AKA SEI DONNE PER L’ASSASSINO, SIX WOMEN FOR AN ASSASSIN
AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD AND STEELBOOK: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 90 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Isabella, one of many beautiful models employed at a salon, is walking through the grounds that lead to the establishment one night when she is attacked and violently killed by an assailant wearing a white featureless mask. Police Inspector Sylvester is assigned to investigate the murder and uncovers a tangled web of intrigue in the fashion house. It seems that Isabella had kept a diary detailing various vices by some of the others working there. Nicole finds the diary and plans to give it to the police, but after it is stolen, she is also slain by the masked killer….
The origins of the slasher movie are usually traced back to that seminal year 1960 which spawned both Psycho and Peeping Tom, though you could probably go way further back to films like 1945’s The Spiral Staircase. The first fully-fledged body count movie which emphasises the killings above all else though is probably Blood And Black Lace, an evocative title, but not as descriptive of what the film’s about as its original title which translates as Six Women For An Assassin. Mario Bava proved himself to be ahead of his time in many of his movies, and his The Girl Who Knew Too Much  can be called the first giallo, but none of his films are as historically important as Blood And Black Lace, which not only refined the style of the giallo but basically created the template that would be followed by Friday The 13th et el. Compared with many of the films it spawned, it’s quite low on bloodshed, but unlike many of them, it has a complicated storyline that you really have to concentrate on while also being gorgeously shot in the usual Bava manner.
An Italian/West German production, Blood And Black Lace was shot under the title of L’atelier della morte [The Fashion House Of Death] on an extremely low budget, approximately $150,000, but the commercial success of Black Sunday and Black Sunday ensured that Bava was allowed to do pretty much what he wanted, and he intended to do something different than the conventional Edgar Wallace-style [films based on his stories were immensely popular in Germany] mystery expected. The script by Marcello Fondato, from a treatment by Bava and Giuseppe Barrilla, was written in English, actress Mary Arden helped with much of the English dialogue, and the cast all spoke English to aid US distribution, but Woolner Pictures [Bava’s usual US distributors AIP passed on the very adult-aimed picture] ended up dubbing it anyway. One man, Paul Frees, provided nearly all the male voices. Some shots from one of the murder scenes of a face burning on a hot stove, were removed before release, but the film was still astoundingly vicious for the time and turned off most critics and audiences though it eventually got re-appraised for its significance. Surprisingly the film was released almost extent in the US, only missing one shot of bathwater turning red, though Woolner did commission a new title sequence featuring animated mannequins being shot. The UK though saw every murder sequence cut and unbelievably did not see an uncut version till 2000 despite the 1986 film Matador showing some of this censored footage.
Bava’s original title sequence is far better than what was originally released in the US [and the UK], as a series of creative tracking shots show the cast members posing around the salon, and fits much better with Carlo Rusticelli’s lounge-style main theme, an immensely catchy number which hints at the sleaziness which we will soon see uncovered. The main shot proper is of the salon’s sign swinging about unhinged, which also gives a clue of what you’re going to see [and is cleverly echoed by the film’s final shot of a swinging telephone]. We get straight into a murder, though this being Bava you also get a stunning shot of the victim-to-be walking down a path surrounded by trees except for a large hole of fog covered sun light in the distance. The woman has her head bashed against a tree before being strangled, though, as with the later kills, Bava gives you more of an impression of the brutality rather than graphically showing it, the camera in this one mostly keeping a distance. After an obviously symbolic cut to the statue of an angel, the investigation commences, and straight away there’s quite a lot to take in as the various goings ons behind the scenes of the salon are revealed. There’s secret affairs, blackmail, abortions and drug addiction, and the storyline requires some concentration. About two thirds of the way through it decides to reveal the two killers [Scream was certainly not first there!] and winds up in a very interesting, unexpected and even moving fashion, with the whole plot engine being basically engineered by two lovers in a tempestuous and destructive relationship. The dramatic closure to their story is what the film finishes with and what you’ll first think about afterwards.
All the murder sequences are tremendous set pieces, the victims-to-be often bathed in Bava’s gorgeous colour schemes of usually blue, purple and red before they are viciously killed. At one point, a blue light seems to flicker from on to off repeatedly, but in a subtle way so you barely notice it. Bava doesn’t actually show much blood, but stages the kills for maximum impact with much physicality. A claw hammer in the face is proceeded by close-ups of the hammer and the woman’s face so that showing the actual damage isn’t that necessary. A hand and face burning on a hot stove remains extremely unpleasant while one sequence is both suspenseful and somewhat comic as the killer is interrupted in his work and has to hide the victim to finish her off later. Bizarrely, you almost want the killer not to be caught in this scene! The very agile murderer is quite scary despite just wearing a mac, a scarf and a stocking mask, which makes him look like he has no face, and over which patterns of light and shadow sometimes appear. You could say that Bava seems to enjoy watching his doll-like women, most of whom look very similar to each other, getting attacked and slaughtered, and the death scenes are central to his film, but then the men in his film are not very nice either. Bava’s usual nihilistic view on relationships is on show here. Everyone seems to be involved with someone else, but there doesn’t seem to be much genuine love except in the one relationship that leads to mass murder.
