After being banished for seducing and leaving a young servant girl resulting in her suicide, nobleman Kurt Menliff (played by an extremely imposing Christopher Lee) returns to his family’s castle and begins to terrorize them for his sadistic pleasure. When he is found dead in his room one night, everyone is suspect. Soon Nevenka (Daliah Lavi; Casino Royale (1967)), his cousin and former lover – and incidentally now married to his bother (Tony Kendall; Return of the Evil Dead) – starts seeing his ghost roaming the castle corridors. Could it really be Kurt’s ghost back for revenge or is it merely her imagination?
So the guy comes home to reclaim his incestuous lost love and beat the fuck out of her while being an insufferable prick to everyone else. Sounds awesome right? It is. But it’s also very well done (what the fuck else would you expect from Bava?)
As most people reading this are no doubt aware, Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Blood & Black Lace) truly was a master of his craft and this is certainly no exception… his reputation as an expert in the use of light and shadow is well deserved. Every aspect of this film is stunning, it’s truly like watching a painting come to life. Bava’s ability to coax the absolute best from everyone around him clearly shows given the solid (dare I say exceptional?) performances from the talent involved (maybe they knew the greatness they were a part of here… might make someone snap to attention, ya know?). It is unfortunate that even though filmed in English, they chose to dub Christopher Lee’s voice with another actor making watching him a little jarring at times if you are at all familiar with his normal manner of speaking (i.e. he doesn’t sound like Saruman here, kids).
The long, brooding shots, perfectly lit corridors, the moody outdoor scenes out on the beach and the exterior of the castle are all meticulously framed and speak of an eye for detail that few filmmakers possess. As expected, many scenes are chock full of allegory and symbolism as well; tree branches look like they’re whipping into open windows, old furniture is covered and tied with white sheets making them look like the ghost costumes of Halloween, shadows loom and appear overbearing… not a single detail was overlooked.
As an end result the film has an almost dark romanticism to it despite the S&M overtones. At one point early on, Kurt has Nevenka trapped against some rocks on the beach outside the castle and begins whipping her mercilessly. When he is finished she looks back over her shoulder as if to ask for more. The film is truly ahead of its time depicting this sort of sexual sadism, but that’s not to say it’s done in a lurid manner at all… in fact the whipping scenes are quite tastefully done and really serve to show Kurt as the unrepentant sadist that he is (and potentially Nevenka being a greedy little whip-slut). People often get hung up talking about the S&M aspect of The Whip and the Body (well seriously, with that title?) but realistically it’s a small (but important) part of it and indeed the film fluctuates between gothic love story and a celebration of cruelty.
Nevenka’s relationship with Kurt is a strained one at best. She’s clearly terrified of him, as is the rest of the family and servants that live at the castle which sets up any one of them as suspect to his murder. Personally it looked to me like he was killed by the drapes (in a very melodramatic death scene that’s somehow both effective and snicker-inducing). Moving on…
The ladies in The Whip and the Body (aside from that troll-like servant woman) are easy on the eyes, although this being a more gothic horror film expect less sleaze and more tasteful attire in the vein of the earlier Hammer masterpieces (Nevenka’s attire does get a little more risqué later on after she’s been fuck-whipped a couple times… sometimes you just gotta show ’em who’s boss). Interestingly, the following year Bava made his brilliant Blood and Black Lace, itself being an early entry into the (Bava pioneered) giallo film oeuvre and indeed a precursor to a subgenre that would soon become known for its gratuitous nudity and graphic, gory violence with often heavy doses of misogyny. Could Bava have been foreshadowing this with the flagellations of poor Nevenka? Perhaps I’m reaching.
Bava’s use of sound here is also very effective. From the exquisite (and oft times sinister) score to the dreadful sound of footsteps and Kurt’s disembodied laughter the film is as moody as it is beautiful. It really is a shame about the voice dubbing… given the abundance of talent here it really could have been a whole lot better (understandably this was the style of filmmaking during this period in Italy in particular and since The Whip and the Body is such a brilliant film I’m gonna give them a pass here).
I’m really trying to not gush too much over this film and Bava in general… as a matter of fact when I first viewed The Whip and the Body several years ago I was unimpressed. Upon this revisit I have fallen completely in love with it. This movie comes highly recommended to anyone with even the remotest interest in horror or filmmaking in general. It should be considered essential viewing.
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Duane co-founded The Church of Splatter-Day Saints in 2005. When not immersed in film he's enjoying good whiskey, smoking meat in the backyard or thinking about sluts. He makes a damn fine habanero fire sauce.