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26 Nov

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Mario Bava's Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964)HORROR
Just another fashion victim
Mario Bava's Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964)

Sei donne per l'assassino anticipates the formal devices of later slasher films, but to Reynold Humphries its most remarkable aspect is its stance on sexual exploitation.

It has been said that Mario Bava did something new with Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace / Six Women for the Murderer / Fashion House of Death, Italy, 1964) by renouncing a carefully constructed script in favour of a machine that produces effects such as violent death. This, however, leaves a fascinating movie stranded in a no man's land of formalism: images and colours generate new images and colours with no other purpose than that of creating a visually exciting work. This in itself is an achievement, but the film's interest lies elsewhere. Its formal aspects are not a simple exercise in style.

Mario Bava's Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964)
Cristina (centre) and her models
It is in the articulation of the credit sequence and the early scenes that Sei donne per l'assassino creates a particular world that calls for a cultural and political reading. The credits introduce to the spectators the various actors and actresses by presenting them on screen in the presence of dummies which, for reasons I shall explain presently, I prefer to call "models." However, there is a discernible difference between the representation of male and female. Whereas the actresses and female models closely resemble one another, the actors are distinguished from the models by being obviously human, as opposed to the dummies which are far more "abstract" in shape than those accompanying the actresses. Thus, the credit sequence closes the gap between humans and models in the case of women, while insisting on that gap in the case of men.

This is taken up in a scene where Bava's camera moves through the rooms in Cristina's house of High Fashion, where both inanimate and human female models are on display (I use this term advisedly). There are moments when the women are so still that it is difficult to tell the ontological status of the model we have before us on screen. This is exploited by Bava in a later sequence when a future victim of the killer is
Mario Bava's Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964)
A burnt offering found by a future victim
being pursued around another character's workshop. Suddenly a hand enters the frame from the right and it takes a moment of readjustment to realise that it belongs to an inanimate model and not the killer (who, incidentally, kills the victim with a steel, artificial hand). Once again, animate and inanimate either merge or change places, creating a sense of the uncanny. This is heightened by the use of lighting, one minute illuminating the killer motionless in the background, the next plunging the screen into darkness. Anxiety stems from a loss of control over one's surroundings, and the spectators are intimately involved in that loss.

In this dialectic of animate/inanimate, Sei donne per l'assassino denounces the commodification of women or, rather, women's bodies. For what is a fashion show? A place where wealthy buyers go to see clothes, raised to the level of so many fetishes. The human models are merely bodies used to show the clothes off to the best advantage. Granted they move around, but models are really no different from the "dummies" that display clothing in shop windows. Hence my use of the term "model" to designate both women and objects. Bava shows that clothes are more important than women and the the latter are adjuncts of the former (rather than the reverse). Just as décor and lighting take on a function that deprives spectators of their bearings, so fashion deprives women of their identity, prior to their being deprived of their very existence.

The anxiety of influence

Sei donne per l'assassino certainly looks ahead to the Hollywood slasher in its depiction of violence and sadism towards women. The differences, however, are more important than the similarities. Bava's killer is lucid and kills for money, whereas the murderers in typical slasher films are psychotics whose motives lie elsewhere: see, for example, Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), Friday the 13th (Sean Cunningham, 1980), Prom Night (Paul Lynch, 1980), Don't Answer the Phone (Robert Hammer, 1980), My Bloody Valentine (George Mihalka, 1981) and White of the Eye (Donald Cammell, 1986). What each of these films, except the Carpenter, have in common with the Bava is the withholding of the killer's identity, an enigma revealed only at the end. Moreover, the killer's mask functions to hide this identity in Sei donne per l'assassino, whereas in Halloween it signifies a refusal to deal with reality in the form of a rejection of being the object of the other's look. Bava's main influence is on the work of Dario Argento, whose latest film, Non ho sonno (Sleepless, Italy, 2000) has a typical surprise ending involving the killer.

Mario Bava's Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964)
Cameron Mitchell eyes up another victim
Influence, of course, is a two-way phenomenon: shots of shadows of people moving behind windows in the opening scene of Sei donne per l'assassino, for example, refer back to shots of Mrs Bates "at home" in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). At the end of Bava's film, the villain is now free of suspicion as Cristina (Eva Bartok), his mistress and partner in crime, had continued killing in his place while he was in prison. Moreover, he has cunningly engineered an accident whereby she apparently falls to her death while dressed in the killer's clothing.

As he relishes the success which will bring him Cristina's considerable fortune, Bava places the camera so that we see a secret door open behind the killer. He hears a noise, turns round and sees the battered and bloody Cristina enter from a corridor behind the door, much as the sister suddenly erupts into her brother's private world in Roger Corman's House of Usher (1960). The truth is now revealed to us as the dying woman shoots her lover, only to fall dead on top of his corpse. Meanwhile, the telephone on which she had tried to call the police in order to denounce him dangles in mid air—presumably a reference to the episode "The Telephone" in the director's own I Tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath, 1963), not to mention the various phone calls made and received in his La Ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Evil Eye, 1962).

When is a slasher more than a slasher?

It is interesting to note that we have already been given a shot of one of the killer's victims with a suit of armour lying on her body in a position suggesting copulation. Now Cristina is in the position of the armour and the killer that of the victim. Poetic justice, no doubt, but I would suggest that the structural rather than the literal position is more important here. Once again a parallel is drawn between the female body and the inanimate, with the armour standing in for the inanimate models seen on innumerable occasions throughout the film. Similarly, what needs to be stressed in House of Usher is not the incestuous dimension of Madeleine (Myrna Fahey) emerging from the crypt (where she has been buried prematurely) to drag her brother Roderick (Vincent Price) to the tomb with her, but rather the film's criticism of the patriarchal exploitation of women.

Mario Bava's Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964)
A dedicated follower of fashion?
Such criticism is central to Sei donne per l'assassino and is what sets Bava's film apart from the slashers which followed: only the method of filming the murders can be called similar, and that similarity is purely formal. Sei donne per l'assassino has at its core the theme of sexuality based on profit and exploitation—the exploitation of the female body for profit, whether by a ruthless male or his equally ruthless female partner who in no way yields to him when it comes to getting the most economically out of patriarchal capitalism. For Cristina sadistically punishes the body of any woman who refuses to be passive, thus behaving in a masculine fashion that aligns her unconsciously with patriarchy. It is significant that the first victim wanted a share in the money the couple makes from drugs and was blackmailing the villain. Bava shows that the economic dimension of sexuality is where true morbidity lies.

About the author

Reynold Humphries is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Lille, France. He is the author of Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in his American Films (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988) and the forthcoming The American Horror Film: An Introduction (Edinburgh University Press, 2002), as well as articles on Dracula's Daughter, David Cronenberg and Michael Powell. He is preparing an essay on contemporary Hollywood and a study of the aesthetics and politics of films made by victims of the blacklist.

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