Horror

Is ‘Amityville in the Hood’ Parody or Just Kinda Racist? [The Amityville IP]

It’s no secret that horror too often elicits kneejerk reactions from narrow-minded critics who, for some reason or another, aren’t willing to give its particular brand of storytelling a fair shake. There are countless examples of films that have received lukewarm to scathing critiques from reviewers upon their release only to be embraced as classics years later, sometimes even by the same writers that originally did them dirty. Last House on the Left (1972), The Shining (1980) and, perhaps most famously, The Thing (1982) were all savaged for various reasons during their initial runs but are now not only thought of as staples of their genre but of cinema as a whole.

This was also the case for Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964). Barely making a splash with audiences and critics alike when it was released in Italy 60 years ago this month, the picture’s impact would soon be gargantuan. It would help birth the modern day giallo film, inspire the visions of countless filmmakers both nationally and abroad, and deeply influence the slasher genre. But even divorced from these accolades, Blood and Black Lace stands on its own as one Bava’s best efforts (which is saying something considering the width and breadth of his incredible career).

As many fans can attest, plot is rarely of importance in most gialli. However, here’s a brief summary of Blood and Black Lace’s for the uninitiated. Murder is afoot at Christian Haute Couture! A masked figure clad in a trench coat, fedora, and black leather gloves is gruesomely slaying the Italian fashion house’s models, and his motives are as mysterious as his garb. Local police are helpless to stop the butcheries, but are certain of one thing: the killer walks among the glamourous women he so sickeningly dispatches. Who is he, and when will his reign of terror end?

While not the first film to fall under the giallo banner (most agree that title should be given to an earlier Mario Bava picture, 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much), so many of the genre’s defining elements originated with Blood and Black Lace that you’d be forgiven for thinking the distinction belongs to it. The characteristics that spring to mind when thinking of the genre are out in full force. Beyond the obvious, like the killer’s black gloved hands, there’s the less apparent trademarks. We see the shrugging-off of the rational in favour of a more surreal viewing experience, a feature seen in many gialli. This is most evident in how we see through the lens of the camera. It creeps along, almost cat-like, and often confuses you in terms of whose perspective is being presented. Tied to this is the way color is used in how scenes are lit. Lighting gels with rich tones were utilized throughout, especially during the scenes taking place at night. These visual cues signal to the audience’s subconscious that the world being presented to them is askew somehow, leading to a sense of unease rising within.

Other times this dreamlike nature is found in the film’s narrative, with the characters’ motivations and actions appearing to lack any sort of logic. This disorients the audience, leaving them to wonder if anyone in the story is truly who they say they are. As Ian Olney puts it in his book Euro Horror: Classic European Cinema in Contemporary American Culture, Bava “toys mercilessly with viewers, inviting them to make certain assumptions or take certain positions vis-à-vis the unfolding story and its characteristics, only to pull the rug out from under again and again.”

These stylistic choices of Bava’s influenced countless filmmakers both within the boarders of Italy and elsewhere. In the States, his shadow can be seen in the works of directors like Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, and Tim Burton, while Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento both owe a large portion of their careers to the path Mario paved. Argento’s work in particular is almost a continuation of Bava’s own, as if there were a passing of the baton of sorts between the Maestro and the Italian Hitchcock. That moment could be best illustrated by their partnership during the filming of Inferno, the second entry in Argento’s Mother of Tears trilogy. Stricken ill during its production, he invited Bava to help with the creation of the film’s optical effects (a technique Mario was a master of) and assist in some second unit directing. It was, as Dario put it years later, “a sort of affectionate collaboration.”

Since Blood and Black Lace played such a pivotal role in the creation of the giallo film, it’s easy to draw a line from Bava’s classic to the conception of the modern-day slasher flick. Visually they obviously share much common ground. Take their lethal antagonists, for instance. While Blood and Black Lace was not the first movie to feature a killer with a hidden visage (that would be the 1962 shocker, Terrified) its villain’s appearance looks more in the vein of what we would see years later in the stalk-and-slash pictures of the 80’s and 90’s. Terrified’s assassin wears a boring old balaclava, while Bava’s butcher has what appears to be a white stocking over his face. The former’s choice of disguise hides the identity, but the latter’s lends him an eerie, almost otherworldly quality that would go on to be the standard for masked murderers years later.

Of course, the strength in the bond between gialli and slashers is more in blood than anything else. Both genres are built around the employment of elaborate and hyper-violent death scenes. The best of these set pieces are finely crafted works of art that build tension and dread until erupting into either a geyser of gore or, as is the case with films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the implication of a tremendous bloodletting. Blood and Black Lace’s kills, though somewhat tame by today’s standards, were absolutely vicious for their time and feature all the hallmarks of what we’d see later in the slasher.

All of these bits of historical significance are wonderful, but how important a movie is does not always make for something that’s enjoyable to watch. Thankfully, if you were to strip away all of that, you’d still be left with one hell of a gorgeous and entertaining film. Its opulent set and costume design, hypnotic camera work, expressionistic use of color, and nightmarish set-pieces all come together to make the kind of cinematic experience that makes you happy to have eyeballs in your skull.

It’s a fitting testament to the legacy of a legendary filmmaker and his masterwork.

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