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Friday, June 10, 2011

Black Sabbath (1963) review


Boris Karloff (himself/Gorca), Michele Mercier (Rosy), Lydia Alfonsi (Mary), Mark Damon (Vladimir d'Urfe), Susy Anderson (Sdenka), Jacqueline Pierreux (Helen Chester)

Directed by Mario Bava

The Short Version: Sumptuously photographed and undeniably chilling Italian horror film is one of the signature works of not only its director, but of European lensed terror tales in general. This is a rare case of an antiquated piece of horror filmmaking that retains the power to spook nearly 50 years after its original release. This omnibus of the macabre contains a modern and murderous giallo segment, a Gothic oldeworld story and a ghostly goosebump inducing tale of revenge from beyond the grave.

Boris Karloff introduces three tales of terror from different periods in time. A woman is terrorized by threatening phone calls from an ex-lover escaped from prison while shes alone in her apartment; A weary traveler runs afoul of a family terrorized by a Wurdulak, a vampiric creature that feeds on the blood of those it loves; a night call nurse steals a ring from a dead woman's finger and suffers supernatural consequences.

Mario Bava had first emerged from the directorial grave of horror with his 1960 monochrome masterpiece BLACK SUNDAY. He soon experimented with horror in his first color production, the Sword & Sandal classic of HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961). Two years later, he would splash three shades of red across the silver screen with this triumvirate Technicolor triumph based on Russian and French horror stories-- THE THREE FACES OF FEAR, or as it was more widely known in America, BLACK SABBATH. Anthologies didn't become big business till Amicus made the style fashionable, but most likely if it hadn't been for Roger Corman's TALES OF TERROR (1962) and this ingeniously crafted time period hopping horror picture, the format may not have prospered when it did.

In an effort to seize the vast contingent of the horror audience, one of America's biggest and most recognizable horror actors, Boris Karloff (fresh off of the THRILLER TV series) does opening and book-ending duties on the film as well as co-starring in one of the segments. Oddly enough, Karloff's intro and outro scenes are different in the US cut of the picture; the most damaging being the revised ending scene which forsakes the lighter, more fanciful Italian coda with a more straight horror approach. Karloff's participation is crucial to the success here, even if it is a bit strange seeing the man who had such an enormous impact on B/W Universal haunts appearing in a color horror movie of Italian lineage. Incidentally, Karloff was on loan from AIP (he's in TALES OF TERROR, too) and would also co-headline another of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, THE RAVEN (1963). The esteemed former Frankenstein's monster lends Bava's dark fairy tale a touch of creepy class, but even without him, Bava's movie would still remain a seminal classic from hell.

'The Telephone' starts things off in what many find the least interesting of the three. It's far from uninvolving and while it doesn't feature musty crypts or storybook monsters, it does contain jealousy, an escaped madman, murder and a lesbian subtext amidst a modern day backdrop. What's strikingly evident is that where Bava was now directing his first color horror movie after his auspicious B/W essay of evil, he was also establishing his first color giallo thriller after introducing the style in the B/W suspenser, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1962). This 20 minute segment has Mercier starring as Rosy, a dark haired and beautiful call girl, receiving several prank phone calls till finally her non-gentleman caller reveals himself to be Frank Ranier--a homicidal man escaped from prison who is somewhere watching her and promises she'll be dead by morning. Fearing for her life, Rosy calls her friend, Mary, whom she hasn't seen in some time. It's not long before we learn that these two ladies had partaken in sexual dalliances with one another that likely led to the reason Frank was imprisoned. It's also revealed in a shock moment that Mary is responsible for the cruel phone calls--her way of getting close to Rosy again after being spurned by her. In the twist at the end, Rosy's apartment is broken into by a most unwelcome guest.

