The history of Italian genre cinema is full of talents who conjure up baroque visions of gothic terror but the undoubted maestro of this group was the great Mario Bava. This cinematographer turned director could breathe life into the simplest storylines with his impeccable sense of visual design and his gift for sly, macabre humor. Perhaps the best introduction to his oeuvre is Blood And Black Lace, a gorgeously stylized whodunit that is alluring and brutal by turns. Not only is one of the best Italian horror films, it virtually set the tone for the entire Italian giallo boom that would follow in its footsteps.
Blood And Black Lace is built on a well-crafted storyline that plays like Ten Little Indians transplanted to fashion scene. It is set in a fashion house run by a widowed countess (Eva Bartok) and wealthy backer (Cameron Mitchell) when a model is brutally murdered by a masked killer, those who worked in the fashion house with her discovered she kept a diary with everyone’s nasty secrets in it. Seemingly everyone there has a skeleton in the closet that could be exposed when the police get the diary so everyone schemes to get it — including the masked murderer, who starts picking off the schemers one by one.
The resulting film maintains the demands of a mystery thanks to a tightly plotted script spearheaded by Marcello Fondato but the real show here is the way Bava choreographs the macabre action. Each suspense setpiece is an intricately designed marvel, with precise camera moves and dramatic use of candy-colored lighting. He offsets the loveliness of the setting and the models with cruel violence, creating a morbid, fetishized duality of beauty and brutality that is hypnotic and unnerving all at once. He also weaves in the occasional note of grim humor, particularly when the potential victims are sniping at each other.
This approach would be imitated by many subsequent Italian horror directors, particularly Dario Argento, but the precision of Bava’s technique ensures it still generates frissons today. It’s also worth noting that Bava gets stylized performances to match his visual approach, including a surprisingly subdued turn from Mitchell, and Carlo Rustichelli’s score mixes the expected suspense score with some Mancini-esque lounge jazz touches that enhance the overall style.
In short, Blood And Black Lace is required viewing for any student of Italian horror, not to mention any fan of the slasher fare that would borrow heavily from the giallo film. No survey of Mario Bava’s work is complete without this classic.