Kurt Menliff, the son of a Count, has been ostracised from his family after casting shame on the Menliff name. When he returns to the family home he learns his brother Christian has married his former lover Nevenka, but he is not going to let that stop him resurrecting their illicit affair. With emotions high someone in the family has other ideas and Kurt befalls a gruesome death at the hands of an unknown killer. It would seem even death cannot stop him in his quest for Nevenka’s heart though. She is his and his alone, and nobody living or dead is going to stop him getting what he wants.
Gothic horror, erotic, sadomasochism, revenge, supernatural, ghosts and hauntings.
|Mario Bava||…||(as John M. Old)|
|Ernesto Gastaldi||…||(screenplay and dialogue) (as Julian Berry)|
|Ugo Guerra||…||(screenplay and dialogue) (as Robert Hugo)|
|Luciano Martino||…||(screenplay and dialogue) (as Martin Hardy)|
Cast (in credits order)
Katia (as Isli Oberon)
Giorgia (as Harriet White)
|Gustavo De Nardo||…||
Count Menliff (as Dean Ardow)
Losat (as Alan Collins)
As Christopher Lee rides into town on horseback, (this visual accompanied by a haunting piano score) ,the scene is thus set for one of Bava’s most erotic and salacious (for the time) films, a steamy, brooding hotbed of S&M, gothic horror and eroticism, which strays from its traditional ghost story narrative. I have to say in my opinion this is one of Lee’s most commanding and intense performances, the only lament I have is that he is dubbed by another actor, yet his presence dominates the picture nevertheless.
Lee makes for a very different leading man in Whip. All the hallmarks for the sensual yet dangerous seducer were set in his role of Hammer’s Dracula, Lee bringing a certain innate sexuality to the role which I always felt Lugosi lacked. That is not to say that the classic Universal Dracula are lesser works, but the difference in how the two actors incarnate the infamous Count are poles apart. Lee by his very nature is a commanding person, physically, vocally (although we do not get to hear this on Whip), and he played his part as Dracula in the vein of a sexual predator. Here in Whip as Kurt Menliff he takes that one step further, again the predator, consumed by lust and locked in a strange relationship of power, control and illicit sex, with his Sister in Law Nevenka. Hammer always touched on Lee’s capability to display menancing sexuality, but was never explicit, here Bava embraces it and takes it that one step further. It has been said on record Lee really enjoyed this role, and you can tell by the way he utterly absorbs himself in it. It is no wonder Lee gave such a fantastic performance however when you look at his counterpart, the beautiful exotic Israeli born actress Daliah Lavi as his romantic interest Nevenka, whose range of emotions displayed in Whip are nothing short of astounding. As the two play off each other locked in a dangerous game, you start to wonder who is in control of who. The dynamic between these two key players drives the narrative on through a myriad of emotion, fear, lust, terror, grief, jealously, anger, disgust all played out through the facial expressions of Lavi in contrast to Lee’s stoical and sadistic lead, making for a thrilling and unpredictable experience. One minute Lavi screams I hate you! I hate you! The next she is writhing around in ecstasy consumed by her obsession for Lee’s character Kurt. It is not surprising that this film caused such an outrage with the censors, this graphic depiction of sexual violence was groundbreaking at the time. This is shown probably most prominantly in a key scene in which Lee whips Lavi on a beach before making love to her, in which Lavi invites the violent attentions of Lee and is seen to enjoy the moment. The context of consensual violence and taboo subject of sadism and masochism were too much for the censors to handle, resulting in the American print for this being heavily cut and retitled What!, making it a rare Bava for Stateside audiences in its intended uncut form, that is until the VCI Home Video restoration. It is worth noting Bava expert Tim Lucas gives an informative commentary on this particular release . While the film lacks nudity and graphic sexual scenes it is heavy on erotizised violence, and you have to bear in mind this film is 50 years old, testament to just how pioneering the Italian Master Bava really was.