Dissatisfied with this entry, AIP requested the horror angle be amplified for the US version which led to some confusing alterations and new scenes and different dialog. Examples of this include the elimination of the lesbian subplot. There's no indication that Rosy and Mary have ever been anything other than friends. An added scene has Rosy going outside and confronting a passerby, while in the original Italian cut, Rosy never strays from the confines of her apartment. Another even more drastic change is the alteration of the original murder mystery into a full on ghost story glaringly apparent when the letter Rosy gets is now written by a ghostly apparition as she holds it! This addendum is crippling to the AIP cut of the film since the show still ends the same with Frank Rainer being stabbed to death which conflicts with the newly shot footage that lends his character a supernatural air.

The second tale is the longest and is also the most richly atmospheric and shows clear indication what BLACK SUNDAY would have looked like had it been shot in color. Bava redefines Gothic here in a way that even Hammer could never duplicate. While British Gothic horror was unmistakable in its imagery, Italian Gothics were immersed in a style uniquely their own. Saturated in muddily vibrant color palettes, Bava presented oldeworld trappings in a way that's almost indescribable, but instantly recognizable. Granted, he wasn't the only Italian director to cement the grim identity of the Italian Gothic, but he made it bleed profusely. At approximately 40 minutes, 'The Wurdulak' is a crowning achievement of fog enshrouded morbidity backed by the wails of wind and wolves, the creaking of doors and the sight of swinging severed heads left hanging in the dank, cold air of the night.

Karloff assumes the lively, if undead role of Gorca, the patriarch of a frightened family awaiting his return after pursuing Alibeq, a Turkish murderer alleged to be a Wurdulak, a vampiric creature stalking the fog covered countryside. Hollywood leading man, Mark Damon plays Vladimir, a traveler who finds himself in the company of this brood disbelieving their gruesome account of an undead creature that prefers to drink the warm blood of those they love. There's a supremely palpable sense of fear and dread leading up to the moment that Gorca arrives home. The suspense carries further as Gorca's kith and kin watch over him with alarming trepidation in an attempt to decipher whether or not he himself has become a Wurdulak. The episode reaches a pinnacle of putrescence with both the death of a small child and his return from the dead beckoning his mother to let him back inside free of the icy grip of the penetrating cold.

This lengthy segment is an engrossing perversion on love and familial ties. The Wurdulak's sanguinary lusts are primarily directed at those they harbor an emotional connection. This equally gruesome alternative to molestation is made all the more nauseating in that such a creature systematically seeks out his own family to make them creatures of the undead. The deconstruction of the family unit is further scrutinized when a husband and wife must make a difficult choice to pierce the heart of their child and remove his head. While it isn't graphically discussed, the dramatic actions and dialog prior to the offscreen burial speaks volumes. The sequence that follows brings this subject to the fore when the parents pay for their decision in yet another great moment of spookery in this 40 minute creepshow.

Boris Karloff is absolutely devilish here reveling in the sheer devilry of portraying Gorca. What's eerily apparent about the character is how the makeup changes each time we see him going from a pale grey to a more pallid blueish complexion. Karloff's deliciously evil essay of this most unique vampire is an unheralded monster-piece. Sadly, the man who made playing the Mummy and Frankenstein's Monster an iconic symbol of horror, never got the same level of commendation for his brilliantly realized deviation from the archtypal bloodsucker. The most noticeable difference in the AIP cut is the placement of this episode. It's presented as the last segment in the American released BLACK SABBATH edition. In addition, the US variant also features story introductions by Karloff which are absent from the Italian original save for the opening and the ending farewell to the audience.

Bava then moves from a medieval setting to a slightly more modern one with the monumentally moribund capper, 'The Drop of Water'. This short film is incontestably one of the most frightening and searingly creepy classifications of pure terror ever captured on film. It's a testament to the directors imagination and enigmatic preoccupation with harnessing a ghoulish mise en scene that this episode still possesses the power to send shivers up the spine all these years later. Sound effects and visual flourishes reign supreme here in this shocker about a night nurse named Helen called to the home of a recently deceased medium who died during a seance and other supernatural activities. Changing the dead woman's clothes, Helen spies a stunning ring on one of the the psychics fingers and steals it. Dropping the ring, she turns over a glass of water the moment the dead woman's cold hand touches the back of her head. Retrieving it, Helen notices a fly perched on the very finger where the ring once rested and a loud echo of water droplets hitting a bedside pan.

