Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Whip and the Body

The Whip and the Body (1963) aka What? aka La Frusta e il Corpo
Dir. Mario Bava
Written by Ernesto Gastaldi (“Julian Berry”),Ugo Guerra (“Robert Hugo”), Luciano Martino (“Martin Hardy”)
Starring Daliah Lavi, Christopher Lee, Tony Kendall, Ida Galli

Despite the lurid title, this is a surprisingly classy film from Mario Bava which perfectly bridges the gap between the classic Universal horror era and the boundary-pushing 70’s which would follow. It’s a period tale of a cruel elder son who returns home to his father’s moody seaside castle (right out of an 1930’s Lugosi film) where he resumes a sadomasochistic relationship with his tormented-sister-in law, involving --indeed-- much whipping and at least two bodies (OK, that’s starting to sound a little more Italian). This had to be wildly racy in 1963; Bava had released THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, arguably the first true giallo, only a few months earlier and Hammer’s big break with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was only six years prior. LEAVE IT TO BEAVER had just ended earlier that year. Horror cinema was starting to push the boundaries of the prudish 50s all over, but surely Lee manically whipping his sister-in-law for sexual pleasure was a bit much for the heyday of Beatlemania (heck, even now it might raise some eyebrows).

By the way, he just finds that whip on the beach, is that a normal thing in Italy?

I imagine that has something to do with the fact that this movie doesn’t seem to be as well-remembered as it ought to be, but... well... it ought to be. Whipping and bodies aside, it’s actually quite an accomplished work of cinema, atmospheric and suggestive but with a touch of 70s italian sleaze and psychedelia. Lee --already a screen veteran with 66 film roles, 30 of them in the 6 years since CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN-- is great, doing his coldly austere handsome thing to the hilt and totally dominating the film even when he’s not on-screen (which turns out to be a surprising amount of the time).* Daliah Lavi, as his whipping object, is pretty good too; the film takes awhile to resolve on her as the main character, but once it does she manages to carry it quite nicely with a complex performances that rises above her narrative victimhood. Not so much for the rest of the cast (they really should have ponied up the cash for Peter Lorre as the creepy butler. He died in 1964 so this would have been a nice one to go out on. People with time machines, that’s your cue**) but what the hell, they serve their purpose just fine.

I whipped a girl, and I liked it, (liked it).

The cast and the kink are all in fine form, but the real hero is Bava himself. He’d been a cinematographer for over a decade before he started directing, and somehow managed to find energy to serve as writer, director, and cinematographer on nearly every one of his films over his 20-year directorial career. How he managed that I’ll never be able to guess, but it pays off here in arguably the most visually stunning film of his entire career. Bava nearly always composed pretty images, but these are some of his most rapturously iconic: a seaside castle overhanging the water on an imposing cliff; a figure disappearing into the rainy night outside a darkened window; red-robed monks (very DEAD RINGERS) standing next to a perfectly symmetrically framed tomb; a whip half-buried on a sandy beach in front of a heartbreaking sunset. Bava had favored black-and-white film for his first horror efforts, but with the WHIP AND THE BODY he embraced the kind of surreal, vivid use of color which would really mark the later giallos as a distinct artistic genre. Painterly images abound: deep blues punctuated by feverish reds and nauseated greens create something both stunningly beautiful and decidedly queasy in concert with his meticulous framings and opulent sets. A very classic, sweeping romantic score ties it all together with gothic melancholy.

While Blues and Greens in deep black predominate...
Subtle hints of bright red add a hint of erotic danger

Someone told me that later in his career, Lee expressed shock that Bava declined into schlocky, trashy exploitation fare after working with him on this scandalous but unquestionably impressive classical effort (he should talk! At least Bava didn't have anything to do with DRACULA: AD 1972). Admittedly, Bava would make plenty of low-effort misses in his career, but this and LISA AND THE DEVIL have caused me to seriously re-evaluate him after my initial exposure to him with the dull PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and the shoddy (but influential) TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. He would follow this one with BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, which definitively flung open the floodgates of twisted, impressionistic giallo madness that he had started to crack with THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and perhaps unfairly overshadows this effort. In a way, though, the two films --WHIP and BLOOD-- represent a clear and concrete turning point: WHIP is the end of the old guard, the age of the moody gothic romance, castles and tombs and foggy moors, while BLOOD is the beginning of the new school, with its modern settings, meandering slasher plotlines and titillating sex and violence. You can see it coming here; the subversive sleaziness lurking just below the surface couldn’t be contained anymore after this, the culture was changing and horror would would change with it. The prurient and exploitative elements which subtly inform our sadomasochistic love(?) story would soon explode into the main text of a run of Italian horror movies that would define 70’s horror, definitively changing the nature of horror filmmaking forever. But even if it’s only at the cusp of that movement, WHIP AND THE BODY still stands not just as a fitting ending to a bygone age and a constrained but powerful hint at what was to come, but as a memorable and startlingly beautiful horror film all of its own.

* I’m also not sure that’s his voice; this one was probably shot without sound for dubbing later (common practice at the time), but it doesn’t sound like Lee did his own dubbing, though I can’t be completely sure.

**Of course, if you travel back and put Lorre in THE WHIP AND THE BODY, this review will be changed to reflect the new continuity, and you’ll never be inspired by the power of my words to go back and right this terrible wrong, resulting in one of those tiresome causality paradoxes. So maybe forget about it.

The American title kinda loses some of the original zest.

The Hunt For Dread October

LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, and it doesn't even pretend to be Poe or something.
BOOBIES: Amazingly, no.
SEXUAL ASSAULT: Yeah, but she likes it (?)
THE UNDEAD: There definitely seems to be a ghost skulking around.
POSSESSION: Heavily implied, but ambiguous.
PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yes
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. Early Bava, not too well-remembered
MORAL OF THE STORY: Don’t ever install a hidden passageway into your bedroom.
TITLE ACCURACY: Whip, check, body, check.

Strong 4, think B+, A-

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