The Mario Bava collection keeps rolling out movies courtesy of Kino Classics. Bava swathed in ermine and bathed in blood is the best way to describe The Whip and the Body; a sadomasochistic ghost story where frights and pleasure intertwine. A sexually potent tale contrasting with API’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, The Whip and the Body ain’t The Pit and the Pendulum.
Nobleman Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) returns to his ancestral home where none of his family is happy to see him. Upon arrival, Kurt starts harassing his former lover, Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) and is subsequently murdered. With the Menliff heirs, as well as the home’s servants each having a motive to murder Kurt, things turn supernatural when Kurt’s ghost comes seeking revenge.
Mario Bava envisioned a movie to rival the various Poe adaptations mass-produced in the 1960s, but he adds his own blend of sexuality and gore to the mix. I say gore with a slight misnomer because, for Bava, this is the tamest movie I’ve watched so far. Replacing the blood and grue is an oppressive sexual dominance between Kurt and Nevenka. Upon meeting, you assume Kurt is scheming to ruin Nevenka’s reputation. The twist is Kurt and Nevenka are engaged in an S&M relationship, turning the movie’s title into a moniker for the two characters sexual play.
If you question whether Bava exploits the use of sex for the sake of it, you’d be wrong. The flogging between the ex-lovers is tastefully depicted and, for Bava, there’s no nudity to speak of. There’s an air of elegance to the lovers proceedings, underscoring the dominance and fear while also making the audience boldly aware of it. The actual horror is subdued with the killings muted throughout. The Gothic atmosphere is suitably oppressive, although there’s an added sense of history to color events. When Kurt first arrives it’s obvious much has happened, off-screen, to warrant hostility and terror at his return. Bava shows he can do a lot with a little, a major departure from his past body of work.
The cast is good, although Christopher Lee and Daliah Lavi are the two you remember. For some reason Lee is dubbed but you can’t ignore his imposing stature. It’s evident to understand the attraction his character exudes, but also the terror. Lavi is gorgeous, and isn’t the typical Bava female where her bosom is the main attraction. Lavi gets a chance to flex serious acting chops even if the ending is cliche.
The movie offers three different versions of the movie. You can watch the film in Italian with Italian subtitles, although it’s obvious the characters are speaking English. Thankfully, there’s a dubbed version in English, although everyone, including Lee, is dubbed and the subtitles don’t match the words because they’re from the Italian version. You also have a French version with English subtitles. I appreciate Kino taking the time to include all these ways to view the film; I prefer the English dubbed, especially for this movie where you can sit back and listen to the movie. There’s also another audio commentary with Bava expert Tim Lucas. He continues to provide insight into Bava, the reason he wanted to do this movie, and anything you’d need to know. Finally, there are trailers for other Bava releases.
Overall, The Whip and the Body is my favorite Bava film, alongside Black Sabbath. A taboo love story, pre-50 Shades of Grey, with shocking performances from Lee and Lavi. Kino continues to make me a Bava fan.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.