[The following review contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Giallo—a cinematic genre as distinctly Italian as the spaghetti Western—is largely defined by spectacle: neon lights, dynamic camerawork, Dutch angles, split diopter lenses, and voyeuristic POV shots permeate every maximalist frame of such beloved classics as Deep Red, Opera, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. While director Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace certainly includes several of these familiar tropes—indeed, it arguably introduced and codified many of them—they are merely a means to an end, as opposed to the main attraction; the film instead emphasizes story, structure, and theme.
Although it’s hardly devoid of brutality and carnage, Blood and Black Lace’s suspense arises primarily from the labyrinthine web of relationships and interpersonal conflicts between its characters. Unlike the derivative, formulaic slasher flicks that it would eventually inspire (with their unwieldy, meandering, underdeveloped plots), this movie’s kills are woven into the fabric of a genuinely gripping mystery—a baffling, unpredictable whodunnit that revolves around scandalous affairs, drug abuse, intrigue, betrayal, and blackmail. The lurid, melodramatic tone of this convoluted soap opera is absolutely delicious, unapologetically wearing its debt to Hitchcock on its sleeve without resorting to shallow imitation—Bava transcends his obvious artistic influences, establishing his own creative voice and vision.
The sadistic murderer du jour—clad in a black fedora, a baggy trench coat, and an eerily featureless white mask—is undeniably iconic, but the revelation of his (or her; you can never be entirely sure when it comes to gialli) identity is intentionally anticlimactic; the violence is provoked not by vengeful wrath, psychological trauma, or some other sensationalistic rationale, but rather by plain old greed (a subversive twist that Bava would later revisit and expand upon in the gritty, cynical, nihilistic A Bay of Blood). The villains’ petty, mundane motivations and almost defiant lack of moral complexity feel incongruous with the hallucinatory imagery and surreal atmosphere of the surrounding narrative—a sobering dose of banal realism that abruptly shatters the film’s seductive, illusory dream logic.
And this ironic juxtaposition between style and substance makes Blood and Black Lace a compelling, essential, and wholly unique horror masterpiece.