I watched Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963) last night, and I found it rather provocative, or should I say evocative? 🙂 I hadn’t yet seen this “lost classic” of Bava’s, and I finally talked Antonella into watching it with me, which was no small feat. We were ready for an over-the-top sadomasochistic free-for-all, especially given the description on the Netflix DVD sleeve (which is one of my favorites so far):
Sumptuously twisted imagery, gorgeously surreal colors and fever-pitch emotions are all clues that Italian horror maestro Mario Bava is behind this cult classic that finds Christopher Lee playing a 19th-century aristocrat shunned because of his sadistic sexual appetites. But no sooner does he return to his ancestral home than he turns up dead. His kinky spirit lives on, however — and comes back to punish his betrayer.
The clues referred to in the description above reference the fact that Bava is not listed as the director for this film in the credits, rather he was credited under the pseudonym John M. Old (which if you search on Wikipedia re-directs to Mario Bava’s page—pretty sneaky). What was remarkable about The Whip and the Body was how subtle this film is in so many respects. And while there is at least one scene that is outright radical—and genius—in regards to visualizing sadomasochism, which I’ll discuss shortly, the majority of the film is a study in psychological compulsions by means of lighting. In fact, I would argue the most radical part of this movie is the fact that it elevates a taboo as great as sadomasochism to the level of a compelling phantasmagoric love story.
But, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to talk about the film’s most memorable S&M moment wherein the sadistic baron Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) seduces, by-way-of-whip, his cousin Nevenka (played by Daliah Lavi who is a dead-ringer for Barbara Steele from Black Sunday). The scene is outlandish in so many regards–I particualrly like the music) but an analysis I read by Lindsey Hallam really hits the mark, she notes that “the film was ahead of its time, with its portrayal of a woman’s immersion into a world of sadomasochistic fantasy, four years before Buñuel’s own Belle de jour” (and here’s a great scene from Bunuel’s masterpiece). This really puts the film in perspective for me, and framing such a charged theme within a b-movie horror film is in many ways genius—and makes the following beach scene wherein Christopher Lee’s classic line “You always loved violence” interrupts a brutal scene that is at once evocative and kitsch.
And while that scene will remain one of my all-time favorites from the Bava oeuvre, I found myself even more compelled by the lighting in a series of scenes that follow this one. After the Baron is mysteriously killed, his ghost returns to haunt Nevenka, and it is in moments like this that Bava brings Nevenka’s simultaneous compulsion and revulsion for sexualized violence into sharp focus with some wonderful acting, an acute camera, and genius lighting. Take for example the scene wherein Nevenka hears a mysterious cracking of the whip shortly after Kurt Menliff was murdered. As Ed Gonzalez notes in this 2001 review for Slant Magazine, “Passageways are downright vaginal,” and the following scene offers an excellent display of this fact. But more than that, take a look at the lighting of Nevenka’s face as she moves from the lying on the bed room to gliding through the hallway, a scene which beautifully captures her oscillation between revulsion and compulsion for the sound of the cracking whip.
And then there is the actual settings and art design on the scene that move so seamlessly into the shots. Check out the following transition of sequences from a model mausoleum outside the window to a painted night sky with reflecting light to a magical shot of Nevenka’s eyes pronounced through an inverted mask of darkness. The shot of here eyes is absolutely amazing, and reminds me of of my favorite shot from another Bava classic The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which was made the same year.
At the same time, notice how steadily the camera follows the sound of the ghostly footsteps through the camera, which are in many ways perfectly sutured with those brilliantly framed eyes.
I mean, come on, that is such a supple and subtle vision of horror, and it is all done with smart camera work and some really intelligent use of colored lighting. But, even beyond the lighting and the shots, there remains throughout the film a surprisingly compassionate focus on the love relationship between Kurt Menliff and Nevenka. The last scene of the movie really highlighted this fact for me when the final meeting and embrace between Nevenka and the ghost of Kurt Menliff is far more gentle than anything that comes before it in the film—-well, at least until Nevenka kills herself. It’s one of the few scenes where the Baron is not completely ominously sadistic. It’s an odd thing for me to come away from a film that is so explicitly examining Sadomasichism in a rather kitschy manner to actually get the feeling that what I have been watching was more a love story than a horror film. I guess I can chalk it up to the beautiful bizarreness of Bava at the top of his game but aesthetically and thematically.