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LA FRUSTA E IL CORPO (Italian-French co-production, 1963)
Director/Cinematographer: Mario Bava (under pseudonym "John M. Old")
Story: Ernesto Gastaldi
Screenplay: Ernesto Gastaldi, Luciano Martino, and Ugo Guerra
Camera Operator: Ubaldo Terzano
Editing: Renato Taiquiri
Music: Carlo Rustichelli
Main players: Daliah Lavi (Nevenka); Christopher Lee (Kurt); Luciano Stella (Christian); Gustavo De Nardo (Count Menliff); Luciano Pigozzi (Losat); Harriet White (Giorgia); Isli Oberon (Katia); Jacques Herlin (Priest)
Alternate titles: The Whip and the Body; What!; Night is the Phantom; The Way and the Body; Son of Satan; The Whip and the Flesh; The Body and the Whip; Incubo
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
SYNOPSIS:

Set in the 19th century, the story deals with the twisted relationship between Kurt Menliff and his sister-in-law Nevenka, his previous lover; he is a sadist who gets sexual pleasure from whipping his lovers, while she is locked in a loveless marriage with his spineless brother Christian.

When Kurt unexpectedly returns to his familial castle after several years of wandering, he does not get a very warm reception: Christian resents his very presence, his father, an invalid Count, has never forgiven him for leaving in the first place, and the maid, Giorgia, is anxious to get back at him for causing the death of her daughter, who stabbed herself in the throat after Kurt walked out on her. Neverthelss, Kurt is allowed to stay.

The following morning, Kurt confronts his cousin Katia, whom he knows to be in love with Christian.He smugly assures her that he feels her pain, as he is still interested in Nevenka. Katia flees from his unwanted attention, so Kurt turns his energies toward his father. Now that he has returned, he feels that he is entitled to take possession of the estate, but the Count makes it clear that he has no intention of naming him as an heir.

Bitter over his defeat, Kurt goes to the beach, where he sees Nevenka sitting pensively by the sea. He approaches her, and reminds her of their past relationship. Starved for attention, she gives in initially, then recoils, striking Kurt accross the face with her riding crop. He then calmly takes the crop out of her hand, and proceeds to whip her. "You haven't changed," he sneers. "You always loved violence." Indeed, Nevenka's reactions to being beaten are very subdued, and her expression betrays sexual excitement. Kurt strikes her several more times, before tossing the crop aside and making love to her.

After finishing with Nevenka, Kurt returns home, where he is confronted by Christian and Katia. They ask where Nevenka is, to which Kurt replies that he has no idea. They know that he is lying, particularly since he is now in possession of Nevenka's whip, but as it is getting dark, they set out to look for her. Kurt then retires to his room, where he is stabbed in the throat by an unseen assailant.

Meanwhile, Nevenka is discovered on the beach, her back covered with welts. After putting Nevenka to bed, Christian sends for Kurt. The family butler, Losat, goes to fetch him, only to discover his corpse on the floor, the bloody dagger beside him.

Following Kurt's burial, Christian timidly asks his father if he was responsible for Kurt's murder. The Count is enraged by these accusations and dismisses him, and soon after he is killed in the same fashion as Kurt. The entire family unit starts to unravel. The marriage between Christian and Nevenka becomes more and more strained. Nevenka starts to see visions of Kurt, and at one point his ghost visits her in the night, whipping her passionately.

Determined to put Nevenka's fear to rest, Christian and Losat burn Kurt's remains. As this is happening, a ghostly laugh rings out. Following a dark figure, dressed like Kurt, to the castle, Christian is shocked to discover that it is actually Nevenka. Nevenka had murdered Kurt, but her remorse over this crime, coupled with her realization that she truly did love him, compels her to act as though he lives on in her, dressing in his clothes to complete the illusion. She even goes so far as the flagellate herself to keep their love alive, and murders the Count as revenge for ostracizing her lover.

Nevenka escapes from her husband and flees tothe crypt, where she "confronts" Kurt for the last time. In their final embrace, she stabs herself to death, thinking that she is killing him.


CRITIQUE:

Released in the United States in a heavily censored edition that eliminates all traces of sexual masochims, LA FRUSTA proved to be quite ahead of its time. In retrospect, the American title WHAT! pretty well sums up the reactions of audiences at the time, baffled as they must have been by the incomprehensible re-editing. Thankfully, Bava's original cut is available on Japanese laser disc, in a gorgeously colorful, letterboxed print that enables one to appreciate every facet of its brilliance. In this form it is, arguably, Bava's greatest work, and a must for all serious film buffs.

Lushly photographed by Bava and based on a screenplay by the talented Ernesto Gastaldi (the writer of Riccardo Freda's L'ORRIBILE SEGRETTO DEL DOTTORE HICHCOCK [THE TERROR OF DR. HICHCOCK], 1962, in essence the other great, ultra-perverse Italian horror film of the 1960s), this film finds Bava experimenting with the medium with more courage than in any of his earlier films. The subject matter, daring even by today's standards, is dealt with in a very disturbing, yet psychologically valid and complex, fashion. The male viewer is encouraged to identify with Kurt. In the same way that the prototypical "macho" man uses sexual intercourse as much for ego gratification as for sexual pleasure, Kurt uses violence as a means of asserting his masculinity. At the same time, he does not enjoy being sexually abused himself; the pleasure he derives from beating Nevenka is purely one-sided. The sequences in which Kurt whips her are filmed in a disturbingly romantic fashion. In this way, Bava encourages the male spectator to share in Kurt's pleasure. Paradoxically, in doing so, Bava forces the male viewer to confront his own inadequacies.

