Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo) [DVD]
Screenplay : Ernesto Gastaldi, Ugo Guerra, & Luciano Martino
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1963
Stars : Daliah Lavi (Novenka Menliff), Christopher Lee (Kurt Menliff), Tony Kendall (Christian Menliff), Isli Oberon (Katia), Harriet Medin (Giorgia), Jacques Herlin (Priest), Luciano Pigozzi (Losat)
Mario Bava began his career as a cinematographer on some 40 films before taking his place in the director's chair for the first time with 1960's Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio). Over the next 20 years, he became one of the most influential horror directors in the second half of the 20th century, although the breadth of his influence has only recently been acknowledged. Combining theatrical lighting effects with gothic horror and romantic themes worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, he created a new breed of horror film that was equal parts murder-mystery, occult, and slasher film. The techniques of such master filmmakers as Alfred Hitchock and Fritz Lang got thrown into the mix, as well, and the result is compelling and utterly unique.
His fifth film, Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo, aka Night is the Phantom, What), is a near-perfect distillation of the gothic romantic tradition that is twisted ever so slightly with a modern sensibility and wrapped up in sadomasochistic pleasure. It can be seen very much as an Italian response to the incredible popularity of the British Hammer Studio films, such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958), which reinvented Universal Studios' gothic horror films of the 1930s for a new audience by bringing to the surface those films' sexual subtexts and increasing the gore factor with a few, well-placed splashes of bright red blood.
Bava works successfully within this framework while also expanding it, mixing romanticized shots of a setting sun on the beach with dark, claustrophobic scenes in dank, cobweb-draped crypts. Much of the story takes place in an ancient castle, and the candelabrums, velvet tapestries, and heavy stone walls add to the film's medieval atmosphere and emphasis on past sins that haunt the present. It is a world of sin and revenge, superstition and mystery, the kind of place where a grief-stricken mother turns the bloody knife by which her daughter slit her own throat into a kind of bizarre shrine.
When the film opens, the Menliff family, a decaying aristocracy that seems to be completely cut off from the outside world, is in turmoil because a banished son, Kurt (Christopher Lee), has returned to his ancestral home to reclaim his birthright. Kurt's sadism has been blamed for the suicide of a local girl, whose mother, Giorgia (Harriet Medin), is a servant in the Menliff castle. The familial relations are strange, to say the least. Follow closely: Kurt's former fiance, Novenka (Israeli actress Daliah Lavi), is now the wife of his brother, Christian (Tony Kendall), with whom their cousin, Katia (Isli Oberon), is enamoured. And, when Kurt returns to claim his birthright, he sees Novenka as being included.
Of course, Novenka never stopped carrying a torch for Kurt, and his return reinvigorates her secret sadomasochistic desires, which get played out on the beach when Kurt whips her brutally, followed by passionate lovemaking. The intense romantic relationship between Kurt and Novenka is complex and, to some, quite revolting, as it is based on the sadistic/masochistic pleasures of inflicting and feeling pain. Yet, their affection is oddly compelling, and Novenka's conflicting emotional response to Kurt--both terror and erotic passion--is the fuel that drives much of the narrative.
The story takes a turn, though, when Kurt is mysteriously killed, and Novenka begins to claims that his ghost visits her in the night and whips her. The plot then hinges on finding the explanation for these strange happenings. Is it Kurt's ghost? Was he not actually killed? Or, is Novenka simply hallucinating? Screenwriters Ernesto Gastaldi, Ugo Guerra, and Luciano Martino constantly keep the question in the air by leading you toward one conclusion, then pulling the rug out from under you at the last minute. At one point or another, every character seems to be guilty of something.
Shot in lush Technicolor on a limited, but healthy budget, Whip and the Body crystallized the intricate visual style Bava had been developing since 1960, also evident in the atmospheric Black Sabbath (1963). Bava tends to like staging scenes that are crammed with information; the elaborate sets he uses are filled with detail and nuance, and his extreme use of wild colors gives each sequence a slightly otherworldly, staged appearance. He keeps his camera constantly in motion, soaking up the gothic environment in a way that demands repeated viewings. At the same time, he is capable of effectively using minimalism, such as the film's creepiest shot that depicts in extreme close-up Christopher Lee's hand, bathed in sickly green light, reaching out of the pitch darkness right at the camera. It induces the kind of response where you find yourself drawing back into your seat to get away from it.
