blood and black lace (1964)
Bava in the 1960's was responsible for some the best horror films ever to enter the canon. Stylish, atmospheric and just the right blend of classic gothic, his foray into the slasher genre with Blood and Black Lace would help to birth the giallo movement and solidify Italian horror as the new benchmark in world cinema. The film stands as a piece that creates the tropes of a genre, and since it exists in a time before formula, was unbound by what it created. The greatest strengths of Blood and Black Lace are that it doesn't know what it is and is therefore free to create an unpredictable storyline in the context of something that could have so readily succumbed to the weaknesses of a series of murders punctuated by a reveal of the killer and motives. Unlike most, even to this day, this tale of a masked killer offing a series of beautiful female models leads only to a moment that ratchets up the tension and complexity in the final act by adding in a new conflict that, unbeknownst to the viewer, had been boiling in the background the entire time. Add to that the gorgeous technicolor photography and the brutal series of operatic murders and you've got, not only a hallmark of slasher horror bliss, but a psychological deconstruction of the urges that plague our nefarious villains.
It really is in its last moments that Bava's tale begins to truly shine. The final act of Blood and Black Lace are an exercise in deeply personal conflicts that most later entries into the genre fail to explore. Hell, even if it's attempted, most simply can't pull it off with this level of panache. By unmasking our killer as two separate individuals who are, themselves, engaged in a romance brings the tension of any relationship genre out into the forefront. From the opening moments, in one of the most gloriously framed and executed opening credits sequences that the 1960's (a decade known for amazing credit sequences) ever knew, Bava's film sets itself apart as a horror film that embraces beauty and splashes of color via lighting over the gritty black and white that once characterized what horror was. With one foot firmly in Bava's past as a B&W gothic horror send-up director, the new technicolor experimentation here sees that horror can be just as atmospheric and sensual without all the castles and fog machines. This is truly pure cinema, unhindered by the usual drags and floating freely from cut to cut as the story progresses. We're treated to a bevy of ingenuous as they prepare for a runway show, with all manner of hapless males around them from assistants to orbiting, cocaine-addicted boyfriends. The murder set-pieces are engaging and suspenseful even if the antics start to run a bit thin once we're two-thirds of the way through the picture. Thankfully, as I mentioned, we're not resting on the laurels for long. Giallo itself has always been a popcorn blast of a genre, and Bava's skill and sure hand in the director's chair make his entries, especially his 60's ouvre, a cut above the rest. Sensory pleasures and terrors abound, even if there's not much going on besides the perfect blend of genre glory. With such a distinctive visual style, it's a complete tale of style over substance and you'll never mind for a minute. Those splashes of color pre-dating Argento's famed Suspiria by more than a decade, the unprecedented gore, and the purity of the conception all weave together into our director's first work where he is unbound.
There's not much more to say about such an experience, it's best not to verbalize too much about the best of atmospheric giallo, it's best just to watch the damn thing. Those red mannequins, Bava's lighting and the camp performances, it's all top notch. There's nothing much happening underneath a surface of utter horror schlock, but with a film like this, there doesn't need to be. It writes the book on campy tales of a killer on the loose. Sure, it lacks nearly all of the subtlety and grace that was found just a few years prior in Hitchcock's Psycho, but in a class of cinematic delicacies, it delivers in all areas that it should. There are certain genres and facets of genres that are held to a different candle, I don't know how far this distinction goes, but with a giallo film, and horror in general, it's measured on atmosphere alone much of the time, like an action-oriented film is judged for its visceral impact. The horror of the 60's in general dwarfs most other decades, and what was emerging out of Italy at the time is no exception.