Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: Black Sabbath

On the subject of gialli I decided to watch Black Sabbath, which is an Italian/French anthology film from 1963 directed by Mario Bava and vaguely starring Boris Karloff who provides a monologue before each of the film's three segments.

The first segment, "The Drop of Water", concerns the funeral preparations for a spiritual medium. The woman preparing the body for burial notices a striking sapphire ring on the finger of the deceased, and she decides to steal it. She spends the rest of the movie being terrified by the sound of dripping water and the buzzing of a fly, and also by the sudden and frequent appearance of the corpse in places it isn't supposed to be. I probably make this all sound very silly, but that's only because I find Revenge from Beyond the Grave stories to be tiresome. Also, because the deceased woman looks like this:

Look at that face. She looks like she's watching political debates. I'm not sure where I've seen it before, but that still image has been used elsewhere and I can't place it.

In the second segment, "The Telephone", a woman receives a series of increasingly violent and sexual* phone calls from an unknown male caller. Eventually she realizes that the calls are coming from a man who was sent to prison by her testimony. She calls an estranged friend for assistance, and the friend feels pretty confident about things because she's actually behind the phone calls, and is trying to in a very ill-advised way to reconcile the friendship. Things go south when the jailbird actually shows up and breaks into the house.

The final segment, "The Wurdalak", begins when a Russian nobleman out for a ride on horseback discovers a beheaded body with a knife sticking in the back. Modern policework not having been invented yet, he removes the knife and takes it to the nearest village where it is recognized as belonging to Gorca, a missing man who left some days ago to slay the local wurdalak (a vampire from Russian folklore which feeds on the blood of its own family--I looked it up). An unkempt Gorca (Boris Karloff) eventually shows up and begins behaving in the sort of ways that look suspicious in a vampire movie.

I liked Black Sabbath, but it feels completely lopsided by "The Wurdalak", which is by far the longest of the three stories. It was wise to put the short segments in front, like cartoons and newsreels before a feature, but eventually I found myself getting bored playing with my phone. It's a poor tonal fit, and while Bava's direction is unmistakable during the first two segments, "The Wurdalak" feels like it could have been directed by anybody (well, other a little bit of dramatic lighting). I think the film could have been paced better by adding another short segment to the front and shortening the last one. This is nitpicking, though. It's fun in the way that giallo films are: it's overwrought (in a good way) and the lighting and colors are garish and extreme.

The Internet tells me that I watched the worst version of Black Sabbath, and that the version that played to international audiences was better. We can mostly blame American International Pictures for this, since they largely paid for the production. AIP, as I have said before, was a powerhouse that churned out cheap, fun horror and sci-fi pictures (and some of everything else too, but we really only remember the horror and sci-fi) during the third quarter of the twentieth century. Apparently the Steve Reeves version of Hercules did quite well for them, so they were shopping around for other Italian productions and eventually struck a deal with Bava. AIP still had Karloff under contract, having just finished up production on The Raven and (to Karloff's annoyance) The Terror. Karloff's monologues between the segments are reminiscent of his host segments on the anthology TV series Thriller; they're not actually comedy, but they're full of spooky puns.

Bava was right, I think, to put Karloff in only one of the segments, and AIP was right to shuffle the segments around. Internationally, "The Telephone" came first, followed by "The Wurdalak" and then "The Drop of Water", which seems to me like it would feel even more poorly paced. AIP also cut out a lot of adult material--in its original state, the female characters in "The Telephone" are lesbians, and one of them is a prostitute. A lot of the violence has also been cut, apparently. One of the things I like about these old movies is that they have to find a way to imply all this stuff without showing it, but I don't really approve of cutting material out, and I wonder if it would be a better movie with these scenes intact.

Two little bits of trivia, neither of which has anything to do with anything: This film is the source of the name of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath. Also, when I selected this one, I thought I was selecting Black Sunday, which is another classic Mario Bava film from 1960. I watched it years ago when I was not in the mood for a movie, and didn't like it. I owe it another chance, but not tonight, apparently.

Here's the trailer:

* Not very sexual, mind you--we're talking about 1963, and the film, as I said, was heavily cut for its American release. The guy uses the word "body" a couple of times; that's it.
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