Blood & Black Lace (1964)

Starring Cameron (everything from the original Toolbox Murders to My Favorite Year) Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariana Gorini, Mary Arden, Claude Dantes, and Francesca Ungaro

Directed by Mario Bava

Released in 1964, Blood and Black Lace is considered to be the first official body-count movie. In fact, the film’s original title, Sei donne per l’assassino, translates into exactly what you will see…”six women for the murderer”. Nothing more, nothing less. But as is the case with a fine meal, it’s all in the presentation. And a visually stunning presentation it is.

The story (it would be overly generous to call it a plot) revolves around Christiana Haute Couture, a fashion house run by Cameron Mitchell and Eva Bartok. The movie opens with the murder of one of their models, Isabella (Ungaro). Her body is discovered the next day, along with her diary. A diary containing secrets that somebody would kill to keep hidden. As the models meet with grisly fates, a world of drug abuse, adultery, abortion, and lies is revealed. And that, my friends, is Blood and Black Lace in a nutshell.

Now let’s focus on that “nutshell”. Anybody familiar with Italian giallo thrillers knows what to expect: a plot that functions only to move the action from one violent death to another, paper-thin characterizations, a sea of red-herrings, and a “shocking” final revelation that typically involves some form of gender reversal. What the best examples of this genre offer is…style. Gobs of it. And nobody did it better than Mario Bava. His movies are filled with striking imagery, amazing color schemes, and scenes that resemble classic paintings come to life. Having begun his career as a cinematographer, the man knew how to work a camera. You can see his influence in the work of Dario Argento, Michele Soavi, and others.

Although the gore is kept to a minimum (by today’s standards), the murder scenes are effectively staged. Each one is like its own little “mini-movie” with distinctly different tones. Some are more violent than others, and one borders on erotic (the classic shot of a drowned Claude Dantes floating in the tub, wearing only her bra and panties, while a cloud of blood approaches her face – a scene cut from most prints). I can imagine that this movie was fairly strong stuff back in the day.

And speaking of “back in the day”, there is now some unintentional humor to be treasured. Every character is required to have a lit cigarette at all times. The swingin’ jazz score must be heard to be believed. Winona Ryder would gladly risk community service to get her five-finger discount on the fashions being modeled. And women get slapped in the face as casually as you please. Which leads to yet another observation: although I personally didn’t think the movie was misogynistic, I can certainly see where others might. Particularly with regard to Mary Arden’s character. Shortly after being presented as the only likeable person in this warped universe, her demise is carried out in an unbearably cruel and slow manner. A truly disturbing few moments.

VCI Entertainment has honored Blood and Black Lace with a Special Edition DVD release. The picture quality does justice to Bava’s camerawork; there is an informative (if somewhat dry) commentary by Bava specialist Tim Lucas, recent interviews with Cameron Mitchell and Mary Arden, trailers, photo gallery, etc. Be sure to check out the bio on Eva Bartok – what a life she led! An impressive release for a picture that has, faults and all, earned a place in horror movie history.

Wait for a cold night, turn down the lights, curl up on the sofa, and enjoy. Oh, and smoke ’em if you got ’em.

3 ½ out of 5

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