The salon setting is used in a highly ironic manner, its surface beauty revealing darkness below the surface. The costumes, the set dressings and so forth are often lovely to look at, but one is constantly aware that sordid activity could be taking place behind the scenes. There’s a great tracking shot past some booths which was actually achieved by putting the camera on a child’s toy, so low was the budget. Another tracking shot has the camera actually bump into a mannequin, so obvious that it was surely intended to slightly jar the viewer. Bava often seemed interested in fashion, possibly mostly for its visual possibilities, but always seemed to have a wry attitude to it. The police procedural scenes in Blood And Black Lace come across as a little dull, with characters often taking ages to respond to others, and Inspector Sylvestre coming across as very weary as well as, in the end, ineffectual. Perhaps Bava was deliberately showing his own weariness with such scenes, but it does mean that Blood And Black Lace is a touch uneven and almost seems like the work of two directors. It’s not a major problem, because the film is overall so intriguing and clever, but I don’t think it quite has the consistency of Bava’s very best four or five films. That’s not to take anything away from it though, because it still exhibits more artistry than most other slasher films, and you can almost also say that Dario Argento took his whole aesthetic from this movie while also building on it.
The acting in a Bava film is rarely the best and it doesn’t help when you can’t hear the cast’s original voices, but Eva Bartok does very well as a confused woman who will do anything for love. Cameron Mitchell played Vikings for Bava in two other films but here gets quite a multi-layered role to get his teeth into. Rusticelli’s okayish score is full of dramatic musical sequences but it’s that main theme which you’ll remember. Ubaldo Terzano is credited with the amazing cinematography though of course it was really a joint job between him and Bava. Blood And Black Lace perhaps seems slightly stilted in places, but it’s still essential viewing for any horror fan, tremendously fascinating but hugely enjoyable too. As with at least half of Bava’s works, it should be used as an example to make a film visually interesting – in fact its lighting should be studied by film students – but Bava’s distillation and fetishism of aspects of the psycho thriller also most definitely has a soul, even if it’s a somewhat twisted one. The only two people we end up caring about are the killers, but we do end up caring.
After sitting through Odeon’s UK Blu-ray of Bava’s The Whip And The Body a short while ago which totally botched the incredible look of the film, virtually anything would have been an improvement for me, but Blood And Black Lace comes onto Blu-ray with a release from Arrow that is superb in every way, from the complete restoration of the film from scratch which makes Bava’s extraordinary colour schemes even more amazing to look at and even vastly improves the sound of the dialogue, to the comprehensive collection of special features. This giallo fan almost hit the roof with joy at things like Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani talking about Bava – two geniuses praising another – or Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava discussing Bava and Alfred Hitchcock. Like Arrow’s Day Of Anger, this set is available on both Region A and Region B and is undoubtedly the definitive release of this seminal film.
*Limited Edition SteelBook featuring original artworks
*Brand new 2K restoration of the film from the original camera negative
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
*Optional Italian and English soundtracks presented in original uncompressed mono PCM audio
*Newly translated subtitles for the Italian audio
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
*Brand new audio commentary by Mario Bava’s biographer Tim Lucas
*Psycho Analysis – a new documentary on Blood and Black Lace and the origins of the giallo genre featuring interviews with directors Dario Argento [Suspiria] and Lamberto Bava [Demons], screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi [All the Colors of the Dark] critics Roberto Curti and Steve Della Casa, and crime novelists Sandrone Dazieri and Carlo Lucarelli
*An appreciation by Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, the creative duo behind Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears
*Yellow – the much-acclaimed neo-giallo by Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt [Blu-ray exclusive]
*Gender and Giallo – a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the giallo’s relationship with the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s
*Panel discussion on Mario Bava featuring Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve Della Casa, recorded at the 2014 Courmayeur Film Festival
*The Sinister Image: Cameron Mitchell – an episode of David Del Valle’s television series, devoted to the star of Blood and Black Lace and presented in full
*The alternative US opening titles, sourced from Joe Dante’s private print and scanned in 2K especially for this release
*Original theatrical trailer
*Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Howard Hughes, author of Cinema Italiano and Mario Bava: Destination Terror, an interview with Joe Dante, David Del Valle on Cameron Mitchell and more, all illustrated with archive stills and posters