The film begins with a pretty young blonde named Nora aboard a plane set to arrive in Italy. In her hands is a book, a dime-store murder mystery thriller with the words The Knife emblazoned upon its cover in ghastly lettering. Voice over narration informs us that Nora has been sent to Italy to stay with a family friend, Ethel, by her mother, the hope being that a trip abroad will break Nora from her murder mystery novel obsession. A man offers her a cigarette, which she accepts. He will later be arrested by the police in the airport. The cigarettes he’s carrying are laced with marijuana. Arriving at Ethel’s home, she meets Marcello, a doctor, who informs her that Ethel is ill, suffering from a high heart rate. Later that night, during a loud thunderstorm, Ethel dies of a heart attack and Nora leaves the house in a panic to get help, the phone lines knocked out as a result of the storm.
As she navigates the darkness near Piazza di Spagna, she is attacked and knocked unconscious by a mugger. When she comes to, Nora hears a scream in the distance. Before her very eyes, a woman staggers into a courtyard and falls over, dead with a knife in her back. As she cowers behind cover, Nora sees a bearded man approach the corpse, pulling the knife from her back and dragging her away. Dazed from the head injury she received during the attack on the steps, Nora passes out. In the early morning, she is found by a man. He pours liquor in her mouth, trying to revive her, but bolts when a police officer approaches. The police officer, thinking she is drunk, takes Nora to the hospital. Even though Nora is adamant that she witnessed a murder last night, no one believes her, writing her off as a drunk with a head injury, but it soon becomes apparent to Nora that she needs to figure out the truth of what happened that night at Piazza di Spagna because someone is coming to kill her.
Another film, this time in color. A woman named Rosy arrives home at night. From her clothing and late arrival, we can assume that she is a call girl. As she readies a bath, the phone in her home rings. Rosy answers but no one is on the other line. The phone rings again. It’s a man’s voice, hushed, almost a whisper. He is going to kill her. Rosy is understandably bothered by the call, even more so when the mysterious man phones her up again and again, each time revealing that he can see what she’s wearing, where she hid her jewelry and what room of the home she’s in. After hearing a noise at the front door, Rosy discovers an envelope lying on the floor. Inside is a newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a man’s face with a caption telling us that his name is Frank Rainer and that Frank has just recently escaped from jail.
Rosy picks up the phone, calling a woman named Mary. They are ex-lovers and we can tell from Mary’s tone that she was not the one who broke up the relationship. Rosy tells Mary that Frank has escaped, that he knows she was the one who turned him in, leading to his arrest, and that Frank is coming to kill her. She wants Mary to come over and spend the night and Mary, clearly amused by all this, accepts the offer. Rosy hangs up the phone only for it to ring again. The man’s voice on the other line chides Rosy for inviting her friend over, reiterating that she will die by his hand before dawn. What Rosy doesn’t know and what we now see for ourselves, is that Mary is the one making these calls, a vicious and vindictive bit of mind game meant to ingratiate herself back into Rosy’s life. Mary arrives at Rosy’s home to spend the night. A little later, as Rosy sleeps, Mary sits in front of a desk in the darkened room, writing a confessional to her ex-lover, explaining why she pulled the prank on her, not knowing that Frank really has come back to kill the woman who betrayed him.
The two films described above are, respectively, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and THE TELEPHONE, the first segment in the horror anthology movie BLACK SABBATH. They were both directed by the same man, Mario Bava, in 1963 and both mark first steps for the giallo film. The murder mystery thriller genre of film was at that time largely non-existent in Italy, with most examples of that kind of film being imports, like the Krimi films from Germany, many of them murder mysteries, most of them adaptations of novels and short stories written by Edgar Wallace, one of the most popular post-war pulp novelists at the time. Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH deviated from the more serious minded (though no less campy) Krimi in being a self-aware, self-reflexive piece of work, a pastiche of sorts built from Hitchcock, Expressionism, pop art and well worn detective fiction tropes. It’s relatively simple story of a young girl forced into taking on the role of amateur detective to solve a crime (and thereby save her life) is a breezy, romanticized treat, filled with suspenseful moments, but lacking in the more cynical, nasty details that pervaded the much darker American crime thrillers and Krimis.
THE TELEPHONE is a much different beast. While Nora is a woman assailed from without, Rosy is a woman assailed from within. This shift from a danger "out there somewhere" to a danger coming from within her past (or circle of acquaintances) makes this all together less encompassing film into an exercise of tightly wound suspense. Depending on the version you watch, the lesbian subtext either exists or is replaced with something far less offensive to the often puritanical film censors of the 1960s (at that time, lesbianism, like all other forms of non-heteronormative behavior, was considered deviant). In the Italian version, the lesbianism feeds into the more typical damsel in distress tropes on display, revealing a film that is as much about a man wanting to punish a woman for betraying him to the police as it is about a kind of dubious moral consciousness that wants to punish a woman for rejecting heteronormative sexuality.