It is not just the strong performances of the leads in The Whip and the Body that make the film however, the underlying story of murder, obsessional love and the dead rising from their graves gives the protagonists something really juicy to work with. A simple story which also has underlying sub strands of family politics to add depth to the developing plot, Kurt (Lee) is hated by his father, branded a serpent for his misdemeanour with a servant girl who consequently killed herself. In turn Kurt resents his brother for becoming the prodigal son, Nevenka fears Kurt, yet yearns for him, despite being married. A family at war, who are only pulled further apart when Kurt is killed and strange things start happening in the family home. The entire piece oozes unease and the secluded exterior location of the castle, sitting alongside an isolated beach, (which we periodically see empty and windswept, the tide washing in and out), seems to reinforce the feelings of loneliness and disaffection carried by some of the respective characters involved. A family not only separated from the wider world so to speak but also cut off emotionally from one another with their various grudges and desires. While the performances of Lee and Lavi overshadow the picture the supporting cast all play their roles competently, in particular Tony Kendall as Kurt’s brother Christian and Ida Galli’s Katia. The father (Gustavo De Nardo) is suitably dramatic, although not seen much, and the two creepy servants played by Harriet Medin and Luciano Pigozzi serve their purpose well, and also have their own complaints about the Count’s wayward son Kurt. It seems everyone here has an issue, all being wrapped up in their own selfish agendas, and this is a key factor in the success of The Whip and the Body, because when the tale starts to unravel there are plenty of potential directions for the viewer to consider when trying to figure out where it will all lead as the story builds to its chilling finale.
I have to say I am a massive fan of the gothic in horror, it is probably my favourite sub genre of all, being heavily influenced in my tastes by an early consumption of Hammer classics. Bava, in my opinion, is one of the most consistently outstanding directors in this field when considering for the early part of his directorial career he helped shape the genre I love so much. On that note The Whip and the Body has to be one of the most pure examples of how good a gothic horror can get. It has all the elements, brooding atmosphere, stunning period costumes and sets, eroticism, and to top it off a cracking old ghost story of murder and revenge. All the Bava trademark tropes are here, the lavish locations and sets (despite the budget limitations), shadows, faces at windows, atmospheric sound effects like swirling winds, thunder, and ghostly footsteps, trips to the family tomb, hidden corridors behind fireplaces, and the lighting which is an art form in itself when it comes to Bava. Twin this with the sound of a ghostly whip cracking in the night, or the graphic sight of the beautiful Lavi, back ripped to shreds, as she contorts her body in the throes of desire, The Whip and the Body makes for a heady brew of tense gothic erotica. It has to be said the use of chiaroscuro lighting in this film is exquisite, the entire piece is bathed in a half shadow which creates an atmosphere of trepidation and dread throughout, so close at times it becomes claustrophobic. A trademark of Bava, this man really knew how to light a set to extract the best in terms of mood and feeling which surpassed the often limited budgets he had to work with, and setting them a class above their peers in terms of cinematic quality. The cinematography handled by Ulbaldo Terzano is spectacular, obviously influenced highly by Bava’s command, and one thing is evident these two did make one hell of a formidable team when it came to capturing the gothic on-screen.
One thing that is perhaps not successful is the choice of score from prolific composer Carlo Rustichelli. Now I am not saying that it is not technically adequate, and some of the serious creeping dread incidental, and the haunting piano which accompany certain scenes are perfect, but I am making reference to the melodramatic ‘romantic’ music which pops up quite a few times. I felt it was more fitting to some weepy romance drama, not a sado masochistic relationship which defies boundaries of death, and while there has been some effort to inject a tragic tone, it just does not seem to fit with the overall mood of the feature. Sadly though it does really get into your head, so much so that when it popped up on the DVD menu after viewing I felt compelled to turn it off straight away, and when I did it was like taking off a tight pair of shoes. I will say though that despite this the spectacular nature of the performances, the sets, the cinematography, and the story, it becomes nothing but a minor niggle when you are actually absorbed in watching the events unfold.
One final note on this film which I thought was of interest is the entire production team are credited under English sounding pseudonyms, Bava as John M Old, Terzano as David Hamilton and even the composer Rustichelli as Jim Murphy, on research I could find two reasons given for this but cannot comment on their validity, the first being to make it more Anglicised for the overseas market, and secondly to divert potential criticism from Bava personally at the time of its release.
Overall The Whip and the Body is perhaps one of the most perfect examples of gothic horror at its very best, including one of Christopher Lee’s most intense performances, and proof that Mario Bava was indeed a master in shaping the gothic as we know it today. Covering sometimes uncomfortable themes for its time, it is a spectacle to behold, a thrilling tale of lust and obsession, very worth seeking out if you have not already. Kino are releasing this on 17th December 2013 as a remastered Blu-Ray edition.