AKA LA FRUSTA IL CORPO, NIGHT IS THE PHANTOM, WHAT, THE WHIP AND THE FLESH
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 86 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Debauched aristocrat Kurt Menliff returns to his ancestral home in the hopes of taking over the estate from his ailing father. The maid Giorgia is anxious to get back at him because he caused the suicide of her daughter when he walked out on her and, due to his father’s hostility to him, he finds that that his brother, Christian, is now next in line. Christian is now married to Nevenka, with whom Kurt used to have a sado-masochistic relationship. Although initially hostile to the return of her lover, she can’t resist her impulses and lets Kurt seduce on the beach. Then someone kills Kurt, but is he really dead?…..
Insanely romantic, unashamedly perverse, psychologically complex and visually ravishing, The Whip And The Body is to me Mario Bava’s greatest work after Lisa And The Devil, a genuinely great movie which mixes ghost story, love story, murder mystery and psychological drama to incredible effect, and does it with, aside from one funeral scene, a cast of just seven people. While it sees Bava returning to the gloomy, cob-webbed Gothic world of Black Sunday [there’s even another secret door in a fireplace], it also, perhaps, shows the influence of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe pictures [and indeed Poe himself], Bava possibly taking note of their success and deciding he could do better. Despite me certainly not being alone in loving the film and recognising it as a true work of art, at least amongst amongst Bava’s fans, it still isn’t too well known. Even now, mention Bava’s name and most people, if they know it at all, [and there still aren’t enough folk who are aware of this fascinating and supremely talented filmmaker], will probably say Black Sunday, followed probably by Black Sabbath and Bay Of Blood] despite its salacious content, namely its frank depiction of sado-masochism which caused a huge amount of censorship trouble.
The Knife In The Body and Spectral were the titles of the first and second script drafts for this film. The primary scriptwrter Ernesto Gastaldi was asked to write something like The Pit And The Pendulum, which had been a big success. Chrstopher Lee turned the role of Kurt down, then reconsidered when Bava came on board. Bava originally wanted to cast his Black Sabbath star Barbara Steele as Nevenka, and she would have been magnificent, but she turned the role down claiming she was being typecast in horror films [though this didn’t stop her appearing in a few more soon after]. Shot in Rome and the surrounding area of Lazio, the film ran into trouble even before release with the distributors insisting that the credits be altered, so that for instance Mario Bava became ‘John M.Old’. This was so that the film at first would seem to be not an Italian production, though it didn’t stop one enraged male viewer from suing Bava and the producers for offending him so much. Bava’s usual American distributors turned the film down outright and three years later Thunderbird Films ended up giving it a small, though uncut, release under the title What. Elsewhere it was usually heavily cut including in the UK, where, entitled Night Is The Phantom, all references to sado-masochism were removed making the story almost incomprehensible. Thereafter the film slipped into virtual obscurity, rarely seen except in the odd mutilated TV version, until its DVD release. I should say right here that if you decide to watch or buy this movie, don’t watch the English language print. It virtually gives away the main twist early on by adding a line to one scene. God knows why this was thought to be a good idea.
Now The Whip And The Body moves very slowly for its first half, its stately pace even more leisurely than that of the Corman/Poe films it seems to be partly influenced by, and with even more scenes of characters walking slowly down passage ways, but it immediately sets a morbid, decadent and powerfully claustrophobic atmosphere. The setting is ambiguous, partly because it allowed freer re-use of older props. Whenever I see the opening scenes of this film of Kurt returning to his family who really don’t want him there at all, I immediately think of Wuthering Heights, and the film can almost be seen as a twisted variant on that oft-told [though rarely faithfully] tale, but I mention this primarily because Christopher Lee would have been such a good Heathcliff. Until Lisa And The Devil, the film is also Bava’s ultimate exploration of his favourite theme of family destruction from the inside, this lot really existing in a tangled web of virtually incestuous intrigue. Kurt and Nevenka are both cousins, but Nevenka is locked in a relationship with Kurt’s brother, who is actually in love Nevenka’s sister. It’s even subtly suggested that Nevenka is involved with her father-in-law. Bava and his screenwriters treat these corrupt characters with a bit of sympathy and certainly don’t judge them. In fact, the moral element of many Bava pictures isn’t really present in this one, though this one continues Black Sunday‘s idea of decaying aristocracy [and there’s another secret passage behind a fire place too].
Now, I’m going to honest with you here, the main reason I decided to re-visit this particular Bava film, aside from the fact that I’m often breaking my promise of doing a Bava review a month and needed to do one, is that lousy Fifty Shades Of Grey film making me to want to see a ‘good’ film that has vaguely similar subject matter. The Whip And The Body is partly about two old lovers who rekindle their sado-masochistic relationship, and they have their first proper ‘reunion’ on a beach. Nevenka strikes Kurt across the face with his riding crop, but he calmly takes it out of her hand, pushes her to the ground and whips her while her subdued reactions begin to show sexual excitement in a scene which has a stronger erotic charge, while still being disturbing, than anything in the 2015 film. A later scene has Nevenka biting her fingers as she gets more and more aroused by Kurt visit’s to her even before he’s whipped her. All this is set to music of the most passionately romantic manner, extremely melodramatic in a way that you don’t really see or hear today, but entirely appropriate and helping us to actually care about this couple.
