Gothic horror found its way into the American mainstream in the early 1960s courtesy of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures. Movies with a tortured Vincent Price brooding around darkened castles, longing for the spirits of some long-lost love were reaching audiences on the same screens as Frankie and Annette and the Beach Party series—and from the same studio, no less. Over in Europe, though, it was a totally different story.

Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo) is gothic horror of a very different sort. Yes, there are darkened castles and brooding characters and waves crashing against cliffs and possible madness, but it’s of a much, much more adult nature than its American counterparts. After an affair that led to the suicide of a servant’s daughter, Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) returns to his family castle to reclaim his fortune—but mostly to reclaim his former fiancée, Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), now engaged to marry his brother. Shortly after his return, though, Kurt is mysteriously murdered but continues to appear as an apparition to Nevenka, still in the throes of a sadomasochistic obsession with her former lover.

It is this sadomasochistic obsession that drives The Whip and the Body, one of the darkest and kinkiest of gothic horrors committed to the screen, which is even more miraculous when you realize it was released in 1963 as American audiences were taking in The Nutty Professor and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Bava doesn’t play his hand immediately, allowing nearly half the film to unfold as a mostly straightforward family drama, albeit one set within gorgeously lush castles. It’s only when Kurt and Nevenka are finally alone together on the beach that the nature of their past romantic relationship is finally revealed, at which point the film completely shifts gears to become a twisted and shockingly adult examination of love and sexual obsession. Kurt produces a whip and begins to draw blood. “You haven’t changed,” he says, thrashing his former lover across the back. “You love violence.”

That, in summation, is what connects Nevenka and Kurt—he the dominant, she the submissive, forever entwined by their shared need to express themselves through violence. But Bava could also just as easily be speaking to the audience of his own films and films like them, indicting our love of horror movies by punishing us with the very bloodshed that we come to see time and again. The pull that Nevenka feels towards Kurt—towards the whip, which she enjoys even as it inflicts torment—is the same pull we fans experience towards the horror genre. We crave the pain of violence and terror, which we experience vicariously as audience members watching these acts depicted on screen. To love horror is to love a certain amount of punishment—a relationship that The Whip and the Body understands all too well.

It’s easy to view Nevenka as the victim of the movie, as she is on the receiving end of what is typically coded in popular culture as punishment and/or torture. But Bava has no interest in painting these characters in such broad strokes, which is what makes The Whip and the Body such a challenging and mature piece of work. If Nevenka is a victim of anything, it is not of Kurt’s whippings, but of her own sadomasochistic desires.

To even classify her relationship to these desires as victimization is inaccurate, however, because Nevenka has agency over these feelings. Yes, she is drawn to Kurt to the point of obsession, but Bava is quick to show her sexual gratification during the first whipping we see on screen. This is not an occurrence that takes place against her will; as with most BDSM relationships, Nevenka is a willing participant. That, perhaps, is the transgressive idea put forth by The Whip and the Body, which may explain why the film was so heavily censored upon release—not just in the US (where it was retitled What) and the UK (playing under the title Night is the Phantom), but even in its homeland of Italy, where it was charged with obscenity. The idea that these characters would express themselves sexually through violence—and that the woman being whipped is into it—was perhaps too deviant or too adult for early 1960s audiences to comprehend.

It appears, however, that Nevenka experiences guilt for her feelings towards Kurt and the pleasure she gets from their “sessions” together; her need to be punished for these feelings extends even to her death at the movie’s end, in which she commits suicide thinking she’s stabbing Kurt’s ghost. The only way to rid herself of her obsession is to kill him, but doing so requires destroying herself in the process. The film ends on a shot of Kurt’s whip burning in a fire, a symbol of his hold over Nevenka finally being broken. The literal connection between the two is severed, turned to ash. Yet before the end credits can roll, Bava pushes in closer, past the burning whip and into a close-up of just the fire itself: their passionate obsession still burns. Even in death, Kurt and Nevenka are made for each other.


The Whip and the Body is screening as part of the 21-film Mario Bava series taking place at New York City’s Quad Cinema July 14th–25th, and check here to read more of Patrick's Mario Bava retrospectives.

  • Patrick Bromley
    About the Author - Patrick Bromley

    Patrick lives in Chicago, where he has been writing about film since 2004. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, Patrick's writing also appears on, and, the site he runs and hosts a weekly podcast.

    He has been an obsessive fan of horror and genre films his entire life, watching, re-watching and studying everything from the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s to the modern explosion of indie horror. Some of his favorites include Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Dawn of the Dead (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing and The Funhouse. He is a lover of Tobe Hooper and his favorite Halloween film is part 4. He knows how you feel about that. He has a great wife and two cool kids, who he hopes to raise as horror nerds.