Case Studies in Euro-Horror Cinema: ‘Blood and Black Lace’

Ian Olney
Ian Olney

Mario Bava’s ‘Blood and Black Lace’ chronicles in gruesome detail the crimes of a silent, black-clad, white-masked killer, who, armed with an iron claw, stalks and brutally slays half a dozen beautiful female models employed at a fashion salon in Rome.

The chain of murders begins in the opening scene, when the first victim, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), returns to the salon after a night on the town only to be ambushed on the grounds by the anonymous killer, who savagely slashes her face, throws her against a nearby tree, and finally strangles her to death before dragging her body into the bushes.

When her mutilated corpse is discovered the following day, the police are contacted and proceed to question her former employers, the suave Massimo Morlachi (Cameron Mitchell) and the attractive, recently widowed Countess Cristiana Como (Eva Bartok), and her former co-workers, few of whom seem genuinely distressed by her horrific death.

Although the motive behind Isabella’s murder is at first obscure — the investigating detective, Inspector Silvestri (Thomas Reiner), initially speculates that the person responsible might be a “homicidal sex maniac” driven to kill by “the female beauty” — it soon becomes apparent that she was murdered because of her intimate knowledge of the sordid private lives of her colleagues.

When her incriminating diary is discovered and circulated among the models at the salon, the killer begins to eliminate them one by one. As the bodies pile up, the mystery surrounding the identity of the masked murderer grows, frustrating the police and terrifying potential victims.

‘Blood and Black Lace’ occupies a special place in the history of Euro-horror cinema as the first actual Giallo film, a violent and erotic type of murder mystery that flourished in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s.

The plot of the Giallo film typically revolves around the efforts of an amateur or professional detective to solve a chain of grisly, sexually charged murders committed in an urban setting by a faceless, black-gloved killer whose methods are elaborate, whose motives are ambiguous, and whose identity is always in question.

As in other types of Euro-horror cinema, however, the story often takes a backseat to style; the plot can frequently seem like little more than an excuse to present a series of extravagantly staged sequences showcasing the gory deaths of the killer’s victims, who are often beautiful young women.

During their heyday, Giallo films enjoyed substantial popularity not only in Europe but also in the United States, where, dubbed and recut, they played regularly at drive-ins and grindhouses. As they have subsequently undergone remediation in the United States — migrating from film to video to DVD and Blu-ray — Giallo films have garnered a loyal cult following. Indeed, this is perhaps the single most popular kind of Euro-horror cinema among American fans today.

Not surprisingly, given its overt sensationalism and apparent misogyny — as well as its low production values, dated mise-en-scène, and poor dubbing — the Giallo film has not received the attention that it deserves in academic circles. But there have been signs that scholars are beginning to take it more seriously.

Several works on the Giallo film have been published in the twenty-first-century, and many of the introductory texts on horror cinema mentioned in the first part of this book now recognize the genre’s historical importance — especially in terms of the role it played in helping to push horror toward the kind of psychological terror and graphic violence pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960), and the role it played in inspiring the first wave of American slasher movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Some of these texts have also identified the Giallo film as a crucial bridge between the Hollywood tradition of horror cinema and the European tradition of art cinema, pointing to its emergence as the moment at which the horror film “became self-conscious both in regard to the previous traditions of the genre drawn from the American context, but also in the ways that art cinema had drawn upon a whole range of other art forms to enhance its credentials and create a counter cinema to the classical Hollywood style” (Wells 69).

Despite these stirrings of scholarly interest in the Giallo film, however, there is as yet little consensus concerning its exact nature. There has not even been an agreement in all quarters that it can rightly be called an example of horror cinema.

As Peter Hutchings notes: “Some horror critics have argued that this type of film does not belong to the horror genre in any meaningful way, while others have seen it as comprising an important development within horror, one which in its focusing on extreme psychological states and scenes of sexual violence anticipates later American horror films. But its precise place within a cyclical model of horror history is not clear. Simply viewing it as an early version of the American slasher films of the late 1970s and early 1980s arguably misrepresents it, for in many important respects the Italian Giallo is different from that type of film. Nor can it simply be seen as an attempt to cash in on the box-office success of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). While there might be a shared emphasis on representing madness within contemporary settings, the Giallo favours a far more baroque and artificial approach than that adopted by Hitchcock.” (29)

Another debate over the Giallo film among scholars — one even more fundamental than the dispute over whether it can be called an example of horror cinema — has to do with the question of whether it represents a coherent genre in the first place.

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