Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Black Sabbath

1963
Dir. Mario Bava

AKA
The Three Faces of Fear
(I tre volti della paura)

Mario Bava’s Gothic horror anthology consists of three different tales of horror, each with their own unique tone and style, but all containing that inimitable Bava touch. Each of the films unfolds as an exercise in style and atmosphere, bolstered by intriguing stories that carefully unfold to reveal a deadly sting in the tale.
As a whole, Black Sabbath is most satisfactory and none of the segments outstay their welcome. What makes it all even more appealing is the introduction of the film by none other than Boris Karloff himself, waxing lyrical on the mechanics of fear, the uncanny, things that go bump in the night and a treatise on what makes a scary film and why. Each segment is introduced by a title card and contains its own share of nightmare-inducing moments; all beautifully captured by Bava’s ever prowling camera, and rendered dreamlike in the vivid lighting.

First up is the giallo-esque The Telephone, a discomforting little tale of obsession, lust and revenge. Rosy (Michèle Mercier) returns home to her modestly sized, yet elegantly plush apartment, only to receive sinister phone calls that seem to be from a maniacal gangster she helped imprison. Said gangster appears to see Rosy’s every move within her chic abode and delights in revelling in her increasingly panicked movements. Rosy eventually calls her confidant and former girlfriend Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) and begs her to come over and stay the night. It transpires that Mary is still bitter about her and Rosy’s break up and it was she who placed the calls in a desperate attempt to make Rosy become dependent on her for protection. As the two women slip into slinky lingerie and settle down for the night however, someone - who may actually wish Rosy real harm - sneaks into the apartment and puts an end to Mary’s lovelorn meddling before turning his attention to the petrified Rosy…



Bava makes excellent use of the one location that provides the backdrop for this story. Rosy’s apartment, while enviably tasteful and more than a little cool, soon takes on a more menacing atmosphere as the night goes on and Rosy becomes a prisoner in her own home. A lounge-jazz score keeps things kitsch and groovy until events take a darker turn and Rosy begins to receive the phone calls and proceedings become taut and claustrophobic. Apparently the lesbian subplot was completely excised from the US cut of the film – this is confusing given the necessity of the subplot to instigate the short film’s first twist. The initial phone calls before Mary’s arrival to liven things up a bit, soon become repetitive: Rosy answers phone (‘Pronto? Pronto?! PRONTO!!??), strange voice threatens her with violence, Mary flails around in a fit of mascara-drenched hysteria before she receives another phone call – lather, rinse, repeat until Mary shows up. Luckily the short running time ensures that the story doesn’t really have a chance to flounder and it moves along at a fairly brisk pace ensuring you have the chance to enjoy at least one glass of wine…

Next up is The Wurdalak, a creepy yarn involving vampirism, a doomed family and the recent return of their undead patriarch – played with diabolical glee by Boris Karloff. A Wurdalak is a vampiric creature specific to Eastern Europe where the tale is set. It preys on those it loves most – family, friends and lovers – transforming them into fellow blood-suckers who wander the twilight hours.
Vladimire d'Urfe (Mark Damon) seeks refuge at an isolated farmhouse after he discovers a headless body with a sword in its back. He is greeted with caution by the family who are anxiously awaiting the return of their father who had ventured out to track down a Wurdalak. The family were given strict instructions to deny entry to the father if he returned after midnight. Sure enough, just after midnight and the countryside begins to suffocate under a billowing fog, Papa Gorca returns and when he insists on being allowed in, he soon sets about killing his own family and turning them into blood-thirsty creatures of the night. The youngest daughter Sdenka (Suzy Anderson) and Vladimire – who have also fallen in love by this stage – make a break for it and hide out in some nearby ruins. But the ties that bind this family together are not easily shredded, and the now transformed clan track down Sdenka and whisk her off home with Vladimire in hot pursuit.



