Friday, August 5, 2011

#113: Black Sabbath (Mario Bava, 1963)

A British rock band called Earth were rehearsing in Birmingham, England across the street from a movie theater in 1968. Their shows were sparsely attended, and audiences were confusing them with another band of the same name, but the theater had a huge line. The band looked at the marquee. The movie bringing in the crowds was a five-year-old Italian horror called Black Sabbath. The band's members decided a name change was in order. A few years later, Black Sabbath became one of the earliest, best, and most successful metal bands.

If Mario Bava's first color film's only success was inspiring Ozzy and Tony Iommi, that would be enough to justify its existence, but this three-part anthology film set the template for quality Italian horror in its set design, lighting, use of color, camera movement, and atmosphere. This is the film that nearly every Italian horror movie from 1964-1990 (and several after that) clearly owes a debt. Black Sabbath obviously had a huge impact on Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Bava himself. Quentin Tarantino has called it a major influence on Pulp Fiction and David Lynch said it inspired a few moments in his Twin Peaks movie. Besides being so influential in so many ways, the movie itself is pretty damn good.

Before I get into the movie, I want to mention that I'm reviewing the Italian version, which is widely available on DVD. The American version is a lot different, and I'm going to explain those differences now. The film is made up of three separate stories; "The Telephone," "The Wurdulak," and "The Drop of Water." That's the order of the stories in the Italian version. The American version mixes it up by placing "The Drop of Water" first and "The Wurdulak" last. This is fine, but I prefer the Italian placing of the vignettes. The momentum and visual opulence builds in a much more pleasing way in the Italian placement of the stories. We're seemingly never going to be free of those goddamn Puritans over here in the States, and the American version reflects this moral panic by watering down two of the segments. "The Wurdulak" sees some of its gore and violence purged, while "The Telephone" is radically changed by removing a lesbian subplot entirely, replacing it with a supernatural ghost story plot absent from the Italian version. The segments with Boris Karloff as the film's narrator are different in the American version as well. More comedic in Italian, Karloff's segments are presented without most of the humor in the American version. Maybe someday the bible thumpers and self-appointed arbiters of morality will finally die the fuck out, but I don't think I'll be lucky enough to see it. Oh well. At least the Italian version is available, and that's the one I'm reviewing.

Black Sabbath begins with an extremely colorful opening intro from an Italian-dubbed Boris Karloff. Though it's initially off-putting to hear Karloff dubbed by some Italian guy (just like it's disorienting to hear Burt Lancaster dubbed in The Leopard or Marlon Brando dubbed in Burn! or Richard Harris dubbed in Red Desert), the intro is strikingly filmed and pretty funny. The first segment, "The Telephone," begins with a beautiful woman returning to her opulent bedroom quarters and getting ready for bed. She's interrupted by several phone calls in which the caller says nothing. Finally, the anonymous caller starts talking. He notices her every move, threatens her, and promises to kill her before dawn. This segment turns into a ghost story in the American version, but here it's a psychological horror story with a lesbian subplot, surprising for 1963 in its matter-of-factness and lack of sensationalism. The conclusion of the story is surprisingly anti-climactic, but Bava's camera movements, framing of shots, set design, and lighting throughout this segment are a master class in film art. The woman moves all over her opulent quarters, turning lights off and on, and the camera follows her gracefully.

The second segment, "The Wurdulak," sees Boris Karloff pulling double duty by appearing as one of the characters in addition to his narrating duties. The cinematography in this segment is particularly beautiful, and the set design is, again, a major achievement. A man is traveling on horseback through the countryside and spots a headless corpse with a dagger in its back. He takes the dagger and stops at a nearby home for the night. The family there; two brothers, a sister, and one brother's wife and young son; are tense. The dagger belongs to their father, who left five days before to kill a wurdulak who's been terrorizing the village. A wurdulak is a kind of vampire who feeds on the blood of people he loved when he was human. The family fear their father has become a wurdulak himself and warn the traveler to move along. He decides to stay because the sister is incredibly sexy. The father, played by Boris Karloff, finally returns but there's something off about him. Hell yeah.

The final segment, "The Drop of Water," continues the gorgeous cinematography, lighting, use of color, and set design. A nurse unwinding for the night with some whiskey and her phonograph gets a phone call. A rich old aristocrat has just died, and she needs to prepare the body. She takes off and arrives to find the old palace in disarray. Dozens of cats roam freely about, lamps and furniture are falling apart, and the place is mostly empty except for a small staff and the cats. The rich old woman was an eccentric who hadn't left her home in years and who had become fascinated with the occult. The recently deceased woman had a heart attack during a seance, mid-trance. Her body is not pleasing to the eye, to say the least. She has a creepy, waxy face that death could only improve. The nurse spots an expensive ring on the dead woman's hand and decides to pocket it. If you think that's a mistake, you think right. Creepy shit goes down once the nurse returns home. Karloff appears again for a nice outro that does a little fourth-wall busting. It's a bit like the horror/comedy version of the end of Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry.

If you can't tell already, I really like this movie. I have a purely aesthetic love of the rich, expressionistic lighting and color of this era of Italian horror, those rich reds and blues and yellows and blinking lights and deep darkness, and the set design is incredibly beautiful here. The artifice is somehow more convincing in horror than a naturalistic approach, and the expressive lighting and sets create a world where these horrific events are believable and logical. Bava's later films are also visually stunning, but lack a lot of narrative coherence. This film knows how to tell a good, atmospheric story in addition to its formal beauty. This may be due to the source material, which comes from stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Maupassant, but Bava freely and loosely adapted his literary inspirations, amplifying the horror elements.
Oh yeah, the title. Black Sabbath sounds pretty cool, but it has nothing to do with the movie. The film's Italian title translates as "The Three Faces of Fear," which is a lot more appropriate, but Bava had a big hit a few years before with Black Sunday. The film's American distributors decided to give it a title that would remind ticket buyers of the previous film. Nonsensical title or no, this movie has it all. Sexy Italian women, heads on pikes, threatening phone calls, Karloff, creepy houses, vampires, ghosts, killers, and purty, purty colors.

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