Black Sabbath (1963) directed by Mario Bava Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow)
N.B. this is rerelease of Arrow’s 2013 Dual Format Edition of the film but with the DVD and Blu Ray versions sold separately
Bava’s horror anthology
Black Sabbath is an anthology of three tales of terror introduced by Boris Karloff.
A woman named Rosy (Michele Mercier) is stalked by a mysterious caller while in her apartment. The first few calls are silent - but after a while, he starts to tell her that he is going to kill her, and makes it apparent that he is watching her every move. Fear turns to panic when a letter is pushed through her front door with a newspaper clipping revealing that her ex-boyfriend, Frank, has escaped from prison. She turns to an old friend, Mary (Lidia Alfonsi) for protection.
A mythological horror tale set in Eastern Europe based on a story by Alexei Tolstoy. Mark Damon plays a young man named Vladimir who, while riding on a long journey, discovers a corpse by a river. The corpse is decapitated and has been impaled with a knife. He takes both corpse and knife with him to the next house where he finds out from the family living there that the weapon belongs to the family patriarch (Boris Karloff) and that the corpse is that of a Turkish criminal named Albieq whom he went out to hunt down. It is also revealed that Albieq was a Wurdulak - a form of vampiric living dead who craves the blood of loved ones.
The family start to worry that their father has been turned into a Wurdulak himself in the process. They try to persuade Vladimir to leave but he refuses to do so has fallen in love with one of the girls, Sdenka (Susy Andersen). Sure enough, the father turns up later that night - still seemingly alive despite a stab wound to the heart. He soon starts to kill others in the family - turning them, too, into Wurdulaks.
A Drop Of Water
During a stormy night, a nurse named Helen (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called to the mansion of a Countess who died of fright during a seance. While she dresses the corpse in preparation for the funeral she spies an expensive-looking ring on its finger. On a whim, she decides to take it for herself before she finishes arranging the corpse by including closing its eyelids and brushing away a fly from its hand. However, seconds later, the fly returns to the same hand and the sudden sound of a drop of water is heard. Helen breathes a sigh of relief as it turns out the drop is coming from a glass that has been tipped over. However, she then looks back up and sees that the corpse’s eyes have reopened.
When she gets back home things become even more unnerving as the fly is heard buzzing around and so is the drop of water, again and again, in different parts of the house…
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A classic of 1960s Italian horror
Black Sabbath is widely held up as one of Mario Bava’s best efforts, and not without good reason. It’s a masterclass in its use of colour, shading, set decoration and sound to create a visually rich, creepy world. The atmosphere so cold at times you may feel like reaching for an overcoat. However, as well as the downright spooky and dark stories, the film is bookended with intro and coda segments narrated by Boris Karloff. He does a great job of beckoning the audience into the house of horrors at the start and then lightening the mood at the end with an amusing break of the fourth wall.
The first story (The Telephone) is the most restrained and arguably the weakest. It’s a competently handled, minimal giallo-style thriller with a fair amount of tension. However, it never quite knocks the ball out of the park, and aside from the climax (with a killer creeping ever so chillingly through the apartment), Bava’s direction is surprisingly anonymous. The story is most interesting for the lesbian subtext in the relationship between Rosy and her friend Mary. While the nature of the relationship is never stated or shown outright, it is certainly hinted at by their words and actions that there is more than friendship going on. Despite being extremely tame by today’s standards, these hints were toned down for the US release.
The US version (distributed by AIP) was also changed (with new scenes added) to imply that the killer was a ghost. At the time, AIP thought that American audiences wouldn’t identify with the original giallo-style story, hence they added a supernatural aspect!
The Wurdulak is better. It is the longest and most complex of the three tales, and gives much more opportunity for Bava to fill the story with gothic imagery in the manner of his earlier Black Sunday and later Kill, Baby… Kill! The atmosphere is laid on thick with winds howling through a purple-lit night and a roaring log fire illuminating an old wooden peasant’s house. Amongst the brilliantly creepy scenes are one with a child who has been turned into a Wurdulak begging to its mother to be let in from the cold, and one with a whole bunch of Wurdulaks - their eerily-lit faces slowly drifting in towards the camera as they envelop their latest victim. There’s also a wonderfully expressionistic use of fog enveloping a landscape in the final shot.