Soon somebody kills Kurt, but it seems that he won’t stay dead, and here is where the film is at its most brilliant in its midway section, just after Kurt’s death. Nevenka starts to become haunted by Kurt, and we are treated to a stunning build up of tension and horror. As Bava’s incredible lighting schemes go into overdrive, normally harmless things such as mud on the floor and a branch hitting a window like Kurt’s whip create a great feeling of fear. Kurt is first glimpsed standing outside Nevenka’s window. Of course nobody believes Nevenka that Kurt is back, and evidence of his presence is gone by the morning. Eventually, on the third night, Kurt appears in silhouette in Nevenka’s room, and Nevenka shuts her eyes, but when she opens them a horrible huge hand reaches out from the dark, in an especially frightening moment. After Nevenka is brutally whipped, Bava could not, of course, show the couple actually having sex, so he tries a more expressionistic approach that is incredibly effective. When Kurt goes to kiss her, his face, advancing right towards the camera, is bathed in intense blue, than green, than finally red as it seems to hit the camera and then evaporate. How haunting, and how magnificent was the genius that is Bava, endlessly dreaming up ways to depict things despite having very little money to work with, and creating art as he does!
Right from the offset this is probably the most visually stunning film Bava ever made, and should definitely be the film that should first be held up as proof of his mastery in this area. Scene after scene – no, shot after shot- should be studied from in how to make something look great, from meticulously constructed long shots composed of different colour areas which are absolutely gorgeous to look at, to closer shots which often have two colours clashing. The primary colours are black, violet and mauve, but Kurt’s nightly visits to Nevenka are bathed in startling splashes of red, green and blue. Bava achieves so much with so little, and it’s not just style for style’s either; his use of colour in this film often emphasises psychological states. For a start, just look at how characters are often only partially backlit, sometimes with the backlight just at the point of being completely off, giving every cast member a sense of mystery, despair and misery. Considering all this, it’s a crying shame that both the current Blu-rays of this film are overly dark, ruining some of Bava’s complex lighting schemes.
The ironic thing about all this is that Ernesto Gastaldi, Luciano Mantino and Ugo Guerra’s script is so strong that even a poor director with no visual flair at all would have probably made a half-decent film out of it. Its depiction of its central relationship is especially intelligent. Kurt is a bad man and Nevenka a disturbed woman, yet the film remains non-judgemental on their actions. The Whip And The Body entirely avoids graphic horror except for a decomposing, burning body which looks disturbingly convincing, as it moves to its conclusion. The mystery behind various murders is solved up to a point, but doesn’t explain everything at all and in fact ends up being rather vague. The script refuses to tell us if we’ve been watching a ghost, ghostly possession or just plain old madness, while giving us clues that it could be one or more of those. I suppose that it’s possible to see this is a flaw, a sign of laziness, but I don’t think so considering how good the writing is elsewhere as it dares to dip into waters filmmakers even today don’t tend to, like, for example, the possible link being arousal and terror, or even how close love and hate can really be. There’s a hell of a lot going on in this film. And what is with that bizarre funeral scene, vaguely Greek Orthodox but with people in red cloaks and hoods?
All this wouldn’t work so well if it wasn’t for the two central performances. Kurt in my opinion is Christopher Lee’s second greatest role [I’m sure you can guess the first!], and he’s hypnotic in the role; cruel, scary but incredibly charismatic. Sadly his voice, like everyone in the cast, is dubbed in both the Italian and the English language prints [as usual with these films, it was shot silent], and this is a bit of a shame, as hearing his distinctive voice would have doubled the effectiveness, though the guy that dubs him in the English print isn’t bad. Daliah Lavi as Nevenka is possibly even better, in that it’s a harder and braver part. She is heartbreaking as a woman engulfed in a love that may destroy her and frightening as someone on the edge of sanity. I actually can’t think of many other actresses that could have conveyed that so well scenes where her expression has to go from terror to pain to exceptance to sexual pleasure. All the other cast members are fine, and the icing on the cake is provided by Carlo Rusticelli’s repetitious, but still stunning, score combining a gorgeous rhapsodic theme with more atmospheric pieces. After I first saw this film I couldn’t get the beautiful music out of my head, and it gives the proceedings both an ironic element and the feel of a great love story, which The Whip and The Body ultimately is. Beneath its darkness, its fear and its pain is a really moving story of two people who need each other and don’t let a little thing like death stop them.