Film Review: THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963) – directed by Mario Bava

Posted: August 1, 2012 in Film Reviews
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Mario Bava is the godfather of Italian horror cinema. His pioneering work in the 1960s laid the groundwork for filmmakers like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci who would go on to develop, if not imitate, his style for years to come. Bava’s avant-garde approach to lighting, composition and set design have also influenced many American filmmakers such as David Lynch, Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese, all of whom paid direct homage to his works through their use of flamboyantly expressionistic cinematography and shocking bursts of intense violence.

Several of Bava’s films have also served as unacknowledged inspiration for many of America’s beloved horror franchises. FRIDAY THE 13TH, for example, is a clear knockoff of Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD. And ALIEN is so blatantly derivative of Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES it’s a wonder Ridley Scott wasn’t charged with plagiarism after the film’s release.

Bava was not only a filmmaker ahead of his time in terms of cinematic technique, but also in terms of subject matter. So it’s not surprising that in 1963, Bava would be one of the first filmmakers to direct a film about sadomasochistic love story, albeit one from beyond the grave, in THE WHIP AND THE BODY.

Set in the 19th century, the movie tells the story of Kurt (played by the magnificent Christopher Lee, years before he fought Yoda, Gandalf and Peter Cushing), the black sheep of the noble House of Menliff, who is banished by his father, Count Vladimir, for driving a young servant girl, whom he seduced and abandoned, to suicide. Many years have passed since that incident and now the Count is on his deathbed. Upon his death, his title and lands will pass onto his second-born son, Christian. In addition, the Count has also arranged the marriage of Kurt’s former flame, Nevenka, to Christian. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode too well for Kurt who returns home to his ancestral castle on the pretense of congratulating the newlywed couple and apologizing to his father.

However, what Kurt really wants is to reclaim his role of sole inheritor to the throne and to rekindle his kinky romance with Nevenka. Although married to Christian, Nevenka doesn’t appear to be entirely opposed to reuniting with Kurt as evident in the scene on the beach the day after Kurt returns home in which he whips the blouse off her black and proceeds to thrash her while reminding her that she hasn’t changed and that she’s always loved violence. After getting her worked up, the two make love.

That same night, however, Kurt is stabbed to death in his sleep by the same dagger the ill-fated servant girl used to kill herself with. Poetic justice leads to a whodunit murder mystery as everyone in the castle is a suspect. Everyone except Nevenka who after Kurt’s funeral is visited by the ghost of her dead paramour in the privacy of her bed chamber. Nevenka is initially frightened by Kurt’s appearance but after he lashes her back with his whip, she quickly surrenders to its sting with orgasmic ecstasy and rejoices in the fact that her lover has returned from the grave to be with her. Or has he?

THE WHIP AND THE BODY is a magnificent film and a fine example of Mario Bava at the top of his game. Granted, the film suffers from the inevitable dubbing problems that plague most Italian films (Italian films at the time were shot without sync-sound, so that they could be dubbed into different languages for foreign markets), but Bava’s use of surreal candy-colored lighting, gothic set pieces and haunting atmosphere makes up for any jarring experience the audience may incur with the questionable dubbing.

The S&M scenes are handled with class and do not come off as exploitative or pornographic at all, which may or may not be a good thing depending on what you’re expecting going into a film with a title like THE WHIP AND THE BODY. If you’re looking for a gratuitous depiction of sadomasochism with little to no story or context, you may want to dust off whatever subscriptions you have to kinky websites for the umpteenth time. If, however, you’re looking for a film that depicts BDSM in an artful manner and integrates it into a well-told story filled with shock and suspense, then THE WHIP AND THE BODY is for you.




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