La frusta e il corpo (1963)

a.k.a. - Whip and the Body, Night is the Phantom (UK), What? (USA)

Christopher Lee stars in Mario Bava's unique psychological take on the gothic horror film. E-M-S R2 DVD

The Film

Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) returns home to the family estate after years in exile - his abandonment of the caretaker's daughter had led her to suicide. During his absence, Kurt's brother Christian has become engaged to Kurt's former lover Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) although he is still in love with Katia. Encountering Nevenka on a beach, Kurt reminds her of the time they spent together and how she always enjoyed sexual punishment. That evening Kurt is killed in his room, but after the funeral Nevenka is convinced that he is still alive and following her...

For his third gothic horror film, Bava continue the themes developed in La maschera del demonio (1960) and the 'Wurdulak' chapter of I tre volti della paura (1963) of an isolated (East European) family being killed by one of its own. La frusta e il corpo however eshews the typical gothic trappings in favour of a plot that seems more akin to a psychological horror. The storyline, co-scripted by Luciano Martino, is very well written - the opening scenes manage to convey the web of relationships between the characters without resorting to blatant expositionary dialogue. This level of detail means that after Kurt's death there is a real mystery as to who killed him and the film could well have taken a purely giallo-style route from here and been very effective.

Instead the script focuses on the horror themes and it is here that the only real flaw in the script emerges - several scenes manage to build an effectively scary atmosphere but at least half of these turn out to be 'fake' scares, usually caused by the bumbling groundsman, with the result that the tension is reduced considerably in the later scenes as the expection is that they too will be fake. Although always on the slower side, clocking in at under ninety minutes, La frusta e il corpo never drags as it moves to an effective climax (although the atmospheric ending is let down somewhat by a bit of blatant exposition in the final line of dialogue as though the audience could not be trusted to figure out the not particularly complex ending for themselves).

The most notorious aspect of the film is the eponymous whipping which is astonishingly overlty sexual for a film of this era and even in Italy several scenes were cut and the producers released the film with pseudonyms on the crew credits in fear of obscenity charges. It is hard to imagine that such scenes would have even made it through the scripting stage of a British film at the time and even at their most daring in the 1970s, Hammer never approached this level of sadistic eroticism - only Jess Franco would come close although he never combined sadism with gothic horror to this extent.

The whip serves an interesting dual purpose in the film - on a horror level it provides an audible motif for the presence of Kurt and Bava uses it effectively in several scenes where he seems to be post-mortally stalking Nevenka. From a storyline perspective it serves to emphasise the difference between Kurt (whose whipping of Nevenka reminds her of the times they spent together) and Christian (whose comparable reminiscing with Katia concerns summer boat rides). For all this however it does come off as somewhat gratuitous, it never particularly affects the plot and other sources could have been found to provide the audible motif or emphasise differences between the characters.

Bava once again proves himself completely at home in the gothic horror environment. Scenes are bathed in coloured light and Kurt's haunting visits in particular are a real highlight. The sets are quite beautiful but although appearing Hammer-esque at first glace, they betray a very spartan feel compared to the ornate, sumptuous sets of many gothic horrors, suiting well the grim atmosphere of the story and continuing the visual theme from La maschera del demonio of a wealthy family fallen on harsh times. In fact Bava uses a number of visual themes from his directoral debut, including the fireplace door leading to the crypt and a tracking shot from the piano to the patriarch that literally mirrors a shot from the earlier production. A rather less welcome return from that film is the melodramatic score, this time from composer Carlo Rustichelli, which is endlessly overused in the romantic sequences - fortunately some James Bernard style themes in the horror scenes do help to boost the tension effectively here.

Christopher Lee was quickly becoming one of the top names in horror thanks to the highly sucessful quartet of Hammer Horror films at the end of the 1950s, he moved into European cinema in the early 1960s, appearing in Bava's earlier horror tinged Peplum Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) and his distinctive presence was an obvious choice for the dark and imposing Kurt although sadly he was not brought back for the dubbing and his distinctive voice is noticable in its absence. Bava's previous horror lead Barbara Steele rejected the top role and instead the very similarly styled Israeli actress Daliah Lavi was cast providing a decent if not remarkable performance in the role. The beautiful Ida Galli, with darkened hair, also returns from Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) alongside Tony Kendall (Attack of the Blind Dead (1973)) in his first major part.

Although in the 1960s Hammer had great success with their gothic horror and their Hitchcock-inspired thriller films, they never combined the settings - La frusta e il corpo is perhaps what the end result would have resembled. The fascinating script more than outweighs its few flaws and although slightly gratuitous, the sadosexual whipping theme provides a very unusual atmosphere. Some solid direction and a strong cast serve to make this one of the most original and enjoyable gothic horrors to emerge from Italy during the decade. Recommended.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Christopher Lee - became a horror icon after appearing in a number of Hammer gothic horror films.
Directed by anyone interesting? Mario Bava - one of the most acclaimed Italian horror directors, behind classic horrors from his debut La Maschera del Demonio (1960) to Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) he also worked on Peplum, sci-fi and comedy films.
Any gore or violence ? Some bloody deaths.
Any sex or nudity? Some unexpectedly vivid sadistic sexual whipping often of a partly undressed Daliah Lavi although there is no visible nudity.
Who is it for? A must see for Mario Bava fans and of interest to all classic horror fans.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print is decent with good colours and detail but does feature some print damage. Always watchable.
Audio German, Italian and English mono.
The Italian track sounds slightly muffled and the German rather tinny. English sounds best.
The German track is missing several scenes which play in English or Italian.
Subtitles German - translation of the Italian track.
German - infil of the missing scenes on the German audio track.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas containing a lot of facts and details about the film. English.
  • Original Italian, German and French cinema trailers.
  • Still galleries - photos, posters and advertising. Presented as a video file with film soundtrack over the top. Chapter scrollable.
  • German VHS and American (under the title What!) alternate opening credits
  • Very detailed biographies (German text) of Lavi, Lee and Bava.
  • Bonus trailers for Bava's Blood and Black Lace plus The Oblong Box and Laurin.
  • 8 page liner notes booklet - German text only.
Availability German release. DVD Title: Der Dämon und die Jungfrau
Region Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL
Other regions? Available from VCI in the US but now out of print, the print was much lower quality but did include English subtitles for the Italian audio. Available on a grey market DVD from "Midnight Choir" with a port of the E-M-S print but none of the extra features.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. Print language is Italian.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 6th August 2006 - updated 3rd April 2011.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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