The Wurdalak is a highly atmospheric and beautifully lit mood piece also successful in its utilisation of limited locations. As in the other two tales in Black Sabbath, the place where characters are most threatened is in the sanctuary of their own home. The family farmhouse here is initially warm and inviting and appears as a beacon of hope and light in the darkness surrounding it. Not for long though. It soon takes on a weird and threatening atmosphere, with danger lurking in every room and from everyone who resides within its four walls. There are several moody shots of various characters looking in or out of windows, eerily lit and steeped in an ominous aura. Bava slyly subverts the notion of ‘family’ and contorts it into something evil and warped. The very thing that causes the downfall of this family is their love for each other; provocatively highlighted in the scene where the young boy – now turned vampire – calls to his mother. Unable to resist her maternal instincts, she goes to him and seals her own doom in doing so. Actually, the fate of the young boy is one of the film’s darker elements considering the era in which it was made (the early 60s) and the fact that even today this is a touchy subject in cinema. The film’s bleak ending in which evil conquers and darkness prevails was also quite a radical departure for the time and proves how daring and innovative a filmmaker Bava was.

Last, but by no means least, we have The Drop of Water – the supremely unsettling story of a nurse who steals a ring from the deathbed of a medium, only to suffer the ghastly consequences in the privacy of her own home. When she is called late at night and asked to prepare the recently deceased body of a local medium, Helen (Jacqueline Pierreux) leaves the relative cosiness of a night in, crocheting and sipping brandy (a kindred spirit, obviously), to embark on her journey. Arriving at the dead woman’s house she is let in by a maid and makes her way through the opulently candy-coloured and cat strewn hallways to the bedroom of the medium. We are as shocked as Helen is to see the morbidly grinning death-face of the medium as she lies propped up on her pillows. Going about her business, Helen notices an ornate ring that she decides no one will miss, and she takes it from the dead woman’s finger.



Returning home, Helen is plagued by the sounds of a dripping tap and the memory of the ghoulishly grinning dead woman. Eventually, her nerves in tatters, Helen realises, too late, that stealing from the dead is just not cool. Seeking sanctuary in her bedroom she sees the spectre of the medium grinning from the bed and then rise up to float menacingly across the room towards her.
The overwhelmingly creepy mood of this final instalment is nothing short of oppressive. Helen’s compact apartment, much like Rosy’s in The Telephone and the home of the doomed family in The Wurdalak, soon takes on an eerie atmosphere, as the poor woman is plagued by the sound of dripping water and a buzzing fly. Bava’s use of light and shadow is mesmerising and surely ranks amongst the best in his Gothic nightmares. At times Helen’s apartment is lit only by a flashing blue neon sign somewhere outside the window. As she cautiously moves around the small interior, menace seems to seep from every dark corner until the nerve-shredding climax when she comes face to morbidly-grinning-face with the spectre of the woman she stole from. The nasty ending suggests all too strongly that a similar fate will befall the nosy neighbour who found Helen’s body and took the ring on her finger for herself…

With the last image of The Drop of Water still throbbing behind your eyes, Black Sabbath closes with a neat twist that breaks the fourth wall and, while far from undoing all of Bava’s masterful storytelling, reminds us that while we may have been affected by some of the things we’ve just watched – its all just make-believe. Karloff, still in character from his stint as Gorca in The Wurdalak, thanks us for watching and reminds us to take care when we are alone in the dark. As he does so, the camera pulls back to reveal he is riding on a fake horse in a studio, and the trees he is galloping past are fake ones, held by crew members running around the fake horse to create the impression he is riding through a misty forest. Whilst Black Sabbath is undeniably moody and at times unshakably creepy – particularly with its recurring notion that ‘home’ isn’t always as safe as we believe it to be and can quite often be invaded by malevolent forces - with this last reveal it highlights the magic of cinema and the often powerful spell it can weave with its stories and illusions…

3 comments:

Carl (ILHM) said...

Undeniably one of the greatest Horror anthologies ever made, if not one of the best Horror movies in general. I thoroughly enjoy Black Sabbath, and The Wurdulak may be my favorite non-Dracula vampire tale ever.

An excellent and thoughtful review, thanks for taking on another Bava entry!

James said...

Hi Carl. Good to hear from you. I absolutely love this film - I've watched it a few times now and initially my favourite segment was The Drop of Water - though I reckon its now The Wurdalak. Black Sabbath is also probably one of my favourite Bava films... Always a pleasure to watch his stuff!

Carl (ILHM) said...

Its so hard to pick a favorite, I love Sunday but Sabbath grows on me more and more with each viewing. Bava is an absolute genius