The Whip & the Body (1963)


In an instance of the age-old style vs substance argument, I find myself struggling with my thoughts about The Whip & the Body (1963.) Please be patient with me as I work through it. Let’s start by saying that I unwrapped my never-seen VCI DVD copy of the film and popped it in my player the other night.

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I don’t know how old the DVD was, but it didn’t fill my TV screen. (That sometimes happens with movies I obtain through nefarious sources.) I continued watching and, while I could enjoy the trademark colors of a Mario Bava film, the image was a little dark. I could tell I was going to struggle to continue watching.

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My next step in these cases is to see if a Blu-ray is available, but that puts a damper on my spirit when I’m finally prepared to watch a classic movie that I should have seen long ago. I reached out to my voice of reason, my podcasting partner, Rich Chamberlain, who reminded me that it was on Shudder with a good transfer. Problem solved; damper lifted.

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I navigated to Shudder through my Apple TV and launched the movie. Then, I was a little surprised to see that, although it filled my TV screen, the picture was still a little dark. That’s when I realized that must just be the style of the film. I now had to accept it and ultimately decide if I liked it.

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Right off the bat, I will tell you that I quickly adapted to the style; it was not consistently a concern throughout my experience of watching The Whip & the Body. In fact, the plot is so thin that the film relies on the style to support it. I was never bored, but it’s all about the mood and atmosphere and if you’re not ready for that, I think you’d find it to be slow moving.

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This is not to say that there’s not an ongoing mystery with some scares and suspenseful moments, but let’s say there’s a lot of slowly walking down hallways to get to those scares and suspenseful moments. On the way, though, there are lovely hues of blues and reds to examine, bright, yet dulled slightly by them lying adjacent to the blacks.

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I think of a film I recently watched that I did not enjoy: The Castle of the Living Dead. Normally, these two movies wouldn’t be compared, but I think of its lack of style and wonder if that’s why I didn’t like it. The black and white cinematography was not sharp and crisp and there was no creative camerawork.

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My conclusion is that in this case style wins over substance and I did indeed like The Whip & the Body. Style can count for people, too, and the simple fact that Christopher Lee wears his hair parted on the side and “down” makes him look like a younger, more handsome leading man, albeit an evil one.

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He plays Kurt Menliff, the black sheep of the family who returns home after a period of time being away. He left Giorgia (Harriet Medin), the housekeeper, with revenge in her heart because her daughter, Tanya, killed herself when he left. He also left estranged from his father, Valdimir (Gustavo De Nardo), and brother, Christian (Tony Kendall.)

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He learns that Christian has married Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), with whom he is mutually in love. That’s a fact that seems to be assumed by most everyone, including Katia (Evelyn Stewart), who is mutually in love with Christian. So… I guess it could all work out among them. Vladimir is probably the only one who would object, but he’ll soon be murdered while he sleeps.

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That will be one of the mysteries to be solved. However, the first is who killed Kurt. Yes, after he violently whips Nevenka on the beach, he’s soon murdered. On top of this is a mystery that may or may not be connected, because Nevenka starts seeing Kurt lurking in the shadows and calling to her. Is it his ghost? Is he really alive? What the heck is going on?!?

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This doesn’t sound like the thin plot I mentioned earlier. You have to understand that this is the soapy set-up and that after the pieces are rinsed, there’s still a long time for them to be dried. I also must go with style over substance due to some of the plot details that don’t make a lot of sense. For example, how has a body buried for only a couple days turned into a skeleton?

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With its beautiful piano theme that at times is played live by a character and is also the background for the entire movie, The Whip & the Body is a visual and aural masterpiece. You must be in the right frame of mind, be alert, and be ready to ride the mood they generate. When you are ready, though, take the ride. It’s well worth it.

 

Written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Ugo Guerra and Luciano Martino

Directed by Mario Bava

Starring Daliah Lavi, Christopher Lee, Tony Kendall

RT 92 min.

Released Aug. 29, 1963 (Italy), Dec. 10, 1965 (US)

Home Video Blu-ray (Kino Lorber), DVD (VCI), Streaming (Shudder)

Rating 7 knife-wielding psychos (out of 10)


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