May 12, 2016
The more Mario Bava films I consume the more I come to appreciate him. A horror filmmaker whose artistic valor was often sidelined with tiny budgets and minimally gifted acting talents during his prime, some acclaim met him during his somewhat short career — several of his films were critical and commercial triumphs — but he, more or less, was not taken as seriously as he should have been by most studio personnel. His stylish Planet of the Vampires (1965) was saddled with such little money that, according to Bava, most of the set utilized just “a couple of plastic rocks … left over from a mythological movie made at Cinecittà,” a smoke machine compensating for the rest. 1966’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs was, for American release, re-written, re-scored, and re-edited without Bava’s cooperation; 1974’s Kidnapped was kept from the public until 1998.
So with the resurgence in popularity toward Italian horror, I’m glad that Bava is finally getting the small-time recognition he so heartily deserved during his lifetime. Sure, his clunkers clunked, and he was more talented of a visual storyteller than he was an actual storyteller. But one can wonder what might have happened to several of his finest works had cinephiles not unearthed them from their dusty graves — would they have forever been passed along as B-movies with an eye for style?
Perhaps not; his best films are too optically striking to be forgotten. One of them, 1963’s Black Sabbath, is an anthology of phantasmagoric horror stories uneven in stature but notwithstanding visually flavorsome. With three short stories defining its running time, campy Boris Karloff introductions marking the beginning and end of each piece, Black Sabbath is a work of unsettling macabre combined with ghost story playfulness. Though it never quite meshes together as well as we’d like it to — such is a problem for movies made of vignettes — the film has long stretches and flashes of horrific brilliance that only Bava could have helmed.
Versions of the film differ. I presume that I viewed the American release, which changes the original order of the stories and censors some sexual undertones. But these minor tweaks hardly deter Bava’s vision; his trademark grisly spookiness is at its very best here.
The first tale of terror in Black Sabbath is ‘A Drop of Water,’ the most original of the three and certainly the most terrifying. It stars Jacqueline Pierreux as Helen Chester, an English nurse called to the home of an elderly clairvoyant who has recently died. Needed for casket preparation, Helen is tasked with gussying up the body before burial. As it’s late at night and the body itself looks like something straight out of an — ahem — horror movie, Helen gets the job done as quickly as she can, uncomfortable in the presence of such an unnerving corpse. But a sapphire ring adorning the finger of her dead client captures her eye. She steals it, figuring the medium won’t miss it. Turns out, the latter might.
The next story, ‘The Telephone,’ is the weakest of the trio, a seen-it-all-before spin on When a Stranger Calls territory as stale as it must have been in 1963. The beautiful Michèle Mercier portrays Rosy, a (never explicitly stated) call girl being terrorized by phone calls from her (never explicitly stated) pimp, whom she thought to be dead. But most of our being isn’t so concerned with such matters; most of the vignette is too cutout to draw out any sympathy, though the claustrophobia is palpable, and I like the twist ending.
Black Sabbath closes with the atmospheric ‘The Wurdalak,’ a tale of vampirism that benefits from a surprise appearance by Karloff, whom we had originally believed to simply be the anthology’s host. It concerns a family tormented by the titular beast, which is a living cadaver only able to feed on the blood of loved ones. Things are complicated by Vladimir (Mark Damon), an outsider who stumbles upon the family home at their most vulnerable time.
If anything, Black Sabbath is more style than substance, but as long as Bava’s the man in charge of spreading the patina, I’m perfectly fine with such setbacks. All that matters is that a ghostly ambiance is kept intact and believable, and Black Sabbath is more than successful in conjuring fright. Bava’s penchant for ocular richness is enough to hypnotize us, so it’s a good thing that the film matches his wondrous artistry. B