With the semi-ironic popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey movies, film fans everywhere are discovering the wonders of S&M and B&D. Okay, not really, but the movie/book franchise has piqued the interest of “square” people and brought sexual domination to the pop culture forefront. Of course, for horror fans, it was always there. Way back in 1963, Italian uber-director Mario Bava (Hatchet for the Honeymoon, A Bay of Blood) played with the trend with the aptly named The Whip and the Body.
The Whip and the Body is about a nobleman named Kurt Menliff (horror legend Christopher Lee from The Wicker Man and Scream of Fear) who surprises his family by unexpectedly returning home to congratulate his brother, Christian (Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill’s Tony Kendall), on his recent marriage. Although the family is pleasant enough to him, none of them are exactly happy at his sudden appearance, particularly his father, Count Menliff (Bava regular Gustavo De Nardo from Evil Eye and Baron Blood).
Things are complicated because Christian’s new wife, Nevenka (The Demon’s Daliah Lavi), is an ex-lover of Kurt’s, and when the two secretly meet on the beach outside the family’s castle, the sadistic Kurt whips the masochistic Nevenka while making love to her in the same way he did during their passionate relationship. That night, Kurt is murdered, and his unpopularity makes everyone in the house a suspect. Soon enough, though, Nevenka is haunted by Kurt’s ghost, leading her to wonder if the evil man is still alive…or if she’s just going crazy.
Mario Bava directed The Whip and the Body under the name “John M. Old” from a script that was tag-teamed by Ernesto Gastaldi/aka “Julian Berry” (Torso, Blade of the Ripper), Ugo Guerra/aka “Robert Hugo” (The Woman in the Painting, The Rage Within), and Luciano Martino/aka “Martin Hardy” (The Torturer, Screamers). (it seems as if everyone on the crew was credited with an Americanized name.) It’s part ghost story, part murder mystery – sort of a supernatural slasher – with a kinky little twist. To be fair, the sex and violence in The Whip and the Body is very tame, even for 1963. But there is some whipping and stripping, so this Italian proto-giallo earns it colorful name.
Speaking of names, The Whip and the Body goes by several other titles. It’s original Italian name is La frusta e il corpo. Some of its other names are simple variations, like The Body and the Whip and The Whip and the Flesh. Others are generic and seemingly unrelated, such as Night is the Phantom and Son of Satan. It even got puzzlingly attached to a huge horror icon with its Brazilian title – Drácula, o Vampiro do Sexo (translation: Dracula the Sex Vampire). Like many other Italian movies of the period (or American ones for that matter), The Whip and the Body suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.
The cinematography for The Whip and the Body is credited to camera operator Ubaldo Terzano/”David Hamilton” (Deep Red, The New York Ripper), but as a cinematographer himself, Bava was very involved in the photography of the film. The look of the film is classic giallo, full of primary colored lighting, making use of more blues than normal to accentuate the paranormal aspects of the story. The Bava trademark surreal zoom is on full display, with the in-and-out almost looking like the camera is mounted on a swing in some scenes. The visual style of the film is summed up nicely in a single spooky shot of a disembodied hand, bathed in a cold blue wash of light, reaching out for the camera. Bava and Terzano make a great team, and that teamwork results in some stunning photographic moments.
The music in The Whip and the Body is ever present. The score was composed by Carlo Rustichelli/“Jim Murphy” (Kill, Baby…Kill!, Blood and Black Lace), and it is comprised mostly of a lovely, if a bit repetitive, piano theme. Sometimes it’s just the piano, sometimes it’s accompanied by an orchestra, but it’s always basically the same theme, and it plays pretty much throughout the entire movie. It works, because it’s a spooky motif, but the score for The Whip and the Body is a one-trick pony, and a tireless one.
Italian horror movies are always kind of sexy, so The Whip and the Body is not too out of place in that context. But it’s a little more fun when the whipping is combined with the ghostly image of horror icon Christopher Lee. It’s spooky sexy.