Giallo January: Blood, Black Lace, and Torsos
This week, I wanted to take a look at some directors who have produced some essential viewing for Giallo fans, the great Sergio Martino and the legendary Mario Bava. For many years, Mario Bava, the Italian master, had been somewhat of a cinematic blind spot for me. Simply because much of his filmography isn’t widely available outside of the highly influential Bay of Blood, Black Sabbath, and mesmerizing genre classic Black Sunday. Happily, over the last few years many of his best offerings have finally made it to Blu-ray (Thank you, Kino Lorber!) and I've been able to fill in the missing pieces in my library. Boy, was I missing out!
Blood and Black Lace
1964 d. Mario Bava
In 2014, Arrow UK released a region free Blu of Blood and Black Lace (followed in 2016 by a stateside release). I knew going in how influential this film, his second Giallo, was bound to be, after seeing the genre birthing classic The Girl Who Knew Too Much and once the highly stylized opening credits hit, boom, I was sold.
The story deals with a series of gruesome murders which are plaguing the chic Haute Couture fashion salon: one by one, models are horribly murdered by a maniac killer who appears to be operating with no real motive. The police write the killer off as a sex maniac, but the truth of the matter is that the salon is a veritable hot-bed of sex, drugs, and sordid dealings. A diary, loaded with information about these indiscretions, is making the rounds between the various models, and the killer is obsessed with tracking it down before his/her indiscretions are revealed.
From start to finish Blood and Black Lace is a visual tour de force. The elegant camera glides through the interiors showcasing the décor. Shadows suggest events occurring just out of view. Mirrors are used to create illusions. Everything is awash with vibrant colors. Released almost six years before the Giallo boom of the 70's, many trademarks make an appearance here, and although it's structured as a murder mystery, the director takes the film off into unexpected, visionary directions. The twists and turns are enthralling and keep the viewer's mind working overtime to figure out who the killer actually is. There's a fair share of red herrings and suspects to contend with, all lensed with Bava's famed stylish camera-work and brimming with sinister atmosphere. By stripping away much of the exposition and characterization that was typical of contemporary thrillers, Bava focused on the more sensory, cinematic aspects; the act of the murder itself, magnifying it by ten and dousing it in beautiful colors to make a truly visceral viewing experience that has gone on to inspire legions of filmmakers from Dario Argento to Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino.
The film stars American actor Cameron Mitchell in the lead, sultry Eva Bartok as the Contessa, and Dante DiPaolo as drug-addicted Frank Sacalo. Other familiar faces include Luciano Pigozzi (the Italian Peter Lorre), Lea Lander (Rabid Dogs), and Harriet Medin (The Whip and the Body). The soundtrack is composed by Carlo Rustichelli, and is nothing like the Morricone/Nicolai/Ortolani/Goblin soundtracks that typified the 70's gialli. It's a classy piece of work and reminiscent of Henry Mancini's scores of the era.
As mentioned earlier, Arrow Video pulled out all stops on this release and it shows. Fans of the film will go insane over the combination of extras combined with the gorgeous presentation. Horror fans may end up discovering a treat that they somehow missed like I did. And collectors will find this a must have for their shelf. Required Viewing.
Other Bava genre suggestions:
-The Girl who knew to Much
-Hatchet for the Honeymoon
-Five Dolls for an August Moon
All available on blu ray via Kino Lorber.
Next up we have Sergio Martino. Martino differs from Bava immensely, but, coincidentally enough, Sergio began his cinematic career in his early 20's as an assistant to his writer/producer brother Luciano Martino and handled second unit director duties on Mario Bava's The Whip and the Body (1963), and made his directorial debut in 1969 with the mondo documentary Naked and Violent. He really hit his stride in the early 1970s with several superior giallo murder mystery thrillers that usually starred popular actress Edwige Fenech, and actors George Hilton, and Ivan Rassimov.
Genre entries such as the amazing Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, the low key Case of the Scorpions Tale, the trippy All the Colors of the Dark (a personal favorite), and the Poe influenced Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (candidate for best title in the history of cinema!) all came out between 1971 and 1972. Martino considers his next Gialli, 1973's Torso to be his masterpiece, altough my money is still on All the Colors of the Dark. All said titles are worth seeking out, although The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and All the Colors of the Dark are out of print. Hopefully someone gets these out on Blu soon!
1973 d. Sergio Martino
In Torso, the story revolves around a group of young college women who are terrorized by a ski masked wearing maniac killer. The bodies slowly start to pile up, and the only clue the police have to go on is a black and red scarf. Eventually American-abroad, Jane (Suzy Kendall) leaves with her three friends to a cliffside manor located in a villa outside the city for the weekend, but unfortunately for her and her friends, the killer follows.
Interestingly, this film leaves behind a few genre tropes for a different approach, instead of the film rallying around the girls' trying to remember a clue about the killer's identity, it remains far more in touch about them being in danger at the start and using the trip as a way to relax. Despite the insistence about the scarf and how important that is to the truth, it doesn't really feature much detective work as a whole, instead this features the group hanging out together and generally de-stressing with nude sunbathing, skinny dipping, softcore lesbian romps and other leisure pursuits rather than dealing with the investigations, invoking a traditional slasher vibe.
Although fairly slow by slasher standards, as a giallo film, it maintains a steady pace throughout, but the real fun begins when the girls arrive at the cliffside retreat. What could turn into a fairly by-the-numbers horror film at that point subverts expectations, resulting in a nail-biting finale with Jane, unbeknownst to the killer, hiding in the house while the killer resumes business as usual, limb by limb. The 25-30 minute sequence is an expertly crafted piece of Hitchcockian suspense.
Giancarlo Ferrando's cinematography here is elegant at showcasing both the city life and countryside of Italy, but is even more effective in molding an ominous mood. The presentation of the ski-masked villain is particularly menacing, accentuated by wide shots that lend the film a certain sort of tension; amidst several wide shots showcasing the land and city, there is a sense that the killer could be lurking anywhere within the frames.
Throw in some above average acting, a bit of gratuitous nudity, loads and loads of sleaze (almost all of the male characters come off as sleazeball sexual predators), some vicious murder scenes, and an unexpected ending, and you've got a great Giallo. The slowburn approach that the film takes may require some patience, but the atmosphere of Torso and its third act really elevate this within the genre. There is a Blu available via Blue Undeground and it contains an unedited Italian cut. It's fairly priced and a staple for any Giallo collection!