Sunday, August 9, 2009

THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963)

In 1963 you could be an English-speaking actor in Italy and not be slumming. Burt Lancaster was there to lend prestige and box-office power to Luchino Visconti's superproduction The Leopard. Rod Steiger was there to add his evocative presence to Francesco Rosi's political drama Hands Over the City. Christopher Lee, meanwhile, had been lurking around Italy for a while, exploiting his Dracula fame in silly comedies and first working for Mario Bava in Hercules in the Haunted World. La Frusta e il Corpo is Lee's second and last team-up with the master of color gothicism, and in his typical display of dedication to international cinema, Lee did not bother dubbing his own performance into English for the Anglo-American release. Fortunately, the film is good enough that you eventually don't miss his distinctive sound.



Lee is Kurt Menliff, the returning black sheep of an Eastern European family, someplace where the priests are Orthodox if not the family relations. He'd been engaged to Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) before his father cast him out. Dad then imposed Nevenka on the younger son, Christian (Tony Kendall), though the young man still carries a torch for cousin Katya. Things might actually work out for everyone once Kurt resumes his romantic ways with Nevenka. He definitely has a romantic way with a whip, though I guess you have to like that sort of thing. Nevenka does. "You've always had a love for violence" Kurt says as he lashes away, throwing off his cloak as the work gets harder and hotter. Once he's whipped her into a proper frenzy, it's lovin' time. For the occasion, Lee may look as handsome as he ever did on film, with a bit shaggier head of hair than usual that makes him look younger, more Byronic, and from some angles (I dare say) just a little like Frank Langella.

"Taste the lash of Dra--, I mean Menliff. Taste the lash of the Menliffs! You know you like it."


How to explain this to Christian and Dad -- not that Kurt feels like he has to answer to either of them? Not to worry; the next thing you know, Kurt appears to be attacked by a curtain, which stabs him with a dagger with which he had once ill-used the maid's daughter, in whose memory the maid had set up a shrine before which she regularly vowed vengeance on Kurt. So there's a suspect, and given how Christian and his dad don't like Kurt, there are two more. Ruling out the supernatural intervention of an indignant drapery, we now find ourselves in the middle of a whodunit.

It's curtains for Kurt all too early into the story of Whip and the Body.


On the other hand, it may be a wuzitdun. You may think the situation is cut and dried what with the red-hooded Inquisition types tossing Kurt's body and coffin into a crypt, but Nevenka starts seeing her old flame tromping about the estate, always after having stomped through some local mud field first. Kurt's boots are a mud magnet, leaving an obvious trail except for the apparent fact that only Nevenka can see the boots or the mud. There, there: in her grief over the sudden death of her serial abuser, she must be hallucinating. If so, though, who just killed the paterfamilias with that dagger? And can a hallucination wield a whip with such welt-raising authority as our Kurt? We see the proof on Nevenka's back, after all....

"It came at me like a green spider." Daliah Lavi does well as a woman cracking under the constant assault of Mario Bava's colorful spook effects.


While the content of the whipping episodes was certainly extreme for 1963 audiences, Whip and the Body gets by today on pure atmosphere, and nobody does gothic atmosphere in color like Mario Bava. This is a film I wish I could have seen on a big screen in a darkened theater. Everything from Bava's own cinematography (in collaboration with Ubaldo Terzano) to the production design of Riccardo Domenici to Carlo Rustichelli's lush romantic score has exactly the overripe-bordering-on-corruption flavor that this kind of romantic horror needs. Bava used light like paint and his use of color for mood as well as balanced composition is masterful. This is a type of film that wouldn't be made for much longer, arguably because Bava and Roger Corman, between them, would cover all the bases of widescreen color gothic. Later films might be set in similar periods or places, but those would only be platforms for different kinds of entertaining decadence. Whip is a definitive film of its moment in cinema history.


There's a whip, and there's a body. What more could you want? A trailer, maybe? Here's one uploaded by giantfish2. It's in Italian, but if you've read the above you'll get the gist and then some.

8 comments:

Dave (Goodfelladh) said...

Horror, and Italian horror and giallo in particular, are the gaping holes in my viewing history. It's basically unfamiliar territory for me, but one that I've hoped to remedy in the near future. Your review has reminded me of my inadequacy! :)

Rev. Phantom said...

Yet another Bava flick that I've yet to see. I'm actually more familiar with the director's that learned from Bava (Fulci, Argento, ect) than the man himself.

The Great Tyrant said...

A frickin' great movie - I need to dig it out and watch it again...

The Great Tyrant said...

btw thanks for the link - I've only just noticed!:-)

Hans A. said...

Nice. I agree with you Samuel, about the content in the film being risque for 1963. I must have been thinking that Whip would be like Hammer films of the period, because of the inclusion of Lee. How wrong I was. I'm glad you gave this one some love, because it's often overlooked. Great work, as usual.

Samuel Wilson said...

I recommend Italian horror and Bava in particular to anyone who appreciates that sometimes style is substance. Thanks to everyone for responding.

Sam Juliano said...

Fabulous review Samuel, of a film that I happen to share your passion for. In fact, I rank it as one of Bava's three indisputable masterpieces, with BLACK SUNDAY and BLACK SABBATH. I like other Bavas, like BLOOD AND BLACK LACE and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES as well, but THE WHIP pretty much sums up Bava's intoxicating style and ravishing tapestries. Lee is superb, as you point out in that excellent historical lead-in. The best version of the film that you can get on DVD is the German Region 2, which boasts an absolutely STUNNING transfer. I picked it up, and it really does blow away the Region 1. Th ecolor is remarkable, and the framing excellent. Allan Fish has long held faulty dubbing against the film, but I have defende dthat as inconsequential in view of the film's thematic resonance and visual elegance.
This film is absolutely a MUST and I salute you Samuel for bringing this to the forefront.

Madame Enfer said...

Lee was not to blame for the dubbing. He expressed his sorrow and not being able to speak for himself in the film and his unrealistic dream to redub himself, as it was one of his favourite films of his. There was a convention in low-budget Italian cinema of the time providing for the careers of local voice actors, who overdubbed virtually everything in these films.