By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Christopher Lee, Daliah Lavi, Tony Kendall
Directed by Mario Bava
Written by Ernesto Gastaldi, Ugo Guerra, Luciano Martino
You ever get done watching a movie and just not know what to do with it?
On the positive end, THE WHIP AND THE BODY checks every box in the gothic literature mold: deep-rooted familial dysfunction, a tragic (albeit not-so-secret, as everyone knows what a wank the antagonist is) history that comes back to influence the present, repressed sexual desire that manifests itself in bizarre and horrifying ways, and more than a fair share of dark castles, dank crypts, and torchlit chapels. It also, at times, crosses over into the kind of smut that Pornhub will likely be deleting from their channel come January. If the title wasn’t enough indication, this film is the gothic version of Fifty Shades of Grey, only with a bigger helping of dubious consent and actual Stockholm syndrome.
It begins with Kurt Menliff, (Christopher Lee) a wayward count with a flagellation fetish, coming home to wish his brother (Tony Kendall) and his ex Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) well on their upcoming wedding. Or at least that’s the stated reason for his visit. The actual reason is to remind Nevenka that she is “his” and to take his inheritance back, an inheritance that was revoked after his cheating on Nevenka with a staff member led to that staff member committing suicide. He’s very obviously not welcome from the outset, and most of his family members loathe the very sight of him. It’s hardly a surprise when, after he whips and has sex with Nevenka, a mysterious figure sticks a knife in his neck, the same one the house staff member used to kill herself. His family is initially relieved when he passes, though they soon begin fighting amongst themselves over the question of who murdered him… and then, of course, he comes back for what’s “his.”
Here’s the deal: this film’s sexual content alternates between hilarious and incredibly uncomfortable. There is a moment when Nevenka hears Kurt’s ghost calling to her, and, following the sound of barking dogs, enters his old room and immediately begins to shake like she’s having sex. This is, of course, followed by the window blowing open and a tree branch cracking like a whip in and out of the room. That’s just funny shit right there, the kind of thing Ryan Murphy would squeeze into a season of AHS just to get a rise out of people. But the film’s many sex scenes, though rarely overtly graphic, feel very off. At first, you aren’t really sure if Nevenka loves or hates Kurt, if she’s having sex with him because she wants to, or because he’s forcing himself on her. But as the film progresses and Kurt starts to pay her nightly visits, it becomes clear that Kurt was an abusive shitlord who purposely tried to give her Stockholm syndrome, and the memory of his abuse (or his ongoing abuse, depending on how you read the film) ultimately drives her to her grave. During these nightly visits, he ignores her protests, rips her clothes off, and declares ownership over her till she gives in and lets him have his way, culminating in a finale where she relinquishes control over her body (letting him possess her) and then while trying to stab him to free herself from his clutches, kills herself.
And ya see, I wasn’t really looking for a film like this tonight.
I know what you must be thinking: sure, this can be read as a commentary on the kind of “haunting” abuse victims have to reckon with, battling the memory of their abusers as they attempt to move forward, but honestly, if that’s what it’s meant to be, I think it kind of sucks. I’m not sure Bava was clear on whether Nevenka loved or hated Kurt, and I think that confusion is apparent over the course of the film. I spent most of the runtime debating whether her affair with Kurt was a projection of repressed psychosexual desire or the echoes of a harmful, abusive relationship, and Bava’s answer to that question seems to be “yes.” This, to me, comes off as a touch problematic, as it implies that she wants all of the abuse that comes her way, and not in like a safe, controlled, BDSM-friendly way. Maybe that’s the tragedy of the film, or perhaps the source of the film’s horror, but it doesn’t make it any less distasteful, and I personally felt it could have been handled better.
As gothic horror films go, THE WHIP AND THE BODY is average. Bava’s iconic imagery and set design are on full display here, making each frame of THE WHIP AND THE BODY gorgeous and terrifying all at once. I also like that the question of whether Kurt has returned remains a question. By the end of the film, you’ll be debating whether Kurt’s spirit actually manifested or if the murders were the actions of a woman driven insane by repressed desire. I just think that in the end, THE WHIP AND THE BODY was just not my cup of tea. Your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on how you read it, but it wound up not being my favorite Bava film.
I’m going to give it a 3. The cinematography was great, but I could have done without the rape scenes. If you want to see a Bava flick, I’d recommend Black Sunday. I can’t recommend this one.
THE WHIP AND THE BODY is currently streaming on Shudder.