Classic Musings: Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Mario Bava is a master of extracting substance from within his style, where the moving parts of emotions and motivations oftentimes lead to deeper horror experiences than one might expect. Whether he's lurking in the heavy shadows of black-and-white gothic tales or operating with vivid pools of colored lights from across the spectrum, his direction -- and influence over the camerawork -- conscientiously focuses upon the characters in such a way that even some of the smallest, seemingly inconsequential characters have a little something else going on beneath the surface. In a murder mystery like Blood and Black Lace, this feeds into credible uncertainty as to who's responsible for killings. Taking place mostly within a modeling-slash-burlesque "fashion house", Bava's lavish prismatic shades and sequence of gruesome death take shape as one of the earliest and most influential manifestations of the Italian giallo horror subgenre, clutching firmly onto the traits of those who come in and out of the house for its emphatic whodunit suspense.

Dressed in a jacket, hat, and stretchy face wrap to conceal their identity, someone lurking on the grounds of the fashion house viciously murders one of the many models who resides there. An investigation into the murder begins, and with the inspection into the motivations of those close to the victim also comes the discovery of a wide array of other wrongdoings from the residents, largely contained within a specific diary. While the recently widowed manager of the company, Christina (Eva Bartok), attempts to maintain the status quo and keep the fashion business moving, the location of the diary becomes its own mystery as the killer remains at large, eventually claiming other victims with ties to the fashion house … and to that secret diary. Suspects are narrowed and motivations come and go, but the threat of the killer continues to loom throughout, with many of the personalities that pass through the fashion house becoming more and more distinct.

Immediately, the bright colors and moody shadows of Maria Bava's craftsmanship take control in Blood and Black Lace, almost as if looking at the fashion house through a kaleidoscope while he slyly introduces the actors, all draped in various hues while Ubaldo Terzano's camerawork flows from one to the next. Crimson mannequins with shiny black hair also peek out from the darkness, elevating Bava's setting into something bordering on the surreal as models finalize their garments and bodies are discovered in hiding places. This is a display of artifice, sure, but what's on the surface ties together with the orchestration of the fashion shows themselves, as well as to those who participate in them. Searching for symbolism in every shade of color in Blood and Black Lace may be futile, but it's hard to dispute the calculation involved with how Bava selected the right ones to create specific moods, emboldening his purposeful use of colored lights that seem unnaturally emergent in the house. Things that'd come across as ostentatious elsewhere feel at home and meaningful in this palace of superficiality.

It doesn't take long for Blood and Black Lace to demonstrate that there's more going on here than just a bunch of pretty women being killed off by a random stranger. From the deaths emerge suspicions and gossip, which introduce all sorts of indiscretions committed by both the models and those that manage them, spanning from hedonistic behavior to more serious offenses like secretive abortions and blackmail. That's where the giallo mechanisms kick into gear, in which the ominous killer gets overshadowed by the wide range of people who could feasible lurk under the mask, and the motivations behind their killing. While these characters wouldn't be classified as profound, exactly -- this isn't a rich moral examination or anything -- almost all of them have a compelling underlying layer that hinges on some deeper human flaw, which makes going the guesswork on who's responsible for the murders an interesting experience in observation. The intersection of details going on about who's wrapped up in what drama, and where the tell-all diary might've ended up, continuously raises the tension throughout.

While the likes of Black Christmas and Halloween shaped the slasher-movie framework into the machine for tension that we've come to relish, Blood and Black Lace telegraphs a similarly methodical, thematic sequence of deaths, aptly earning a reputation for being a precursor for conventional bodycount horror. The deaths can be grueling, hinged on the tortures of impalement and scorched flesh, but they're designed less for the suspense of seeing whether someone's going to die and more on expanding the mystery behind who's responsible. Bava skillfully ties together the process of eliminating suspects from a list of possibilities with stylized, unrestrained kills full of the spirit of Italian horror, with set design choices that amplify the mood just enough to draw attention to the intensity of their demise. Attention has also been paid to the manner in which everyone's been killed by the masked murderer, creating a situation where almost anyone -- male or female, strong or borderline weak -- could feasibly be underneath the disguise, motivated by any number of potential revelations about their wrongdoings.

The reveal of who's behind the mask and the reasons for their killing spree isn't terribly surprising in Blood and Black Lace, but that's more of a testament to the foreshadowing and setup devised by Bava and screenwriter Marcello Fondato than an absence of shock value or potency. It could be argued that the framing of certain clues and dialogue early on might've been a little too suggestive for their own good, building to a predictable finish; however, when it comes to the revelations about the victims and how they factor into the masked murderer's reasons for their villainy, these pieces fit together into an outcome that simply make sense in its operatic grandness. While it isn't as gruesome as Black Sunday or as intent on building to visceral scares as Black Sabbath, Blood and Black Lace drops into a devious middle-ground between the two while remaining focused on credibility with its murder-mystery rationale, stitching together equal measures of Bava's emphasis on style as substance and straightforward, yet sharply-written pulpy thrills.

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