These two strands of narrative threads (the amateur detective narrative and the poisoned past narrative) would become the de facto narratives for virtually every giallo film that followed in the 1960s and 1970s. They would sometimes cross-pollinate with the amateur detective discovering the killer to be their friend, relative or spouse. Even as the lines between the police thriller and the giallo blurred with films like THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA and WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?, narrative elements of one (or both) of the foundational narrative types bled through. But what was missing in 1963 was the look and feel of the giallo.
In 1964, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was released. Again directed by Bava, this tale of murder and mayhem at a haute couture fashion house brought forward most of the visual elements that would go on to define the giallo look. It would also define the attitude, that implacable bit of cynical venom that ran through the veins of the 1970s gialli. This is a movie concerned with fashion models, a haughty Countess and her arrogant lover, drug addicts and thieves all under the assault of a masked killer determined to render flesh and sever arteries. The opening shot of a sign above the front gate to the fashion house being blown off its chains by the forceful winds of a storm is the perfect visual metaphor for the corrupt and corrosive attitudes inside the building. This is a movie all about surface appearances, evidenced by its opening credits, a series of tableau shots of characters standing in front of mannequins and ornate bric-a-brac. Each one of these characters is a mess of secrets and deceptions lurking behind a veneer of respectability. The faceless killer could be any one of them and that’s the point. Remove the outer shell of humanity from any of them and all you’re left with is something inhuman.
BLOOD AND BLACK LACE gives us the typical giallo killer disguise, a black rain or trench coat, a black fedora, a bavaclava and black gloves. It gives us the obsession with style, the outward appearance that marks the characters as showpieces. It gives us the murder fetish where instruments of destruction are given pornographic attention and the scenes of bodily destruction have an immediate, almost sexual feel to them. It gives us the purposefully obtuse camera angles, the roving shots of ornate architecture, the close-ups of suspicious glances and ever-watching, unblinking eyes. But most importantly, it gives us the set piece.
The original Italian title of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is SEI DONNE PER L’ASSASSINO, literally translated to SIX WOMEN FOR THE MURDERER. Typical in giallo films, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is a movie where the narrative halts almost entirely to devote running time to the stalking, terrorizing and murder of women. Perhaps the first body count movie ever made, the narrative here borrows a bit from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in that each murder doesn’t so much propel the narrative forward as simply compacts it down (like a game of Guess Who?, only here you don’t simply fold the plastic pieces down after they’re eliminated, you slit their throats). Like Christie’s story and the dozens of movies based off of it, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is only ostensibly a murder mystery. Characters are not worried about the identity of the killer. They’re worried about whatever personal private information is contained within the diary of Isabella, the killer’s first victim. Everyone in the film is concerned with self-preservation, but not the kind you would expect in a movie where a killer is running around strangling people. They’re more worried about having their dirty laundry aired which would certainly be their death, not physically but socially.
But in all honesty, this film doesn’t care about telling a compelling whodunit story. After all, this is a film whose original title was SIX WOMEN FOR THE MURDERER. Bava is only concerned with one thing here and that’s the creation of tense, self-contained bits of thriller cinema. In a way, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE prefigures the slasher film much more solidly than Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. The inclusion of a police investigator into the mix only serves as a launching pad for the films sadistically ironic finale. Where BLOOD AND BLACK LACE differs from the simplistic breasts and blood slasher film is in the way Bava presents his story visually.
Perhaps the single most interesting thing about BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is the painterly, hyper-stylized look of the film. Awash in gelled lights, this is a Crayola nightmare of a film, a watercolor chiaroscuro fever dream positively dripping with menace and constructed with deliberate, almost obsessive attention to detail. Bava’s history as cinematographer comes to the forefront here with every single scene containing a jaw dropping amount of visual power. Much of the irony derived from the films narrative is the juxtaposition of beautiful imagery with graphic grue and violence. The first murder of the film is set in a wonderfully Gothic outdoors arena. A beautifully lit room, walls touched with hints of pink and baby blue, gives way to a scene of a woman having a spiked glove rammed into her carefully made up, glamour magazine perfect face.
It’s difficult to put into words the sheer beauty of Bava’s film just as it’s difficult to describe its deliberate attempt to discard verisimilitude for atmosphere. If SUSPIRIA is Alice and Wonderland as written by a madman and photographed by Jack Cardiff, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is FRIDAY THE 13TH as written by a pretentious leftist pundit and art directed by Henri Matisse. The collision of staggering beauty with stomach churning violence (unlike most movies of the time, the violence here actually hurts to watch, so much so that I hope the actresses earned hazard pay) is just another irony in a movie full of them.
By the time the credits roll on BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, the giallo film has been birthed, albeit fragmented. It would be another five years before the pieces were all put together by Dario Argento in THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, a film which found the success Bava never did. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was a flop, like THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH before it. Today, Bava is remembered as a master of suspense, a man whose influence can be seen throughout modern cinema. Had BLOOD AND BLACK LACE achieved mainstream success at the time, I wonder what the course of the giallo film would have looked like.