Friday, October 31, 2008

La frusta e il corpo (1963)

...aka: Body and the Whip, The
...aka: Night Is the Phantom
...aka: Son of Satan
...aka: Way and the Body, The
...aka: What!

Directed by:
Mario Bava

Made around the same time as Mario's classic three-part horror anthology Black Sabbath, this deserves the same accolades as his other more famous work. Upon release, Whip was unfairly neglected, hacked up, censored and critically frowned upon for the subject matter (sexual violence). Next to Rabid Dogs (1974), it was also the most difficult of Bava's genre films to acquire in America; I'm not even aware of an accessible home video release until just recently. All but forgotten for decades, but now finally available in a gorgeous restored cut on DVD from Sinister Cinema, Whip is an absolute must see for Bava fans and very highly recommended for aficionados of Gothic horror. It is also a film that demands to be seen by any person interested in film-making as art - in set design, costume design, lighting schemes, color, shadow and music used for the creation of atmosphere and mood. Every single frame is composed with the utmost care and every inch of the screen exhibits such astonishing attention to detail that it almost begs to be watched in slow motion to soak it all in. Bava is a rare cinematic artist; a true visionary who uses celluloid as his palate; painting all the colors of the dark on drab, dank and dreary castle walls and corridors. Even though the story slips into the routine at times, it's still above average; progressive, serious, entertaining and even extremely ballsy for the 1960s in that it dares to romanticize sexual violence and sadomasochism.
Christopher Lee (who considers this one of his best films) is perfectly hateful as Kurt Menliff, a cold-eyed sadist who returns home to his family's seaside castle after being banished years earlier. His ailing father (Gustavo De Nardo as "Dean Ardow") calls him a serpent, his brother Christian (Tony Kendall aka Luciano Stella) has since married Kurt's beautiful raven-haired ex-fiancé Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) and the loyal housekeeper Giorgia (Harriet Medin), whose daughter, Tanya, had taken her own life after being seduced and abandoned by Kurt, quietly plots her revenge. Also in the house is a pretty, but plain, young cousin named Katya (Ida Galli as "Isli Oberon"), who is actually in love with Christian and would undoubtedly make a much better mate for him. No one exactly welcomes Kurt home with open arms, so when he's found dead with a dagger driven into his neck (the same fashion Tanya ended her life) it isn't a surprise, though it does create a shroud of suspicion over every person in the castle. Even worse, Kurt seems to have returned from the dead to haunt, terrorize and inflict damage via the lash on poor, emotionally fragile Nevenka.

The most interesting and complex character in the film turns out to be Nevenka herself. Her love-hate relationship with Kurt is unique and memorable. Though Christian is handsome, gentle and devoted to his bride, she obviously has the strongest passion (and love) for the cruel Kurt, who claims the reason he came back to the castle in the first place was that he heard his brother had married his former lover. Kurt's return has nothing to do with guilt over his immoral actions, but everything to do with control over Nevenka. It is made very clear during a beach love scene right before Kurt is murdered that the two do share a deep personal bond and a sexual secret. Right before his death, Nevenka is reminded by her former lover, "You haven't changed... You always loved violence!" before he alternates viciously whipping her with his passionate kisses. And she likes it so much you get the strong feeling that her 'straight' life with Christian was miserable for her. Kurt and Nevenka's love is a love of pain and mutual violence, but also of understanding that their mutual love for the sadism is a hard thing to come by. Their love is forbidden, but it is still distinctly, uniquely theirs... even into the grave.

As he proved in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and other horror films, Lee is more than a tall, towering figure, but one capable of subtly and effectively conveying menace even when given little to no dialogue. He's killed off fairly early here and appears sporadically throughout the film as a silent 'ghost,' but is all the more effective in his elusiveness. Cast-wise, the movie however really belongs to the beautiful Lavi, who was a former Miss Iran. She's excellent in her role and should have gone on to a career similar to that of Black Sunday star Steele, who in many ways she resembles. The entire supporting cast, especially Medin, is very good. Bava's mastery of the medium  is on full and vivid display her. He offers up twisting doorknobs, disembodied voices, creaking floorboards, secret passageways, muddy footprints, hands reaching out at you from the darkness, horse rides along the beach and other Gothic trappings with his exquisite flair for the visual, making this a painfully underrated gem of Euro-shock cinema.

Some notes: * Bava used aliases all around - "John M. Old" for director and "Dick Grey" and "David Hamilton" for his cinematography. * A scene of Lavi moaning in ecstasy as she's being whipped by Lee was so controversial that it was excised from most prints when originally released * It was filmed on location in France * Co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi also wrote The Horrible Dr. Hickcock (1962), Torso (1973) and many other notable Italian horror films from the 60s, 70s and 80s. The DVD comes with a few trailers for Bava films (including the French version of WHIP), four bios, photo and lobby card gallery, soundtrack access and the original U.S. main titles (under the name WHAT).


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