The Whip and the Body / The Whip and the Flesh / What? (1963) ****

Has there ever been actress so skilled at displaying fear as Daliah Lavi? Where the female stars of horror movies too quickly succumbed to the scream and goggle eyes, Lavi could run a whole gamut of terror without uttering a sound and continue doing so for virtually an entire picture. Top-billed ahead of the reigning king of British horror Christopher Lee, this is another acting tour de force, not quite sustaining the intensity of The Demon (1963) but at times not far off it.

Italian director Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, 1963), here masquerading as John M. Old, has stitched together a mixture of horror and an early form of giallo, the picture taking place in the classic old dark house, in this case a castle perched on a rock above the sea, the deaths grisly, and almost fitting into the “locked room” subgenre of the detective story, where the murders appear impossible to carry out.

Originally released as The Whip and the Body, it underwent some title changes, first to The Whip and the Flesh, the German title translated as The Devil and the Young Woman and while in the U.S. it was shown as What?

The disgraced Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) returns to his ancestral home, begging forgiveness from his father Count Vladimir (Gustavo De Nardo) and hoping to reclaim his inheritance and his betrothed Nevenka (Daliah Lavi). While his father exonerates him, Kurt is denied the rest, Nevenka already committed to marriage to his brother Christian (Tony Kendall). Other tensions are soon evident: the housekeeper Giorgia wants revenge on Kurt for the death of her daughter and Christian is in love with another, Katia (Evelyn Stewart).

Nevenka who outwardly protests how much she hates Kurt quickly reveals masochistic tendencies as she gives in to a whipping. But Kurt’s sudden inexplicable murder instigates an investigation, suspicion falling firstly on the father, then Christian and finally Giorgia.

But Nevenka is not convinced Kurt is dead, although his body has been entombed in the castle crypt. Torment creeps into her face at his funeral and we can almost see her grow gaunt in front of our eyes. In a brilliant scene where she tracks what she imagines to be the sound of whip it turns out to be a branch lashing a window in a storm. Some of her supposed visions are easily explained, muddy footsteps leading from Kurt’s tomb actually belonging to the limping manservant Losat (Luciano Pigozzi). But how do you account for the hand, in an almost 3D shape, reaching out to her in the darkness or her ecstasy in still being whipped, her nightdress stripped from her back?

Although sometimes relying too heavily on atmospherics – windows swinging open at night, storm outside – Bava brilliantly marshals the real and the imagined, until the investigation into murder involves all the characters. Once the film begins, the drawbridge in a sense comes down, and nobody else enters the castle, and so we move from one character to another, each with their own motive for possibly committing dire deed. And with each passing moment we return to the demented Nevenka, who wishes Kurt dead but cannot live without him, and, craving the whip, cannot escape his sadistic power. Her faith in Kurt’s resurrection is so intense that the others are soon seeking signs that the dead man is still alive.

This is superior horror to Hammer. Using the same leading man, the British studio generally expected Lee to be over-the-top, his innate malevolence very obvious from the start. Here, he is at his most handsome and although definitely sadistic, the emphasis is less on his pleasure than that of his victim. And while Bava resorts to a similar kind of Hammer set, this castle is remote, has no relationship with villagers, and exudes regal dominance rather than just the normal fear of a Dracula picture. Bava employs a more subtle color palette and the piano theme tune by Carlo Rusticelli has a romantic tone.

But for all Bava’s proven skill, this would not be the same without Lavi. I doubt if there is a single actress in the horror domain throughout the 1960s who could match the actress for portraying fright, as she marches up the scale from mere anxiety to full-blown terror. And although women in Dracula movies succumbed to vampire teeth with more than a frisson of sexuality, there is a different deeper sensuality at work here, in what must rank as one of the greatest-ever portrayals of masochism embedded in love.

As noted previously, Lavi, in stepping onto the bigger Hollywood stage of Lord Jim (1965) and The Silencers (1966), lost the intensity she displayed here and never came close to matching this performance or that of The Demon. Christopher Lee, although claiming to dislike his experience, continued to rule the horror world until afforded a wider audience through James Bond, Star Wars, J.R.R. Tolkien and Tim Burton. 

Tony Kendall made his debut and soon graduated to the Kommissar X series, spaghetti westerns (he played Django twice), horror (Return of the Evil Dead, 1973), and thrillers such as Machine Gun McCain (1969). Evelyn Stewart went down much the same route, her long career sprinkled with gems like Django Shoots First (1966), The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) and The Psychic (1977).

Mario Bava continued to exploit the horror vein including Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Lisa and the Devil (1973) with Telly Savalas and Elke Sommer.