J. Malcolm Stewart
A Look Back in Horror
Going into cold shakes at the idea that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is coming to a screen near you in 2014? Afraid that the Twi-Harders are going to exchange their fangs for whips and chains? Do you need further proof that new Hollywood is desperate to steal every horror idea and make it into fodder for the teen scene? Well, this column is for you.
Tonight’s subject reminds me of words said by that great American poet, Clubber Lang; “My prediction is…pain.” Since we only hurt the ones we love, it’s fitting that our next review takes a look at director Mario Bava’s La Frusta e il Corpo,(translation: The Whip and the Body). 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 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. And coming along for the ride is 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.
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 brakes 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 during its original release. The scourging scenes between the film’s 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(?) where the plot revolved around a murderous ghost.
Bava smartly predicted 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 (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.
With the upcoming “Fifty Shades” series adaptation, Hollywood seems ready to embrace, if not full-on BDSM , at least the voyeuristic aspects of the lifestyle. So, given that horror fans are always ahead of the curve, give this one a whirl in the queue. Lucky you. 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.