Of course, some critics at the time felt that much of Bava's work was just sadistic (some still do). And, in a way, it is. Especially in 1963, Whip and the Body's scrupulous attention to the horrid physicality of the whippings (the camera moves in lovingly whenever Novenka's bare back is being lashed) was quite shocking, but even more so was Novenka's eroticized reaction to the brutality. The mixing of sex and violence is always an uneasy concoction, and Bava's film makes the connection clearly and unequivocally.
Whip and the Body was banned completely in Italy when it was first released (everyone involved with it used pseudonyms, including Bava, who went under John M. Old). Outside of Italy, it was heavily censored to the point of near incoherence. Thus, it has been difficult to find it in its complete form for many years. Thankfully, though, it is now available as Bava intended to be seen, in the uncut version that is a masterful work of sadistic visual prowess and wonderfully, luridly over-the-top romanticism.
|Whip and the Body: Uncut European Version DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary with Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog editor and Mario Bava biographer |
Separate musical score
Theatrical trailers: Whip and the Body (French), Planet of the Vampires, and Blood and Black Lace
Original American title sequence Cast and crew biographies/filmographies
|Distributor||VCI Home Video|
|Although the new widescreen transfer of Whip and the Body in its original, uncut version was taken from a recently unearthed 35-mm Technicolor print, the resulting image is still somewhat lacking in clarity and intensity. Part of this is likely due to the unfortunate decision not to make this an anamorphic transfer, which would have increased the detail and sharpness considerably. As is, the image is quite murky, above and beyond what was likely Bava's intended effect. The image is generally smooth, though, with only a hint of film grain and solid black levels. The intense colors, which are of the utmost importance to Bava's visual scheme, are generally solid and well-saturated, although they do betray some fading. Bava's mixture of reds and blues and greens and purples is still greatly effective, and despite its limitations, the image on this DVD is far superior to anything that has been available on the home video market before.|
|You have the option of watching the film with either an Italian or English soundtrack (with optional English subtitles), both of which are presented in Dolby 1.0 monaural. Beware that there is a vast difference between the two soundtracks beyond the language spoken by the characters. (On a side note, all the dialogue was looped in postproduction, and the vast majority of the characters spoke their lines during filming in English; the Italian track features all the actors' actual voices with the exception of Christopher Lee, while the opposite is true of the English track.) The Italian soundtrack is far and beyond superior to the English soundtrack. It is deeper, richer, and has more complicated sound effects and a more proficient use of ambient noises to create suspense and dread. The English track sounds much lighter and less layered, and it often imposes clumsy devices such as a woman calling Kurt's name before he is murdered. Also, when Kurt speaks as a ghost, the Italian track gives his voice a disturbing, disembodied echo, while the English track is boring and flat.|
| Whip and the Body comes with a solid set of supplements, led by the excellent screen-specific audio commentary by Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog, a publication that serves as the bible for paracinema fans and video collectors. Lucas has also recently finished a biography of Mario Bava that is slated for publication later this year. His commentary is an excellent mixture of astute film scholarship and good ol' cult fandom. Lucas is articulate and interesting to listen to, and he offers an almost obscene amount of detail about every person involved in the production (right down to their birthdays). Because of his work on the Bava biography, he is also able to offer many direct quotes and personal insights from those with whom Bava worked throughout his career. |
Other supplements include two tracks from the beautiful musical score by Carlo Rustichelli that can be enjoyed on their own. The disc also includes three theatrical trailers for Mario Bava films, all of which are in nonamamorphic widescreen and were transferred from well-worn prints: the French trailer for Whip and the Body (which, unfortunately, has no subtitles so you don't know what the announcer is saying unless you speak French); Planet of the Vampires, which was released through Roger Corman's American International; and Blood and Black Lace, which is also available on DVD from VCI Home Video.
You can also opt to see the original title sequence used when the film was released in the United States under the ridiculous title What. A fairly expansive stills gallery includes black-and-white and color production photos, as well as some interesting poster art from around the world. The only complaint here is that the pictures in the stills gallery are so small they are almost impossible to see without sitting mere inches from the screen. Lastly, the disc offers brief biographies and selected filmographies for Christopher Lee, Daliah Lavi, Tony Kendall, and Mario Bava.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick