corpse lying on the floor being pulled in the other direction and notice the camera’s orb as the director’s gaze, implacably watching as the characters glide to their doom. In that sense, the grand Blood and Black Lace shares with Five Dolls for an August Moon and Bay of Blood a crystallization of the director’s worldview, where the tension between opulent surfaces and moral dislocation hint at a closer affinity with Antonioni than is usually perceived. Although, unlike his brilliant disciple Dario Argento, Bava doesn’t specifically equate cinema with the act of seeing, he is no less concerned with the subtle potency of the image, and the subterranean worlds cloaked by it—not for nothing is his exquisite feel for design, décor, color, and movement tied to the endless cataloging of human sin, with beauty and ugliness, like desire and dread, forever leaking into one another.