By J. Malcolm Stewart
Since we only hurt the ones we love, Fellow Ghouls, it’s fitting that our next review takes a look at Mario Bava’s La Frusta e il Corpo, (translation: The Whip and the Body). Tonight’s subject reminds me of words said by that great American poet, Clubber Lang; “My prediction is…pain.” And the pain is there for everyone to see in this long-lost 1963 classic.
Before its restoration in 2007, Bava-lunatics had spent years dealing with inferior copies of this neglected masterwork. (How did all those pieces of hair used get into the projector anyway? Did someone have a paid position like Key Grip or something?) After flirting with the twin subjects of obsession and sadomasochism in earlier films, Il Maestro takes the gloves off in what might have been the most haunting (and controversial) film of his career. Along with one of the most celebrated figures in horror history.
Starring Christopher Lee (who had already rocketed to stardom in the English Hammer films) as the detestable Kurt and Israeli scream queen Daliah Lavi as Nevenka, La Frusta sets the stage with Lee’s Kurt coming home as a sinister prodigal son, seemingly ready to make peace with his younger brother (played by Tony Kendall) after years away. Ignoring the fact that he previously left a dead lover in his wake, our lovable villain seems hell-bent on returning to his place in the family and resuming his affair with Nevenka, not caring that she is now the bride of his before-mentioned brother.
Making matters worse is the way that the affair resumes between Kurt and Nevenka. Let’s just say that… Kurt doesn’t believe in saying it with flowers. After a harrowing beach rendezvous between the two, Kurt ends up getting shanked like an extra from OZ. Despite the fact there’s a murderer in the house, Kurt’s death seems to bring a sigh of relief to everyone involved. (Believe me, Ghouls; you’ve got problems when the Klan shows up to be to be pallbearers at your funeral.)
However, Kurt’s death proves a mere stepping stone into a story fraught with the presence of love, ghosts and madness. Bava never puts on the breaks on as the twisted affair between Kurt and Nevenka becomes more and more intense. Few audiences outside of Italy or France ever saw the uncut version of this film. The scourging scenes between the forbidden lovers, at the time, had maximum shock value. And the implied orgasm of Nevenka during one of Kurt’s assaults sent the frenzy against the film into overdrive. English language versions of the film cut all the direct and implied scenes dealing with sadomasochism. The many translations of the film’s title in English avoided even mentioning of the subject. American audiences were subjected to a confusing mess of a film titled Night is the Phantom (?) which had been fully subjected to the censor’s snip. Bava seemed to sense the flood of criticism that would be coming his way by releasing the English version of the film under the pseudonym of John M. Old. Not that it fooled many people.
Nearly fifty years later, La Frusta is seen as ground breaker, a genre film that didn’t just bend boundaries, but shattered them. Many critics believe it softened the ground for Luis Buñuel’s 1967 sensation Belle de Jour which dealt with some of the same taboo subject matter (Keep your eyes peeled, Bava-heads, for Buñuel’s homage to “Whip” in his film ). Lee and Lavi both highlight it as an exceptional performance in their early careers. And given the excellent restored version that’s now available, you now have a front row seat for this classic without all that pesky hair in the way.
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