Sunday, June 6, 2021

Black Sabbath (1963)

Italian director Mario Bava came up from what might have seemed like nowhere to some, delivering some instant classics of the horror genre, and continued right up until his death in 1980. He'd even occasionally delve into other genres, such as the ill-fated Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, and the wonderful and stylish Diabolik. One of his most celebrated entries was 1963's I Tre Volti Della Paura, aka Black Sabbath...

Terrifying things are going on in Italy. Working girls are harassed by sinister telephone calls, families are threatened by vampiric relations, and thieving nurses are delivered supernatural justice from the dead...

Black Sabbath is an anthology film comprising of three short tales of the macabre. Each are half an hour, give and take, with two simpler stories, and a slightly longer one in the midsection. This feels like the perfect mix. We don't get deluged by stories as we could in the old Amicus anthologies, and each has time to stretch its legs. The order they come in actually depends on the print you watch, with the Italian print having The Telephone, The Wurdulak, and The Drop of Water, but the U.S. cut switched the bigger vampire story to be the finale.

The stories here each offer something interesting, and different from the other. The first focuses on a (wink wink) working girl's growing terror about these menacing phone calls, with a couple of twists thrown in. These work perfectly! It's the kind of double-twist that works perfectly, as neither invalidate the other, instead working together perfectly. All in all it's an unsettling little story, even if the caller did have incredible guesswork, and relied on the heroine not just calling the cops.

The Wurdulak tells the struggle of a rural family in the Russian wilderness, whose patriarch has left to hunt the vampire that's been terrorising the area. He instructed that should he not return within 5 days, a knife should be driven through his heart. As he returns, and with an uncharacteristically bad attitude (Hey, where's my welcome? You're all acting so surprised, I was only hunting vampires. Calm down now and get me my supper!), it becomes apparent he too has become a Wurdulak, and will stop at nothing to drain the blood of those he loved in life.

The Wurduulak is a story that relies on the character's being idiots, but in ways that mostly make sense. You understand why the old man's kids don't wanna just plunge a stake though his heart and chop his head off, but he gives off such obvious 'I'm a vampire!' signals that it's hard to ignore, especially when he demands his son kill the family dog, and he just meekly obeys! This leads to lots of misfortune, especially from the older son's wife, who displays no less than two major acts of idiocy! The poor Russian count, he only wanted to bang this hot local girl Sdenka (falling in love after only 2 hours?), yet he gets way more than he bargained for.

The Drop of Water is another low-key tale showing the perils of stealing from the dead. It contains some freaky and iconic imagery, with the creepiest looking corpse imaginable, and great use of simple noise to build up tension.

Black Sabbath excels at visual storytelling, from the introduction of the first story's lead, to the wordless atmosphere of The Wurdulak, and the cramped and quiet location of Drop, made eerie by the subtle dripping of water. Two of the stories are told in very small apartments, but are furnished so thoroughly, with such colourful detail and panache that it's fascinating to see. And it really highlights what a few items can add to your surroundings, even if you only live in a shoebox.

The effects here are all great. You've get a little blood here and there, but where the crew really excel is in the make-up. From Boris's undead visage, to the shockingly grotesque corpse of the final entry, they are fantastic, and really up the creepiness beyond what a regular expected 'corpse' would have offered.

The music here is subtle and creepy. It always knows when to stay in the background, and when to ramp up, and it never just lazily goes "RAHHHH!" every time a scary thing happens. This makes it all the more effective when it does get louder. The music during the ending is wonderfully wacky too, without feeling out-of-place.

The acting here is great. Michele Mercier sells her character's terror well, never coming across as too drippy or too superhuman. Mark Damon is a reliably handsome lead, while Jacqueline Pierreux is good as the conniving nurse. The rest of the cast all deliver neat performances too.

Special mention of course goes to Boris Karloff himself, who not only stars in the second tale, but hosts the movie too, like Rod Serling! He's great as the vampiric father, delivering a truly creepy performance, helped by the ghostly make-up, but also helping the make-up be effective in the first place, if that makes sense . Even in his older age he could scare the pants off you like no-one else. As a host he is predictably genial, and gets a few funny moments in, like his dramatic pleas that the audience watch out for vampires in the theatre. The only drawback is that Boris isn't Italian, and so is dubbed by another actor. It's a bummer, especially since the U.S. version cuts out these host scenes!

Black Sabbath has inspired much throughout the years. Not only did it inspire the English rock band to take that name, it has imagery (from an undead child tapping at the family's window, to a creepy phone caller) that, intentionally or not, has popped up in things like Salem's Lot, and Scream.

The last treat that comes from this is the ending, which is truly special! It was included because the producers didn't want the film to end on such a bleak mage, and they were right. This additional coda with Boris is a perfect goodbye, leaves a smile on your face, and gives us a fascinating look into movie magic. It actually breaks the tension far more effectively than all the other films with taglines that say things like "Just remember, it's only a movie, it's only a movie..."

Black Sabbath has long been regarded as one of the greatest horror films of the 60s, and of all time, and has truly earned that place. It's well worth watching, especially if you adore the genre like I do...

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