The Whip and the Body occupies a weird place in Mario Bava's filmography. It would in anyone's filmography. It combines the domination themes and messed-up love triangle of Hellraiser with the romantic gothic horror of Dark Shadows and- wait, that's all. That's more than enough. Oh, yeah- Christopher Lee's in it. Kind of - his face is there, but not his voice.
This movie is a strange bird. It is quintessentially gothic, but it has a heavy romantic element and is more soap opera than horror. The title, for those of you who are snickering, is not suggestive. It is exactly what it looks like. More on that in a minute, depending on how fast you read.
The movie opens with a man riding on horseback toward a castle on the seashore. His name is Kurt, he is played by Christopher Lee, and he is the count's son. Everyone in the castle is frightened of him. Kurt's family has disowned him for his excessive cruelty. He claims to have arrived to congratulate his brother, Christian (Tony Kendall), on having recently gotten married, but all are suspicious.
They seem to have good reason. Kurt stirs up trouble almost from the start. He states repeatedly that Katia (Ida Galli), his cousin, was and still is in love with Christian, and he speculates on how uncomfortable and jealous she must be to see him marry someone else. Would that also make her Christian's cousin? Presumably, but it's never mentioned. Maybe this movie is just in a place where that is normal by comparison. Kurt demands that his birthright be restored, and along with it all the things that he believes are rightfully his.
One of those things is his brother's bride, Nevenka (Dahlia Lavi). She had originally been promised to Kurt. Kurt has a past with Nevenka, and it is from that past that the film gets its title, as he knows that she likes it rough. He finds her by the seashore, pulls out a whip and flogs the shirt right off her back. This arouses her, and they make love right there on the beach.
The family grows suspicious when she has not returned by late afternoon, and they start to search for her. Nevenka is found covered with welts but otherwise unharmed. Kurt, meanwhile, is stabbed to death. His corpse is interred in the family mausoleum.
Maybe killing Kurt wasn't such a good idea. The servants begin to see strange lights on the property. Nevenka sees Kurt's face at her window and hears ghostly lashing sounds. The count is soon found murdered in the same manner as was Kurt. He was bad enough as an entitled, sadistic jerk, but who can stop Kurt now that he's a vengeful g-g-g-g-ghost?
The movie is a mess of contradictions. For one thing, it's absolutely gorgeous. There are beautiful outdoor settings, and the castle is lit with Bava's trademark colors. This doesn't seem as though it would be on any film preservation board's radar, but it's been given an exquisite DVD transfer that exhibits rich color and a sharp picture. Too bad that the same attention wasn't given to the horrible dubbing. Even Christopher Lee's voice is dubbed!
The mood is remarkably restrained and polite for a movie that deals with such risqué subject matter. It's as if they're talking about industrial metal music, but all we hear is harpsichords. This restraint and the prominent romantic element make the sadomasochism stand out all the more. That's saying a lot. There's nothing "sexual overtone" about this: Nevenka's gasps of ecstasy when flogged are an unmistakable fetish element.
Many of the cast and crew are working under assumed names. At first glance, that looks like an attempt to Anglicize the film for the American market, but the American actress Harriet Medin is among them. Was this a film that people didn't want their names associated with? It's not a backstreet production by any means. The cast includes such Bava regulars as Median and Luciano Pigozzi, and the screenplay was written by the well-regarded Ernesto Gastaldi. Under an assumed name, of course.
This clearly is a movie that is, as they say, "not for everybody." Some would say that it's not for anybody, but we don't see a reason to be judgmental toward these pathetic people. If you sip tea with an upraised pinky finger and are in the mood for something transgressive and offbeat, this might be just what you're looking for.