When Christopher Lee cites The Whip and the Body as one of his favourite performances, it is easy to see why. Mario Bava’s production gave the man the chance to do something different from the norm and as such, it allowed him to stretch muscles that were rarely used. Lee who was used to playing many a bad guy would do so again, of a sort, yet this would not be anything like playing Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster. Here, the man is positively evil and everyone around him knows it to be so. They are in fact, quite uncomfortable and even scared of the man and that too adds to Lee’s performance as he plays off the cast. Out of every role the man ever had, this was perhaps Lee at his sadistic best and all of it framed around a Gothic background, both horrific and in a sense, romantic.
Lee plays Kurt Menliff, newly returned home and to say he is unwelcome is putting it lightly. Kurt soon falls in love with his brother’s wife Nevenka as played by Daliah Lavi and it is not a conventional type of love by any standard. In one of the more controversial scenes during the film, Kurt whips Nevenka by the beach after which the two make love. For audiences in 1963, and even today in many areas, any form of sadomasochism makes people uncomfortable. For Nevenka and Kurt though, it is but a prelude to their gratification, something each loves for different, yet similar reasons. Kurt is soon found dead, yet many think him now haunting the castle and with the strange events taking place, it cannot be anybody else but him.
If this is not Bava’s best film, it is at the very least near the top of the list and is so for many reasons. Visually, the movie is stunning as Bava not only directs, but his experience as a cinematographer comes into play to aid in that effort. Though Ubaldo Terzano was the primary photographer on the picture, Bava’s fingerprints are all over the place from the coloured lenses to those torrid moments between the leads. Though a number of people helped to write the film, one can tell that this is a Bava film through and through simply due to the few moments that seemed nonsensical and yet, like every other movie Bava ever made, one simply takes them for what they are as they help to paint a bigger picture and add to the surreal nature of it all. Everything about this picture makes it seem almost as if it was a dream, the atmosphere about it very light and airy and slightly otherworldly at times, even during those moments when there is violence and horror present. It is a strange presentation that Bava delivers, yet completely fascinating all the same.
While Lee gives the usual incredible performance, so too does Lavi as the object of his affections. She plays her role to perfection, sometimes so good as to be a little unsettling. One has to wonder if she is going mad at one point or if the ghost of Kurt truly is present. Nevenka loves the man just as much as she seems to hate him and when they get together; it is not only physically violent but mentally as well. More often than not, the scenes of violence and more specifically, the whipping are those that happen to be promoted and looked at, but this is a love story albeit one that is off the beaten track a little. As anyone can relate, love comes in many forms and that between Nevenka and Kurt is unique, but love all the same.
There is something to be said for classic horror, especially when a film can deliver so much with what seems so little. A lot of it is due to its performers and the subtlety they can deliver when needed, the slight nuances that can make or break a scene. Lee and Lavi complement each other in the most ideal of fashions and Bava is there to not only capture that, but create an atmosphere around them that enhances the story they are trying to tell. The Whip and the Body is a horror film unlike many from the year of its release and is one of the best to come from both Mario Bava and Christopher Lee, a movie that is sure to please any fan of the genre.
4.5 out of 5