Thursday, July 2, 2015

Italian Exploitation Month, Horror Thursdays: The Whip and the Body (1963)

            Whip it. Whip it, good.

            Gothic atmosphere is the order of the day in this early Mario Bava effort, as it was for much of Bava’s oeuvre. Still relatively early on in his career as a feature director, Bava here never quite manages the dizzy horror heights he achieved in say, Black Sabbath or Blood and Black Lace, but The Whip and the Body is still a fiendishly good showcase for what Bava did best. The late, great Christopher Lee headlines the cast as Kurt Menliff, as the cold, ruthless heir to an Eastern European title and fortune, returning home many years after having been cast out by his father for stepping out on his bride-to-be Navinska (played by Daliah Lavi) with the maid’s daughter, who subsequently killed herself. Lee’s character finds his younger brother now married to his former fiancĂ©, and subsequently plots to take everything back that was once his.  

            Or at least, that’s the set-up. Once the film gets going and we start with the main action, Lee’s character is almost immediately killed (after a torrid affair with Nevenska, who is brutally whipped by Kurt beforehand in a scene that reveals both of the characters’ particular kink). As everyone tries to deduce who the murderer could be, Nevenska becomes tormented by what appears to be Kurt’s spirit. Bava tackles the idea of being haunted in nearly every way, from a simple ghost story to the hold that the past sometimes places upon us and refuses to let go. Are Navinska’s visions of Kurt actually happening, or are they just a manifestation of her own psychosis, her inability to let go of the submissive role Kurt placed upon her? The movie never gives us a definitive answer, leaving the ending to be far more powerful and disturbing as a result.

            It is a slow burn, its slow and laborious pace making the 86 minute runtime feel like much longer at times, but Bava’s style carries the movie through. Although certainly inspired by the period Gothic horrors that Hammer Films had been churning out for over a decade at this point (as the inclusion of Lee here will certainly attest), Bava’s films gave the genre the exact same jolt in the arm that the original Hammer Films did back in their day. And, no offense intended to the capable likes of Terrence Fisher or Roy Ward Baker, but Bava here is lively and energetic in ways that the Hammer stable never dreamed of. A kaleidoscope of color and sound, a dreamy, nightmare-ridden atmosphere of psychosis and dread… these were the hallmarks of Bava’s work, and precisely what made him the most influential director in his genre for years to come.

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