Blood and Black Lace is often spoken of as the origin of the giallo genre. It's not a formula-strict example, but it has many of the key elements. Often when we talk about something as the first of its kind, that historical fact is the best thing about it. Not so here: This is just a great movie.
Director Mario Bava plays with the viewer's eye from the first frame, in which the modeling agency's sign swings in a storm and then falls. We get a clear view of the salon when the sign falls, and the effect is that a window has been opened for us to look in. The sign also is a rich, blood red, and it's not going to be the last time we see that particular shade.
Isabella, one of the salon's models, steps out into this storm and is strangled by a masked assailant. The next day we see Christina (Eva Bartok), the salon's owner, who is exasperated by the task of managing the agency's flighty models. She is ready to fire Isabella for excessive tardiness, but the words are barely out of her mouth when she finds the girl's corpse.
Frank, Isabella's lover, is the police's natural first suspect. The discovery of cocaine among her possessions makes them even more suspicious. It is soon discovered that Isabella kept a diary, and she has dirt on at least one person who has secrets that they want to stay secret.
A trail of death follows when the diary changes hands. The police continue to center their investigation around Frank, as the murdered Nicole is found to have a key to his apartment. These police aren't screwing around: They go ahead and arrest all of the men who are connected with the models. The five then turn on one another in suspicion.
Killings continue while the men are in custody, and the police are obligated to release them. The savage nature of the murders leads police to believe that a sex killer with a grudge against women is at work. It is then that the killer's identity is revealed and the film's final act plays out.
Bava skillfully creates horror out of commonplace objects found in the salon. Dress forms populate the rooms like sinister, mute observers, and shocking red mannequins seem almost alive. Characters often appear as reflections in mirrors.
Most of the familiar giallo elements are in play here. There is a killer on the loose again, a lady killer on the loose, and the body count climbs. The action centers around a series of gruesome, set piece murders. These are not at the level of spectacle or gore that they would reach with Sergio Martino or Dario Argento, but they are acceptably brutal. Medieval weapons make an appearance, and the black-gloved hand introduces itself.
Blood and Black Lace may be the most impressive achievement in terms of Bava's use of color and camera work. The colors are bold, and he frames them for maximum effect. In one early scene, a character walks through a corridor formed by the overhang of trees that line a walkway. The character is backlit by a bright light at the end of the corridor, and they are framed by the trees. It's a great image.
Something that became obvious on viewing this is how Bava leads the viewer's eye. In one scene, the camera circles a character to get a clear view of the one who is speaking, then it zooms in. A scene set at a fashion show has the camera trucking past the row of dressing rooms, so that the viewer sees each character practically simultaneously and gets a feel for the event's hectic pace.
The edition reviewed included both English- and Italian-language soundtracks. Watching in Italian with English subtitles makes a huge difference: The English dubbing is atrocious and obliterates some good acting performances. Eva Bartok, who looks strikingly similar to Eva Mendes, is particularly good.
This will be among the shorter reviews on this site. Don't get the idea that the amount of words it generates has anything to do with its quality: This is a very good movie and is on the level of Hitchcock. It happens to be rather short, and a fair portion of the film takes place after the killer's identity has been revealed. We don't talk about those parts, we leave them for you to see. And we hope you do see. Rabid Dogs has more immediate impact, but this, of all Mario Bava's films, might be the one the most rewards repeat viewings.