The Whip and the Body is an interesting installment in the extensive canon of Italian filmmaker Mario Bava. In terms of story, it’s far from his best work. It’s slow moving, with a plot that manages to be both simple and confusing. Aesthetically, however, the 1963 effort is among Bava’s greatest accomplishments – and that’s saying a lot for a director who is widely hailed for his unique and influential visual style.
The script, written by Ernesto Gastaldi (Torso), Ugo Guerra and Luciano Martino, is meant to be Italy’s answer to Roger Corman’s classic Edgar Allan Poe adaptations – and it largely succeeds. Shortly after returning from exile to his familial castle, sadistic nobleman Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) is murdered. But his family’s torment is far from over, as a sadomasochistic murder-mystery ensues. The audience is left to question whether Kurt’s ghost haunts the manor or if one of its inhabitants is responsible for the vengeful murders.
The Whip and the Body takes place in the 19th century, so it’s rich with Gothic atmosphere, not unlike Bava’s directorial debut, Black Sunday. But it’s shot in glorious color, emphasizing vibrant blues and purples with red accents. Released the same year as his similarly ambitious Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body helped lay the groundwork for Bava’s future feats. Cinematographer Ubaldo Terzano (Deep Red) certainly played a part in the visual style, but Bava, no doubt, had a lot of input.
Aside from the visuals, The Whip and the Body is also commendable for its ensemble cast. Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man) receives a headlining credit for his pivotal role. Italian film enthusiasts will recognize several other cast members and Bava regulars, including Harriet Medin (Blood and Black Lace), Luciano Pigozzi (Blood and Black Lace), Gustavo De Nardo (Black Sabbath) and Tony Kendall (Return of the Evil Dead).
The Whip and the Body is the latest addition to Kino Classic’s Bava collection, with a Blu-ray release that really brings the rich visuals to life. The high-definition picture is noticeably darker than the previous DVD release, but, given Kino’s record, I’m inclined to believe that the shadowy transfer is a more accurate representation of the film. Aside from trailers, the lone special feature is a previously-recorded audio commentary by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas. The track full of information, as always, but it’s also hilariously dated (i.e. Lucas mentions Lee’s “upcoming” role in Star Wars: Episode II).
Like most Italian productions of the era, the film was shot with the actors speaking their native languages and then dubbed. The disc includes the Italian version (with matching titles) along with the English dub (featuring someone doing their best Christopher Lee impression – not the man himself). The remastered audio sounds crisp, including Carlo Rustichelli’s (Kill Baby, Kill) memorable score.
Fans debate The Whip and the Body’s ranking amongst Bava’s illustrious filmography, but its captivating cinematography is undeniable. While it may not be the best introduction to his work, The Whip and the Body should be required viewing for any prospective directors of photography. The exquisite shot of Lee’s ghostly hand, bathed in blue, slowly reaching from the shadows toward the camera is one of many marvelous setpieces.