It has been some years since Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) was ordered away from his nobleman's family for driving his serving girl lover to suicide through his cruelty. The girl's mother, housekeeper Giorgia (Harriet Medin), keeps the dagger she used to kill herself with under glass, and it still has blood on it; Giorgia swears that if Kurt ever returns she will murder him herself. But today he has returned, and it seems as though little has changed in his character as he is still as callous as ever. There is a reason he is back, however: he wants his titles reinstated, but fate will intervene...
Kurt isn't really the main character here, as that role falls to Daliah Lavi playing Nevenka, Kurt's former fiancée, now to engaged to his brother, who has a curious relationship with him. In The Whip and the Body, as you may have guessed from the title (also known as What or La frusta e il corpo if you are Italian) there is a strong sadomasochistic theme to their bond, as shown when Kurt and Nevenka meet again for the first time in a long while and no sooner have they exchanged pleasantries than he has her lying on the beach while he takes her riding whip and uses it on her.
And then they kiss passionately! Crazy. Anyway, this was one of those beautiful-looking horrors and thrillers from that Italian master of the genre during the nineteen-sixties, Mario Bava. His signature style is much in evidence, with everything filmed in deep shadows enlivened by vivid colour, and goes quite some way to compensating for a plot that lasts about ninety minutes when there's really only enough storyline for thirty, with the result that this takes its time in getting to those shock setpieces, although when they arrive they are superbly handled.
After a short while you may be wondering why Christopher Lee agreed to turn up at all, for he may be second billed, but soon his character has been murdered by unknown hands, funnily enough with the same dagger his ex killed herself with. There is a funeral service, his corpse is placed in the family vault, and aside from the mystery of who offed him there does not appear to be much more to be said. Ah, but then there's a twist, as Nevenka begins to hear strange noises at night: could that be the sound of a whip lashing behind the door of Kurt's bedchamber? Could it be that he is still very much alive?
You should not have much trouble answering that question, so most of the pleasure from this film stems from the expert care that it has been produced with. Its biggest advantage is its supremely atmospheric visuals, with seemingly simple shots as Christopher Lee's ashen visage or his grasping hands emerging from the darkness imbued with a true, chilling poetry. The kinkiness of the narrative is not to be dismissed either, and Lavi gives a worryingly convincing reading of a woman who hates the love of her life, encapsulated by the mixture of expressions running across her face when she is whipped - does she despise Kurt for his actions or does she despise herself for enjoying them so? The finale is not so much of a surprise because we have been offered so much space to work it out, but the journey to get there is absorbing. Music by Carlo Rustichelli.
Italian director/writer/cinematographer and one of the few Italian genre film-makers who influenced, rather than imitated. Worked as a cinematographer until the late 1950s, during which time he gained a reputation as a hugely talented director of photography, particularly in the use of optical effects.
Bava made his feature debut in 1960 with Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, a richly-shot black and white Gothic gem. From then on Bava worked in various genres – spaghetti western, sci-fi, action, peplum, sex – but it was in the horror genre that Bava made his legacy. His sumptuously filmed, tightly plotted giallo thrillers (Blood and Black Lace, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Bay of Blood) and supernatural horrors (Lisa and the Devil, Baron Blood, Kill, Baby...Kill!) influenced an entire generation of Italian film-makers (and beyond) – never had horror looked so good. Bava’s penultimate picture was the harrowing thriller Rabid Dogs, while his last film, Shock, was one his very scariest. Died of a heart attack in 1980.