From here the proceedings take a terrifying turn of events as Helen is haunted throughout the night from an unearthly dripping of water to a harrowing visit by the dead mediums corpse. The show ends with a twist threatening that the vengeful cycle is to begin anew. Bava's baroque aria of evil culminates in a stark close up almost as grotesque as the frozen visage of terror of the elder medium that stalks Helen from beyond the grave. As with 'The Wurdulak' story, the differences for 'The Drop of Water' are negligible in the AIP version as this tale--the most terrifying part--is the one that opens the US release. In its original form, THE THREE FACES OF FEAR wraps a cold dead hand around the audience and never lets go till Karloff appears during a delightful and darkly comical wrap-up that reveals to the audience that this nightmare trinity has been nothing more than a dream of movie magic.

Roberto Nicolosi's score is key to the success of the film and each segment has its own signature cue that reflects the style and time period of the settings. Les Baxter contributed a lesser score for portions of the AIP version. In its original cut, these three segments are separate entities that combine to create a hellishly brilliantly whole. The first being a modern take on sexual desire, jealousy and an eventual crime of passion. The second is the most (grim) fairy tale of the three evoking a level of shudders and goosebumpery that Hammer rarely ever attained. The third is a Euro variant on Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' substituting the sound of a beating heart with that of a drop of water echoing a rapture of sights and sounds that pierce the ear with little dialog needed to propel the story. While Bava's trilogy of terror seldom gets mentioned among what's deemed the classics of horror, it belongs on any respectable list of great representations of fear on film.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD


dfordoom said...

I'd completely forgotten the first segment, but the other two are superb.

A hero never dies said...

I love Black Sabbath, one of my favourite Bava's. I think all three stories are excellent. The drop of water is as you say one of the creepiest pieces of celluloid ever, anyone who thinks old horror can't be still terrifying needs to see this. Great review Brian.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Even a great artist like Mario Bava couldn't achieve what is so difficult in the portmanteau film; consistency. But this is an excellent effort and would easily grace the Top 5 anthology horror films of all time. I've studied these anthology films long and hard Brian and I've finally concluded that the best one is THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. It doesn't have a stand out tale like BLACK SABBATH, but all the stories are consistently good. There isn't a major weak point, which is exceptional for this form. It is so hard to do, even renowned film artists have struggled; SPIRITS OF THE DEAD is ample evidence of this. An excellent review sir!

Franco Macabro said...

A true classic of horror, such a beautiful film to look at. So interesting that Bava made beautiful looking films both in color and in black and white! He was a true master.

While watching The Telephone I couldnt help but realize how much this segment must have influenced Wes Craven while shooting the first fifteen minutes of Scream which is plays out almost exactly the same way.

I loved the creepiness of the last segment, with the dead body on the bed...but my favorite has to be the Wurdurlak, so atmospheric! And the colors...just haunting. Great review man!

venoms5 said...

@ D: I think the first episode gets a lot of bad press, which I understand why, but I like it and appreciate what Bava was going for here in making all the stories different from one another.

@ Hero: Thanks a lot, Martin! Very true regarding the 'Drop of Water' segment. That shot of the dead medium on the bed rising up was incredible. And that face!

@ Shaun: THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is a huge fave of mine as well, Shaun, and easily the best of the Amicus omnibus series. I reviewed it a long time ago and hope a blu ray comes out for that one. The US DVD has a Rosenberg interview on it. Love that movie. I need to revisit DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) again. Thanks for the kind remarks!

@ Fran: I agree completely, Fran, with everything you said about the film. You know, somebody else said that, too, regarding the similarities with SCREAM and the opening SABBATH segment. BLACK SABBATH has a little something for every horror fan, I'd say.

northierthanthou said...

Looks interesting. Always been curious about this film on account of its inspiration for the my favorite band.

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