Normally I like to start off these damned things with an intro of some sort, preferring to not jump right into a plot synopsis. It just seems more, I don’t know, “proper”, I suppose to me (I guess you could say that’s one good thing I took away from high school English class). Normally, I’ve been pretty lucky in this department but for the life of me I could not think of an intro of any kind for this film. I’ve even put off writing this on a few occasions in the hopes that something would come to me but alas, nothing. I know it’s just for a dumb blog and I’m probably over thinking something that I’m sure most would view as trivial but I’m weird like that. It is what it is. Therefore, in this instance, I’m admitting defeat (I can probably see this happening in the future as well). Consider this rambling a cop out for the lack of a proper intro. I think I’ve stalled long enough, so let’s get into it, my all time favorite Mario Bava film, The Whip and the Body!
After being banished for causing the suicide of a servant he seduced and subsequently abandoned, Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) returns to his family’s seaside castle upong hearing the news that Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), the woman that was once promised to him is now married to his brother Christian (Tony Kendall). It isn’t long after Kurt’s return that he and Nevenka find themselves revisiting their favorite pastime, with Nevenka being on the receiving end of Kurt’s whip, although later that night Kurt is mysteriously murdered in his room. Soon after Kurt’s funeral however, Nevenka beings to see Kurt appear to her in her room at night, and the whippings being again, and although nobody believes Nevenka and her ghost stories at first, soon Kurt’s presence begins to be felt throughout the entire castle.
A ghost story/murder mystery complete with major psychological and sadomasochistic overtones, The Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo) is certainly made up of an odd collection of ingredients seemingly on the opposite ends of the spectrum, but it works, and works well. One of the major keys to the success of the film is how well balanced it is, in the sense that neither one of the aforementioned elements override one or the other, they’re all working hand in hand to create a truly unique film experience, I doubt you’ll see anything else even remotely like it. The mystery element is pretty standard at first, following most of the classic whodunit motifs (it’s been said that portions of it could be considered proto giallo) IE who was where and with who when such and such happened, but as the film progresses it becomes something else entirely when taking the ghost story elements into consideration. Far from your average spirit haunting a castle story, the ghost story is unquestionably one of the most enticing devices of the film, as it’s simpatico with the psychological and S&M aspects. The character of Nevenka is a fascinating one, and Bava uses Kurt’s spirit as a primer of sorts to explore Nevenka’s complex range emotions regarding her relationship with Kurt and her masochistic personality, as well as the fear that, even in death, Kurt still seems to strike in those in the castle. On top of all that, Bava even manages to take the film into romantic and tragic territories at times, which both fit right in with all attributes of the story. One dimensional this film isn’t.
Do forgive me for using the tired saying the film looking like a painting come to life, but when taking into consideration the barrage of beautiful, beautiful colors which Bava showcases mere seconds after the opening credits, plus the lighting and cinematography, I’ll be damned if that saying wasn’t specifically invented for a film like this. Throughout the film Bava particularly shows an affinity for red, blue and green (amongst many others of course) using said colors to create some incredibly striking images, some of the most memorable in his entire filmography in fact, such as Kurt’s green ghost hand lurching towards the screen out of the darkness, or in one sequence choosing to present the face of Kurt as a sharp, ghastly yet gorgeous shade of crimson. There’s plenty of substance to go along with all the style as Bava took full advantage of the fact that when the events of the story take a turn for the delirious it gave the visuals and the sound design license to do so as well, such as Nevenka constantly hearing sounds resembling lashes of a whip, pretty much any scene taking place within Kurt’s tomb, and my personal favorite, the shot of a vine apparently “whipping” in the wind. The castle setting, complete with secret passages is not only prime for the whodunit subplot, but the gothic atmosphere that naturally comes with such a place couldn’t have been more fitting for the ghost story. Bava also threw in some nice beach shots for added beauty, the same beach by the way that he would later return to for the underappreciated Five Dolls For an August Moon (1970).
Along with the mystery going on in the story, there’s a few other things regarding the film that I’ve always found to be somewhat mysterious. First, why Christopher Lee’s lines were dubbed over post production, when it’s obvious they were done in English. To be perfectly honest, the dubbed voice doesn’t really sound all that different than Lee’s natural voice and it never affects the film or Lee’s performance in a negative way, but it just seems so unnecessary. Secondly, why the film was released in the U.S. under the alternate title What. Why? There’s been some strange alternate titles given to a lot of films over the years, but What sure as hell takes the cake for the most bizarre. Finally, just how badly the film was butchered by the censors when it was first released. Watching the fully uncut version today you’ll probably be left scratching your head wondering what was considered so offensive, but take offense people did, and certain scenes that were absolutely essential to the story were cut. What’s even more surprising is how lenient and more liberal Europe is considered to be when it comes to things of that nature, but I guess for 1963 the film went too far. As I stated above, The Whip and the Body is my favorite Bava film, as to me, every single one of Bava’s strength’s as a filmmaker are on display here. Couple that with the original storyline, one of Christopher Lee’s most imposing performances and Daliah Lavi’s dumbfounding beauty, you’ve got a masterpiece. It’s considered by many to be Bava’s best work, and while a statement like that is bound to cause debate, I share that mindset.