To avoid being overly critical of the male viewer -- after all, females have their failings as well -- Bava encourages the audience to sympathize with Nevenka. Initially she appears to be a victim, yet she is actually very much in control of the situation. She genuinely loves Kurt, and the pain he inflicts is definitely arousing to her. In a way, she uses Kurt to fulfill her deepest, darkest fantasies.

Above all else, LA FRUSTA is a story of familial guilt. Once again, Bava avoids heroic characters, and concentrates on a group of people who are, in one way or another, compromised. The real villain of the piece is Kurt, and it is his arrival (prompted by greed rather than love for his family -- a recurring theme in Bava's work) that sets the tragedy in motion. The decision to set this unhealthy story against a superficially lush setting -- again, the contrast between beauty and ugliness is a major element in Bava's art -- only enhances the overall ambience of dread and despair.

The idea of "being marked," or the stigmata, appears throughout LA FRUSTA. For indulging in "illicit love," Nevenka is marked by the welts on her back. Regardless of one's interpretation of Nevenka's initiation into the "pleasures of pain," there is no denying that she enjoys the thrill of being beaten. Kurt is cruel and callous enough to use this idea against her. He comes back, out of the past, just so he can reawaken these feelings in her. Kurt cannot bear the idea thought of Nevenka enjoying a happy marriage with Christian, though Bava gives no indication that their marriage has been anything but dreary. Nevertheless, Kurt has no way of knowing this. With deliberate malice, he puts Nevenka into a trap that he knows she is not strong enough to escape. Particularly for a woman in the nineteenth century the acknowledgement of sexuality, in any form, is quite a burden. Nevenka simply cannot stand the pressure of being involved in something so sordid as a sadomasochistic relationship, and her mind is permanently affected. When Nevenka murders Kurt, she marks him as well. Kurt's ghost -- whether real or imaginary -- bears the mark of violence: clad entirely in black, one's eye is immediately caught by the bloodstained bandage wrapped around his throat. Apart from reminding one of the bloody way he dies, this blood-stained bandage serves as a constant reminder of the violent way in which he lived. Kurt's father, the count, is so devastated by the violence and depravity which has soiled his family name that he remains a sickly invalid. He is nothing more than a pitiful shadow of a once powerful man.

As in I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA, Bava is again able to deal with one of his favorite obsessions. "I prefer, above all, those horror films which revolve around a single person," Bava was once quoted as saying. "What interests me is the fear experienced by a person alone in their room, afraid of only themselves, as the ordinary objects begin to inexplicably acquire life, and move menacingly around." The idea of the banality of terror, of an irrational fear that we carry in our collective psyche, is forcefully explored in this film. In particular, the shot of Kurt's gnarled hand reaching out of the shadows to grab Nevenka is as perfect a visualization of this kind of fear as anybody has ever committed to film. It is a terrifying image precisely because everybody has, at some point, been terrified that something is lurking in the shadows. As an audience, it is easy to relate to such situations, and Bava plays off of these fears by suggesting that, in fact, there might be real reason to fear. These issues are pretty well resolved by the end of the film, but for most of the running time Bava is tantalizingly obscure, challenging the viewer to face his/her inner-demons.In the case of Nevenka, Bava creates a poignant, multi-layered image of what can happen to those who are unable to deal with these demons. The darkened room, vaguely illuminated by eerie pools of light, is a recurring image in all of Bava, from LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO through LA VENERE D'ILLE (1978), and the director never misses an opportunity to tap into its awesome power.

Once again other actors dub the cast, but Christopher Lee is -- physically, anyway -- at his very best as Kurt; as with Barbara Steele in LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, Bava's camera seems almost awe-struck by Lee's physical appearance. Lee's sensational performance as the title character in Terence Fisher's classic version of DRACULA (aka HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958) had already made a strong impression on moviegoers, including Bava, and in his portrayal of a "monster" like THE MUMMY (1959) he proved his ability to create a tragic, even sympathetcic characterisation with no dialogue. Unlike those characters, Kurt provides the actor with no opportunity to engender viewer sympathy; his task is to play evil to the hilt, and he does so without going over-the-top or losing sight of reality.

Considering the large number of Italian chillers that Barbara Steele was appearing in at the time (discounting her work in Fellini's classic 8 1/2, 1963) it seems curious that she was not selected to play Nevenka, but it is possible that Bava's difficulties in working with her factored into this decision. As "replacement," Daliah Lavi, and Israeli actress/singer, gives the performance of her career, and the makeup and especially Bava's sensuous lighting make her look just like her better-known anglo counterpart in certain shots.

A poetic and masterful film in every respect, LA FRUSTA is essential viewing for film and horror buffs alike.


Review © Troy Howarth


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