The theme running through the whole story is that of the bond of familial love - and of the grief and denial that it can cause when it turns sour. Family members can’t be turned away, even if they have been killed and taken over by a vampiric spirit!
Saving the best for last
The final story, A Drop Of Water, is the best of the lot - something that wasn’t lost on American distributor AIP who switched it to be the first in the running order. The set design makes for a real baroque visual feast; the nurse’s house features a huge oval window that glows green with each lightning flash outside, while the Countess’s mansion filled with extravagant but unkempt fixtures everywhere and numerous cats darting between the shadows. Almost every shot mixes swathes of primary coloured lighting with darkness.
The real skill of this section though is the way in which it (quite literally) drip-feeds terror onto the audience, taking banal, insignificant occurrences such as buzzing flies and dripping taps and placing them into a context where they build up to amount to something more ominous. Is it a supernatural revenge on the nurse (for taking the ring), or is it just guilt playing on her mind? It’s cleverly kept ambiguous until towards the end. It’s a simple tale, but then again simple tales are often the most effective when it comes to truly terrifying the audience.
The film is capped by a humorous coda featuring Karloff, which comes as a charmingly campy piece of relief after sitting through some truly bone-chilling scenes.
Runtime: 88 mins
Dir: Mario Bava
Script: Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Marcello Fondato, loosely adapted from stories by Anton Chekhov, Aleksei Tolstoy and Guy de Maupassant
Starring: Boris Karloff, Michele Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, Mark Damon, Susy Andersen, Jacqueline Pierreux
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The image is pristine, the colours and details look richly fabulous and that all-important shudder-inducing soundscape is perfectly restored.
The Blu Ray release contains both the Italian-language version of the film and the re-edited, English-dubbed US release featuring the changed running order, additional Boris Karloff introductions, the reconfigured “supernatural” version of The Telephone and a different score by Les Baxter. The disc also includes a comparative featurette entitled Twice the Fear.
The DVD release features an intro by Alan Jones and an interview with actor Mark Damon (reviewed below). Both Blu Ray and DVD releases feature the audio commentary.
Tim Lucas gives a great commentary, describing the production’s background and the careers of the various performances in exhaustive detail. He points out set dressings reused in different Bava films as well as the literary origins of the three stories. The story tie-ins were at the insistence of American distributor AIP in order to make them more commercially viable.
The Telephone is credited as an adaptation of Le Horla by Guy de Maupassant but only bears the most tenuous of resemblances. The Wurdulak is loosely based on a story by Aleksei Tolstoy (credited here as Ivan Tolstoy) but also takes elements from Guy de Maupassant’s Fear and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While A Drop of Water is credited to Anton Chekhov it has nothing to do with any of his work. It is, in fact, very similar to a short story by Franco Lucentini called Dalle tre alle tree mezzo.
Lucas also quotes from interviews with screenplay co-writer Alberto Bevilacqua, who has revealed that Bava asked for continual rewrites during production - even dropping scenes that had already been filmed.
A Life In Film: An Interview with Mark Damon
This 21-minute interview featuring clips and stills is taken from an earlier Anchor Bay release but it’s still a wonderful document to the actor-turned-producer’s career. He talks about his 1950s career as a young “pretty boy” Hollywood actor on a contract with Fox. When that style went out of fashion in favour of the warts-and-all method acting approach of Brando et al, he turned to AIP to work in various horror films. He then trekked to Italy, working on Black Sabbath as well as numerous spaghetti westerns and other action genre flicks. Finally, he got into producing via working with Roger Corman on The Arena (1974), where he also met his wife-to-be Margaret Markov. Since then he has produced a large number of films including such well-regarded affairs as Das Boot (1981) and Monster (2003) and the less well-regarded 8 Million Ways to Die (1986).
He’s a warm and engaging interviewee throughout, making this featurette a joy to watch.
If you already have Arrow’s 2013 Dual Format version then there’s no point in double-dipping for this rerelease. However, if you are a horror fan and you are currently missing this film in your collection then it comes highly recommended. The second and third stories in particular are genuinely creepy in a way in which so few horror films are nowadays.