Mixing some overbearing music, lighting that randomly covers every color in the rainbow and - at least to us Americans - some incredibly stiff dubbing, Blood and Black Lace might not seem like a must see piece of horror history. Some might argue that the film is little more than a cheap detective picture that looks like it was shot in a whorehouse. And when I put it that way, it sounds like a crappy flick. Luckily, I'm the crappy one here - because I'm not the guy who can put all those elements together and somehow make something that's insanely fascinating.
That guy would be Mario Bava, whose films (along with Dario Argento's) reside in my mind as Italy's most valuable export. Bava's a director who made a living by combining beauty with death, but he's never pulled this off just as well as he does in Blood and Black Lace. There's an unhealthy dose of sleaze pouring off the screen - you could probably guess as much from the title - but there's trickery in his work too.
The film's debauchery begins as it follows a bunch of models and a bunch of men as a faceless killer moves about their house of fashion. The house is large and full of mannequins and pretty people, but also the whole place is lit up like that scene in Vertigo where we see Kim Novak's silhouette against a dark background while the green light from the hotel sign pours in through her windows. (Yes, that was literally the best way I could describe the lighting in this film. If you haven't seen Vertigo I can't help you here.) I look at the cast, and I look at the setting, and I sit there and I think to myself "My God, if Bava was young and working today he'd probably cast porn stars in his film."
Of course, this is 1964, so Bava's brand of pornographic horror is incredibly tame compared to our times. Clothes are ripped and lace is exposed, but nothing more than that. There's an element of sexuality throughout the film - the black lace part of the title wasn't about doilies - but its an undercurrent for most of the movie. The final act picks up the frantic sensuality of what is going on in the film's mysterious plot, leading to some hammy overacting as the film reaches its finale.
While the plot and motivations behind Blood and Black Lace could also belong to a late-night Cinemax presentation, it's Bava's ability to make all of this sleaze seem so artistic that makes his film something special. I mean, I freakin' compared it to Hitchcock earlier! Do you have any idea how much it means for me to compare something to Hitchcock? It's a shame that copies of Bava's films are so poorly preserved, because I can only imagine how great this thing would have felt on a fresh print and a big theater screen.
It's unfair to say that the visual component is Blood and Black Lace's only redeeming factor, because Bava also seems to have strong control over the pace and tone of his film. It's hampered by some production values and age, but the nuts and bolts are all in place and the final coat of polish over what we see leaves the film looking like a winner. Blood and Black Lace is a simple proto-slasher with some Scooby-like detective moments, but it's also a piece of seedy art that provides a fantastic horror viewing experience.