Halloween Endurance Test: the Whip and the Body (1963)

It’s amazing how powerful a film’s score can be. In the best cases, a great score can make a film. After all, no one can deny how instrumental (pun intended!) John Williams’ score was to Star Wars’ success. Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way.

15 minutes into Mario Bava’s the Whip and the Body, and wayward son Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) is ahem… whipping his ex-girlfriend Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) on the beach. You’d think this would be cause for cheers, as the Whip and the Body is often credited as introducing the S&M subculture into cinema. Instead, though, you’ll just get hung up on Carlo Rustichelli’s overly romantic theme. One better suited for star-crossed lovers rather than public displays of domestic violence.

Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas says this may be one of the best introductions in film, and he may just be right!

While the score’s a hard sell if you’re in the mood for straight-up horror, it does suit the movie perfectly. This is one of those “sleeper” films that doesn’t immediately grab you with awesome visuals of the Blank cutting up model girls; thereby setting the standard for giallos everywhere. Instead it’s a slow build of resentment and bitterness in the Menliff family until it all boils over.

Kurt is the black sheep of this noble family; estranged after leaving for years to terrorize the countryside. He returns to make peace with his dying father, a man who refuses to believe his eldest has changed, and rekindles the notably kinky relationship he once had with Nevenka; who’s now his brother’s wife.

Don't be too weirded out, they start making out immediately afterwards.

Leaving no one surprised when the family servant wakes up to find Kurt dead in his room. No, it’s after Kurt’s ghost starts haunting the estate that the real surprises start.

And it’s a good thing too, as with Christopher Lee out of the picture, the supporting cast would’ve been extremely thin. Kurt’s younger brother, Christian (Tony Kendall) acts so wooden that each of his scenes plays as an endurance test in its own right.

(Though this may be a case of extremely poor dubbing; another trademark of Italian cinema, along with Bava’s beautiful compositions. As Nevenka’s dialogue can also be grating on the ears, which just makes for too much ugliness in an otherwise gorgeous film. Christopher Lee, so horrified by the dubbing given to him, actually made a point in all his later contracts that his voice would be the only one doing the English dubs.)

Kurt’s death brings about an intermission that perfectly bisects the film. Part I is all about Italy’s most troubled family. Kurt loves Nevenka, and Nevenka loves Kurt, but Nevenka is already set to marry Kurt’s brother, Christian. Christian, naturally, has his own ex in the wings, Katya, mussing up his desires.

Leading to the intermission which then transforms the film into a mystery. Three characters remain, all of whom have some kind of issue with the deceased Kurt. I won’t give anything away, but the ending makes you wonder whether this should be considered a “possession” film instead of a “haunting” one; which is a good ending to either type.

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