Original title: La frusta e il corpo
aka: Night Is the Phantom; What; The Whip and the Body
D: Mario Bava / 91m
Cast: Daliah Lavi, Christopher Lee, Tony Kendall, Ida Galli, Harriet Medin, Gustavo De Nardo, Luciano Pigozzi
Returning home after a period away due to his involvement in the death of a servant girl, Kurt Menliff (Lee) receives a less than warm welcome from his father, Count Menliff (De Nardo), his younger brother Cristiano (Kendall) and his wife Nevenka (Dali), nor from their servant Giorgia (Medin) whose daughter, Tania, was the servant girl who died. Despite this, Kurt intends to reclaim his title, as well as to rekindle the sadomasochistic relationship he had with Nevenka (they were originally to be married before the scandal with the servant girl forced Kurt to leave). One evening, while Nevenka takes a stroll on the beach, Kurt intercepts her. He whips her as a prelude to sex; afterwards, Nevenka realises she is still in love with him. When she doesn’t return from her walk on the beach, Cristiano instigates a search for her and she is found on the beach, but unconscious. Meanwhile, Kurt has returned to the castle unaware of what’s happening, but while in his room, is killed with the same dagger that Tania committed suicide with.
Following Kurt’s death, Nevenka begins to have visions of him. He visits her in her room and once more flogs her. She becomes ever more fearful, and ever more convinced that he’s alive. Then, the Count is found dead, killed by the same weapon as Kurt and Tania. Nevenka tells Cristiano that Kurt has come back from the dead and is seeking revenge on all of them. With the appearance of muddy footprints leading from Kurt’s tomb to inside the castle, and Nevenka’s increasingly unstable behaviour, the possibility that Kurt has returned from the grave becomes more certain, until Cristiano determines to open Kurt’s coffin.
One of Bava’s most effective movies, The Whip and the Flesh has bags of atmosphere, a deceptively simple plot, great performances from all concerned (bearing in mind the melodrama inherent in the story), and a visual style that makes great use of half light and shadows. It’s also a deliberately paced movie that allows the horror to build to a crescendo, giving Bava the opportunity to create a fever dream that’s both delirious and oppressive.
Locating the action in and around a lonely castle on a cliff next to the sea, the script – by Ernesto Gastaldi, Ugo Guerra and Luciano Martino – adds a sense of isolation to proceedings that in turn makes each development in the story that much more forbidding and grim. It’s as if the characters were all trapped, doomed in a way to remain there until their fate is decided. Kurt’s death, so surprising both for how soon it occurs and because he’s played by Lee, the second lead, is unsettling because there is no human involvement in it (at least none that the audience sees). And even though his death is attributed to another character at the end, it makes better sense that this is another example of revenge from beyond the grave, and that Tania’s ghost is responsible. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t take this approach, but with Kurt’s death the movie does become a potent mix of ghost story, whodunnit and psychosexual drama.
Making Nevenka the focus of each strange event that follows gives Bava the chance to indulge in some creepy set pieces, such as Kurt’s first visit to Nevenka’s bedroom, a chilling, drawn out sequence that combines the sound of approaching footsteps, the ominous turn of a door handle, and the sight of muddy boots appearing out of the shadows. It’s a sequence that’s so moodily effective that it has the effect of putting the viewer on the edge of their seat, and just as anxious as Nevenka to see what’s going to happen next. What we see next is perhaps the movie’s most horrifying moment of all, as Kurt’s ghost stands by her bed, his figure in silhouette for a second or two before revealing he has a whip. On the page it may not sound so frightening, but in the movie it’s shocking, as much for the effect of seeing the whip revealed, but also for the implications that come with it. Just that sequence alone is a masterpiece of direction and editing.
With Bava so firmly in control of the material, it gives him the opportunity to coax some better than average performances from his cast. Lavi, an actress employed usually for her decorative appeal rather than her acting ability, here makes an indelible impression as a woman whose masochistic tendencies lead to fear and paranoia, and self-induced erotic imaginings. It’s a performance that’s more controlled than it appears, and anchors the movie to great effect. As the cold and sadistic Kurt, Lee imparts more in a look than some actors can convey in a five-minute monologue. Always an imposing presence, he commands attention in every scene he’s in, and though his appearance diminishes as the movie progresses, he leaves an indelible mark on the movie that adds to the cloying atmosphere of the movie’s final third (it’s sad that his lines, even in English, were dubbed by another actor). Kendall, making only his second movie, downplays the usual melodramatic heroics expected of his role, and makes Cristiano as wretched in his own way as all the other characters. And as his true love, Katia, Galli is not as vapid or as wishy-washy as virtuous love interests often prove to be, but makes the character sympathetic without being tiresome.
There are some flaws, though, with certain scenes feeling truncated or not fully developed. One such scene involves the discovery of the dagger in Katia’s room by Giorgia; it could have been a tense, dramatic moment that introduced an element of doubt about the character, but it’s over before it can go anywhere. And it’s never explained as to why the dagger is kept in a glass cage with Tania’s blood still on the blade. But these are minor caveats in a movie that makes great use of its castle setting, with its rooms and corridors proiving wonderfully creepy in the way that only old castles can be, and supported by a lush, romantic score courtesy of Carlo Rustichelli that shouldn’t complement the action but in a strange way, is entirely appropriate.
Rating: 8/10 – for many, Bava is a director who can do no wrong, and on this evidence they’re absolutely right; tense, unnerving and making no apologies in its depiction of what would have been ascribed as aberrant behaviour, The Whip and the Flesh is a stylish horror that remains as effective now as it was over fifty years ago.