After establishing himself as Italy’s master of the macabre which such triumphs as BLACK SUNDAY and BLACK SABBATH, director Mario Bava continued his illustrious, and (then) critically underappreciated career with THE WHIP AND THE BODY ("La frusta e il corpo"). More adult in nature than your average horror film of the time, THE WHIP AND THE BODY is a superior erotic ghost story, lovingly presented with the maestro’s grand sense of style and giving genre stalwart Christopher Lee his best role of his 1960s Italian tenure. Previously available on DVD through several companies (most notably VCI), one of Bava’s most celebrated efforts now gets the Blu-ray treatment courtesy of Kino Lorber.
After being ousted by his father Count Menliff (Gustavo De Nardo, BARON BLOOD) and his entire family, Kurt (Christopher Lee, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) returns on horseback to his ancestral coastal castle. Some time earlier, Kurt had an affair with the daughter of the loyal housemaid Giorgia (Harriet White Medin, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE), and his negligent treatment of her lead to her suicide. Now, Kurt’s brother Christian (Tony Kendall, aka Luciano Stella, RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD) is married to the beautiful raven-haired Nevenka (top-billed Israeli starlet Daliah Lavi, CASINO ROYALE) but he’s really in love with distant relative Katia (Ida Galli, aka Evelyn Stewart, THE WEEKEND MURDERS). Kurt and Nevenka have a history, and they still endure a sexual relationship where he aggressively flogs her (which she seems to orgasmically relish) before any sort of lovemaking. Shortly after Kurt’s arrival, he is assaulted at his window by what seems to be an apparition, and is found dead from a dagger wound to the throat. After a funeral is held and Kurt is buried in the family crypt, his presence re-enters from beyond, evidenced by his muddy footsteps throughout the place, and his nightly visits to Nevenka’s bedroom for more sadomasochism. Nevenka is the only one who actually sees and hears the ghost of Kurt, and when the Count is found murdered (much the same way Kurt was), a mystery must be solved as to who is the killer and to exhume the body of the top suspect.
After the worldwide success of Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA, the horror cycle in Italy exploded with a number of gothic and romantic vampire films (which included Bava’s own BLACK SUNDAY), but THE WHIP AND THE BODY was likely influenced by Roger Corman’s American Poe cycle (especially 1961’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) as well as Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (at least character-wise). With its coastal castle aligned with dark corridors, majestic fireplaces, creaky wooden doors and a cobwebbed-filled creepy crypt, the film’s set design perfectly compliment Bava’s eye for period macabre, and his clever multi-colored lighting accentuates every shot. The alluring cinematography (including Bava’s frequent use of close-ups and zoom shots) never lets you forget that there’s someone or something always lurking about. Ernesto Gastaldi’s carefully paced screenplay, with the sadmachichistic hate/love relationship between the two main characters not only makes for an erotically-charged supernatural tale (which Bava turned into a cinematic classical painting with the camera being his easel) but a far more mature tale than what was found in the-then current American and British genre counterparts (the film was edited heavily -- mostly the whipping content -- for the 1965 U.S. release where it was given the non-descriptive, non-controversial title WHAT, though in the UK it was known as NIGHT IS THE PHANTOM).
Bava apparently had a very low budget to work with (which is no surprise) but his ingenuity and seamless use of mattes (which he created himself) to offset certain shots made this not only one of the best looking genre films of the 1960s, but also more grand in appearance than just about anything coming out of Hollywood at the time. Lavi is not only beautiful, but she brings an indelible lustful emotion to her betrayed and tormented character, so it’s hard to fathom anyone else in the role (even the-then current Italian horror queen, Barbara Steele). Lee had already worked for Bava before (as the baddie in the costume fantasy HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD) and was finding study work in Italy, mostly in some kind of ghoulish manner which played upon his recognizability as a genre superstar. His role as Karl in this film is the best of these Italian horror performances, and even though his voice cannot be heard in any of the different language versions (the English version has an American actor doing a sort of Lee impersonation), his use facial expressions and his physical attributes are utilized to mold a dark and intimidating character, and this is especially evident when he’s a sadistic specter. The Peter Lorre of Italy, Alan Collins (aka Luciano Pigozzi) stars in one of the earliest of his many horror film performances (with several more for Bava, including BLOOD AND BLACK LACE and BARON BLOOD) and his limping servant Losal gets generous screen time. Composer Carlo Rustichelli’s (KILL BABY, KILL) piano-driven score is both haunting and romantic, and as a component, leaves the viewer with a memorable impression.
As for DVD releases, THE WHIP AND THE BODY has been available from several other companies (most notably a “legit” non-anamorphic special edition from VCI and in a better 16x9 transfer from Midnight Choir paired with Lucio Fulci’s CONSPIRACY OF TORTURE). Kino’s new Blu-ray is the first time the film is being presented in HD. The 1080p transfer (taken from an uncut French 35mm print source with French credits), in the 1.78:1 ratio, fully captures the glisten in Lavi’s gorgeous eyes and all the nooks and crannies of the ocean tide. Colors are stable and distinct, even if they're not as bold as you would expect from a Technicolor film of this vintage and on occasion (mainly in the darker, more shadowy scenes) fleshtones gravitate towards the hazy side. There’s a sheet of filmic grain throughout the show, and some scenes tend to be a bit dark (so any “day for night” shot scenes definitely look nighttime here). Detail is generally very sharp (with a few soft spots) and any print blemishes are minimal. Three mono audio options are included: Italian, English and French, which all sound perfectly fine despite not having what you would describe as dynamic range. With all three tracks being post-synched, the actors are generally speaking their lines in English (though all re-dubbed by other actors, at least for the English version). Optional English subtitles are also on hand.
An audio commentary with Video Watchdog editor and Bava biographer Tim Lucas, which has been ported over from the old VCI disc (recorded about 12 years ago). Lucas begins the conversation discussing how most of the names in the credits were Americanized (as the producer didn’t want it to look like an Italian film, and Bava’s screen credit is “John M. Old”) and shares an abundance of background information and quotes from some of the actors. It’s still well worth a listen, even if the passing of time has dated it somewhat (Christopher Lee’s 80th birthday is referred to as an upcoming landmark for example). A rather dupey-looking French trailer for the film, as well as trailers for other Bava titles in Kino’s collection (BLACK SUNDAY, A BAY OF BLOOD, BARON BLOOD, LISA AND THE DEVIL) round out the extras. (George R. Reis)
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