A series of 17 and 18 year old girls are disappearing around Venice, and young handsome reporter Andrea seems to be the only citizen who views this as suspicious, with the police seemingly happy to write it all off as a series of accidents. The murderer, who brings the abducted women to his underground lair and injects them with embalming fluid so they, and their beauty, will live on forever, keeps on a-murderin', and eventually the police concede that they may be dealing with a serial killer. They're still not able to do anything about it though, with Andrea and his new girlfriend Maureen ultimately forced to save the day by tracking him down. The film has an unnecessarily cruel ending, with one of the useless policemen proving that he's not completely ineffectual, and is as good as anyone at delivering, then immediately dismissing the impact of, news of the death of a loved one.
As you've probably gathered, the plot isn't exactly labyrinthine. In fact, the underground sewer maze which hosts the climactic chase, which consists of at least five rooms on a sound stage, beats it hands-down in the labyrinth stakes. There's no a whole lot to recommend the film, really-the middle part gets bogged down in interminable travelogue-style scenes as Andrea shows Maureen and her young charges around the city. These charges, a large group of schoolgirls who hit the sweet spot age-wise (from the killer's point of view) naturally lead to expectations of an upping of the murder rate, but if anything the killer seems bamboozled by the choice on offer. Your choices at this point are three-stick with the film in the hope that things will liven up, concoct and self-administer your own embalming fluid to release you from the pain of watching the film, or turn the film off. (I'd only recommend the embalming option if you're young and beautiful with nothing to live for; otherwise go for option three).
Despite being set in a city, Dino Tavella crams in as many gothic-style scenes set in dark passages, with characters wandering about holding candles while a spot light is shone on them. There's also a large krimi influence, with the killer's outfit (essentially some deep-sea diving gear, in which he flaps about the streets at night) veers towards OTT Edgar Wallace territory (and would reappear in Amsterdamned, over 20 years later). Not content with the diving outfit, the killer also wears a skull mask for the film's climax, which leads to by far the best moment of the film, when he blends into a room of corpses (stay with me) to give himself an opportunity to attack Maureen.
Given the prevalence of black-gloved killers in the filone, there are understandably several different schools of thought regarding how best to depict them in gialli. Argento's best films reduce the killers to a series of tight close-ups, with the body part on screen becoming the defining characteristic of the killer from moment-to-moment. For example, if you see a close-up of an eye, we're either about to be treated to the killer's point of view or a glimpse into their minds(/memory's) eye; if we see a close-up of a hand, we know that hand is going to inflict pain. On the other end of the scale, Blood and Black Lace isn't afraid to show the killer in full-bodied shots. Partly due to the ingenious costuming, and partly due to the wild kinetic energy bursting from the killer at all times, the sense of danger isn't diminished by being able to see the killer as a whole at work.
This is rare though; generally the more we see, the more the sense of danger recedes. Unlike the later slasher movies, giallo killers are resolutely grounded in reality, and lack the unrelenting drive of a Jason or Michael Myers. Giallo killers frequently run away when confronted, and are often lacking in physicality (one of the reasons why the Blood and Black Lace killer retains its menace is arguably because it largely targets stick-thin models). When we see the killer in The Embalmer rolling around the streets of Venice grappling with Andrea, while wearing robes and a skull mask, we're not exactly fearing for Andrea's life. Especially as we've just seen the killer spend several minutes trying to flee from Andrea; if anything, we're worried about his chances of surviving.
The reveal of the killer is flubbed slightly, with their face initially being casually revealed in medium-shot profile, before we cut in for a tight close-up. We're then expected to recognise who they are, with no dialogue or flashbacks to guide us. It's not a spoiler to say that the most obvious suspect, a hotel employee who liked to spy on guests through two way mirrors (and may have been the designer of the later Play Motel), was not the killer. It is a spoiler (kinda) to say that a character who is introduced for a five minute window early in the film, during which time they act in an exceedingly odd and creepy manner, is the killer. Tavella had clearly hoped that enough time would elapse between their disappearance from the film and their unmasking for us to forget about them as a suspect, but then remember them and their previously odd behaviour when we see the face. We'd then presumably shake our head in wonderment at our own forgetfulness, while simultaneously fighting the urge to break out into spontaneous applause at the divilry of the filmmakers. We don't do that, though.
One other thing worth noting, which I'll hopefully delve into in more detail on another occasion, is that most of the characters are dubbed into English by the same few voice actors. The killer has a distinctive voice, with the character, for those wild few minutes early on, speaking in the same voice. I haven't seen the film in its original Italian, but I'd wager that there would have been at least a cursory attempt to mask the similarity. Directors and producers were thus putting the fate of their films in the hands of the dubbers to some extent. Smaller films tended to have rushed production schedules, and the dubbing into various languages for export wasn't necessarily supervised (there are numerous examples ofdrunk/bored dubbers sneaking wildly inappropriate lines into Italian films). Therefore, if the dubbers went off-script, or brought their own interpretations to the voice of a masked killer, the effectiveness of a film's mystery could be greatly diminished. Evidence of the low-quality of dubbing can be seen by the fact that instead of rewriting the dialogue to allow for the fact that things generally take far longer to articulate in Italian, direct translations were used, with characters often repeating some of it to pad out the syncing process. Having said all of the above, given the effectiveness of the rest of the mystery here, it's entirely possible that the Italian version didn't attempt to disguise the killer's voice at all, and contained the same inane repetitive dialogue.
Not highly recommended.