Black Sabbath

For all you hear (absolutely correctly, BTW) about Roger Corman's influential 1960s cycle of Poe adaptations, Mario Bava's 1963 omnibus Black Sabbath is a stellar example that European horror at its best was every bit its equal - if not its superior. Quentin Tarantino has been credited as saying that the original concept for Pulp Fiction was his attempt at doing a crime-film, multi-story version of Black Sabbath, even though none of the three segments in Mr. Bava's anthology is linked other than thematically.

     Using Boris Karloff as both its host and the star of one of the episodes, Mr. Bava plays masterfully with the Aristotelian unities of time, space and action throughout - every one of the stories develops its suspense from the temporal or location constraints, also linking very nicely with the low-budget nature of these commercial pan-European productions of the 1960s. Also, there's more than a touch of the circus showman in the way the bookends both set up and play down the "scare factor" of the tales, allegedly inspired by short stories from well-known 19th century writers (in point of fact, only one of the segments is).

     The three episodes work in different ways: opener The Telephone is a claustrophobic "tale of the unexpected" set in a closed basement apartment over the course of a single night, with call girl Michèle Mercier terrorized by anonymous phone calls she believes come from the man she helped put in prison; it's the closest to the giallo that his later Blood and Black Lace would help define. Centrepiece The Wurdulak, adapted from a short story from Russian writer Alexis Tolstoy (Leo's relative), is Poe-esque Gothic, a vampire tale in all but name with a passing stranger (Mark Damon) being drawn into helping a local family face the fact that its patriarch (Mr. Karloff) has been bitten by the titular creature. Finally, The Drop of Water is pure supernatural disquiet, following greedy nurse Jacqueline Pierreux's punishment for having taken a ring from the hand of a newly-deceased local eccentric whose death she was required to certify.

     In common, however, all three segments are models of economy and eloquence, needing no more than a couple of actors and a remarkable domain of visual and narrative space to work as perfectly formed "mini-films" - some of which would have worked perfectly as Twilight Zone or Outer Limits half-hours (yes, they're that good). A master of the long take, of the sinewy camera movement and of the symbolic use of colour, Mr. Bava has no problem in creating a stunningly enveloping sense of dread and foreboding throughout these 90 minutes, only to gleefully make it come tumbling down in the amazing backstage pan that ends Black Sabbath on a tongue-in-cheek note - one that perfectly encapsulates the haunted-house nature of this earlier, and yet truly remarkable, age of horror movies.

Italy, France 1963
96 minutes
Cast: "Il Telefono": Michèle Mercier, Lydia Alfonsi; "I Wurdulak": Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, Susy Andersen; "La Goccia d'Acqua": Jacqueline Pierreux, Milly Monti
Director Mario Bava; screenwriters Marcello Fondato, Alberto Bevilacqua and Mr. Bava; "I Wurdulak" based on the novella by Alexis Tolstoy "La Famille du Vourdalak"; cinematographer Ubaldo Terzano (Technicolor); composer Roberto Nicolosi; designer Giorgio Giovannini; costumes Tina Grani; editor Mario Serandrei; production companies Emmepi Cinematografica, Lyre Cinématographique and Galatea
Screened April 11th 2014, DVD, Lisbon


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