Halloween is almost upon us, and in the spirit of the holiday I have decided to dedicate my next two posts to horror flicks. With that in mind, I will focus this particular post on Mario Bava’s best giallo, Blood and Black Lace (1964). Giallo is an interesting genre because it started in literature, not in film. Originally, the term “giallo”–the Italian word for yellow–referred to a running series of mystery and pulp novels printed with yellow covers all published by the same company. Eventually, giallo became a synonym for any mystery or thriller story and the loose genre of Italian films that adapted these stories eventually became known in America as giallo; they are the original slashers. Masked killers stalk and murder numerous people, usually attractive women, and the plots revolve around police investigations and intrigue in a race against time to identify the killer. But giallo is so much more, and at best it falls into a kind of psychedelic noir.
Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is one of the earliest, most influential, and perhaps the best of all the gialli. The film is moody, pulpy, and mysterious. Drawing from German expressionism, Blood and Black Lace uses elaborate lighting and mise-en-scène to convey character’s internal mental states, but with one major addition: vivid color. The film is full of bright, saturated colors paired with moody, deep shadows and brilliantly colored lights. It is not uncommon to see magenta, green, and blue lights all prominently featured in the same scene. One particular scene–a chase in an antiques warehouse–stands out for having multiple lights with different colors both flashing at the same time.
Blood and Black Lace is also extraordinary self aware: in the aforementioned warehouse scene the masked killer reaches out to turn the lights off while stalking his victim. A moment before he touches it he hesitates and backs off, implying that using the ridiculous lighting used during the actual chase was a conscious aesthetic choice on the part of the murderer. This self awareness is appropriate, as the killer’s near supernatural stalking prowess stems from cinematic tricks, such as restrictive framing. The killer seems to be aware that they are in a film and shamelessly exploits cinematic devices in order to terrorize his victims. In this way Blood and Black Lace is not just a giallo film but a film about giallo–and horror–itself and how it must fundamentally play with reality in order to create tension.
An overall feeling of decadence and superficiality permeates into the DNA of this film. Everything is intentionally skin deep. The models and their associates are, much like the mise–en-scène, all glitz and glam. They dress extravagantly in either black or very saturated color, and their encounters between each other are mostly sickeningly glib. The few glances we get of their inner lives paints a picture of seediness, corruption and moral bankruptcy. None of the victims are truly innocent in the eyes of the film, they are all guilty of egregious sins and at times it becomes hard not too root for the killer if they themselves were not also superficial and petty. Bava’s film comes across as intentionally and sharply skin-deep, a film made to be vacant and petty to mimic the pettiness inside the characters. Giallo doesn’t just flaunt its gaudiness, it revels in it and asks that the viewer does also. Blood and Black Lace demands that you engage with it on an immediately visual level; it is an orgy of color and shadow that commands the viewer’s attention across the film. The actual plot is pretty good too, especially for people searching for a film that can not only frighten but also enrapture.