Mario Bava is undergoing something of a revival of interest these days, what with Tim Lucas’ magisterial book Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark and the recent Anchor Bay box sets. Over the last little bit, I’ve been re-watching some of Bava’s films, along with a friend who hasn’t seen them before, and I was struck by a comment he made about Blood and Black Lace: that this was the first horror film he’d seen where the victims had no existence other than as victims. This is true, and it made me think about some of the other things that distinguish Bava’s films from the films they would influence.
Released in 1964, Blood and Black Lace is an early giallo. Its Italian title translates as “Six Women for the Assassin,” which is an even more accurate description of what the film is all about. Allow me to quote Phil Hardy on the film: “Bava’s work operates almost exclusively on the level of cinematic style. His films are as plotless and scriptless as it is possible for non-avant-garde cinema to be, using the strict minimum necessary to motivate the mise-en-scène of lusciously flamboyant sado-voyeuristic operas. In this picture the audience is no longer asked to care about who gets killed – the title announces and summarizes the action – and the killer, in his featureless mask, is merely the faceless representative of the male spectator as he stalks, one after another, a series of women guilty of nothing less than provoking desire.”
These are all issues that would be addressed, whether by critics or the films themselves, in the slasher movies to come, which certainly owe a large debt to Bava. The look of the killer (trench coat, hat, featureless face) is also strikingly similar to the look of the superhero The Question, who would be created by Steve Ditko three years later, and who would in turn beget Watchmen’s Rorschach, and so next year we will see a return to the big screen of this type of image. But Hardy is correct in underlining how little the characters register on the viewer. Even the clumsiest Friday the 13th variation would at least attempt to create sympathetic characters, whether such attempts were successful or not. But Bava’s film does no such thing. We aren’t told a single thing about the victims that does not directly relate to the murder plot, and it is often rather difficult to tell them apart. Thus, their deaths become their only distinguishing characteristic (and the murders are brutal, especially by 1964 standards). Furthermore, the killer is also both like and unlike those in the slashers to come. Certainly, his facelessness would, at first blush, ally him with all the masked maniacs that would follow. One could argue, though, that his complete absence of face makes him even more extreme than his offspring, whose masks become faces of their own. At least they have eyes and rudimentary features. This killer has nothing at all. At least until the unmasking. At that point, we do not encounter an unstoppable, supernatural maniac. The film is a whodunit, and the killer is an ordinary mortal, not at all disfigured. In this respect, we are getting closer to the Scream films, which is appropriate, given the self-reflexivity present in both cases. But again, there is an interesting difference. The killer(s) in the Scream films have very precise psychological motivations for their actions. The killer in Blood and Black Lace does not. Oh, he has a reason for what he does, but it is all about greed. It has no psychosexual component. Or at least, it doesn’t appear to. But his actions are so savage that they make a mockery of his presumed motivation, and reveal a much, much deeper problem. Hardy sees the killer as the stand-in for every male spectator due to his lack of face. I would go further. When he does have a face, it is so ordinary, that the male viewer is even more on the hook than he was before. This is a film that forces us to question surface motives and rationales, especially ours as spectators.
All in all, a seminal work. There’s a fine edition, complete with Tim Lucas commentary, available from VCI.