Mario Bava’s father was a renowned cameramen and a pioneer of special effects photography. After failing to become a painter, Mario went into his father's business, eventually becoming a director. In no film is his artistic background more evident than in The Whip and the Body. Every shot resembles a Chiaroscuro painting: bold strokes of deep, rich colours, accented with sharp tones of light and dark. Many filmmakers have called Bava’s lighting a technical marvel. Kurt and Nevanka could be figures in a Renaissance masterpiece.
Bava had no part in writing the script, which might be why so much of the film’s character development is through visuals. Some films use theme music for each character; Bava uses theme colors. Kurt, when alive, is associated with blood red, but Kurt’s ghost is tinted a light blue. Nevanka is a Gothic heroine, with thick black hair and huge dark eyes. The colours are used most obviously in a recurring shot of a beach at sunset. Before Kurt’s death, the sky is a bright red, and afterwards, a pale blue. This blue also appears when Kurt’s coffin is opened, and the red when he reappears from the dead. Images of death are usually black or gray, but not for Mario Bava, The graves’ golden candlelight, the monks’ crimson-robes, and the green glow of the crypt make even the most morbid imagery lush and majestic.
Unsurprisingly The Whip and the Body caused much controversy when it was released in 1963. Sadomasochism was classified as a mental disorder until as recently as 1994. The relationship between Kurt and Nevaka led to moral outrage and harsh censorship. The film was so heavily cut that the international releases of the film made no sense to foreign audiences. "[The Whip and the Body’s] accomplishments went unappreciated for quite a long time, while Luis Bunuel's 'Belle de jour', made four years later, was universally acclaimed," says critic Tim Lucas.