The Whip and the Body February 20, 2017
Like most of the films residing within Mario Bava’s extensive body of work, 1963’s The Whip and the Body is the type of movie to which we strictly sensorily respond. When colors are this soaring and when the atmosphere’s this Gentileschi meets neon, no point in trying to search for the emotional connections that ultimately might help move us into caring about the characters and storyline traveling around the premises.
But unlike most of the films residing in Bava’s extensive body of work, the movie isn’t riddled with a conclusively unbalanced relationship between style and substance. As the man’s a visual stylist better at expressing his optical fetishes and leanings, much of his work looks splendid. But as a result of written and performative mediocrity struggling to match the ecstasy of his photographic innovations, many of his features are something like a jungle cat who would rather lounge than pounce. A real reaction is hard to rise out of us.
But akin to Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966), Bava’s note-perfect foray into nightmarish horror, The Whip and the Body doesn’t make the mistake of over-plotting in the ways that damned the still artistically interesting The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964). Here, the union of aesthetic value and plot is a symbiotic one. Bava’s ocular designs are violent and macabre — a harmonious display of Technicolor pigmentation threatened by shadows and masochism — and the story smartly stays simplistic to better highlight its maker’s stylistic strengths. In effect are we provided with one of his best films. We’re reminded just how great of a moviemaker Bava is when everything circling around his optic achievements complements the swank rather than drags it down.
Finding its setting in a creaking, isolated castle on the East European coast sometime after the the Age of Discovery, The Whip and the Body stars Christopher Lee as Kurt Menliff, the sadomasochistic son of a count (Gustavo De Nardo) who, before the events focused upon in the movie, had been disowned by his family due to his having an affair with a maid and ruining his prospects of marriage with alluring relative Nevenka (Daliah Lavi).
The Menliff clan doesn’t want anything to do with him, but tensions begin to run high once again when the man reappears after years away, especially since his former mistress killed herself in the face of potential scandal. Though met with piercing gazes by everyone in the castle, Kurt insists that he hasn’t returned to stir up old drama. He merely wants to help celebrate the recent marriage of Nevenka and Cristiano (Tony Kendall), his younger brother.
But it’s clear that these claims do not, in fact, contain so much as a fragment of truth — Kurt has, in actuality, come back to the Menliff palace to reclaim his title, fortune, and Nevenka. And the latter unexpectedly finds herself still in love with the man, too, particularly after they resume their flog heavy, S&M defined sexual relationship.
On the same night Kurt and Nevenka rekindle their romance, though, the former is murdered, offed with the same dagger that took the life of the woman who disrupted his monogamy way back when. In most cases would this ensure that the Menliff tribe grieve periodically only to recover and return to their mundane routines. But because this is a Bava film, Kurt’s ghost continues to haunt the property — and whip Nevenka long into the night.
In a film that keeps violence and beauty so carefully aligned, you can bet that love and hate are synonymous and that none of these characters live to do anything besides serve the machinations of the story. And yet that isn't a problem — we’re so transfixed by The Whip and the Body’s external beauty that we couldn’t care less about the intricacies lying beneath these tortured characters. It is, plain and simply, a visual masterpiece, and Bava’s jaw-dropping constructing of it all is so intoxicating that the movie proves to be among the few within the cinematic spectrum of Italian horror able to astound purely through its sensuous surface.
Bava, then, is one of film’s most optically talented — and most underrated — filmmakers. His proclivities and iconographic details are so remarkably his that they sometimes ring as predictable. But his inclinations never tire because we’re so baffled as to how he’s able to create such electrifying images; there was not, and there never will be, a director like him. The Whip and the Body is a summation of Bava’s legacy, and it’s not to be missed. A-