Black Sabbath Review

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Bava at his best!

by Simon Crust May 16, 2013 at 2:41 PM

  • Movies review

    Black Sabbath Review
    Hot on the heels of Mario Bava’s Baron Blood, one of his most commercially successful films, even if it is rather small fry in his canon, comes one of his most celebrated and, indeed, his own personal favourite of his horror genre output, the sublime and commercially renamed Black Sabbath. Continuing our look at Bava’s horror output this particular release was held back by the distribution company by two weeks to “further picture and audio restoration requirements” and is now presented in its best format to date; so gather yourselves as we look deep into three fantastical tales, the dark and foreboding horror of I tre volti della paura (translated as The Three Faces of Fear) or as it's better known throughout the world – Black Sabbath.

    Bava’s films have always had a hard time with their international distribution by American International Pictures, and by that I mean nearly every one has been edited in some way, shape or form, the least offensive of which is to change the title. I tre volti della paura is no exception and was a pure marketing ploy by AIP to cash in on Bava’s breakout film Black Sunday by choosing a title that was as similar as possible (of course it’s no secret that a certain pioneering heavy metal band took Black Sabbath as their name!) But this was the least of the changes made, in fact this film would be the most molested of all Bava’s films upon its original release, not only was the music changed, the order of the three stories shifted around, but each individual story has had cuts and edits and redubbing as well as inserted introductions by the film’s most notable horror icon Boris Karloff. So much so that all these changes make for a very different filmic experience; they are essentially two different films so it is wonderful to have both on this new release. Both have merit, the original for being simply that – the original film in its original language and format – the international release for being the film most people know and recognise.

    Both films showcase three stories, two slightly more psychological horror while one is outright supernatural (the international version actually plays up supernatural horror in one particular story, something that is not present in the Italian version, more on which later) and it is these first two psychological stories that Bava is most confident with and most proud of, as they adhere to his own definition of horror: that of being alone and terrorised. I will take a look at each of these stories before bringing it all together at the end.

    The Wurdalak
    For this, the most supernatural story of the three, the essential plot is that of vampirism, though that word is never mentioned in favour of the title (or, indeed, the description of “a living corpse that feeds of the blood of the living”), and is the only story based on a fable, in this case The Family of the Vourdalak by Aleksey Tolstoy. The main plot follows a Russian nobleman who, after discovering a headless corpse with an ornate knife through its heart, seeks refuge in a nearby house, only to discover it is a family waiting on the return of their overbearing father and whose actual return heralds the onset of despair, desolation and death.

    Playing the part of the Russian is jobbing actor Mark Damon, who had jumped from success in the US to even more in Europe, especially Italy (he tells the story that he introduced Clint Eastwood to Sergio Leone rather than take the part of the man with no name himself). Portrayed as a dashing hero and very much in the ‘Hollywood’ tradition his part is very simply laid out – see the girl, protect the girl, downfall by the girl – it is his ‘journey’ and plight we as the audience are supposed to be drawn to; and for the most part he does a good job with the role. His fawning over Sdenka (Susy Andersen), the girl in question, does become a little laborious after a while, and their on-set chemistry is a bit forced, but during the final reveal he has done just enough for us to feel the required sympathy. Susy Andersen as the tortured Sdenka, despite the language difficulties, manages to emote well enough that we can feel her plight, especially when she is called by her ‘family’ (this scene is far better realised in the Italian version without all the overbearing music and effects present in the AIP version).

    But, of course, both pale into insignificance when put against the driving force that is Boris Karloff who plays the father, Gorca, and the instigator of all the horror that is to come. Karloff, clearly, needs no introduction having made more than fifty films by the time Black Sabbath came around, nearly all within the horror genre, he was a stalwart that added a justification and presence to Bava’s film that no other actor, at the time, could bring. (He also introduces the film, but more on that later.) Such a dominating force that Karloff’s presence is felt even before he is seen on film, the family describe their father and his nature and already a dark and foreboding layer is set. His first scene, that of Gorca stumbling over a bridge, is rich with menace. His dominance of every scene is palpable, simple eyes movements, a sudden growl and the position of his body being enough to convey an awful terror. But it is perhaps his simple cajoling of his grandson that elicits our most primal emotions – we instinctively know something is not right about Gorca, his family also, so as he cuddles, kisses and dotes over his grandson it is so permeated with sickness that you want to crawl into the screen to rescue him. Whether this simple scene is exasperated by today’s paranoia is without doubt, but in 1963 this was a terrifying concept (the API dubbing is quite horrendous in this regard, despite it being ‘older language’, “Am I not allowed to fondle my own Grandson!”) By managing to combine sickly sweet demeanour and utter menace Karloff demonstrate just what it takes to be truly terrifying.

    And the final winner for this story is Bava’s own direction and the attention to detail with the framing of each scene. Just look at the layering, shooting through trees in the extreme foreground to the characters within the middle and then off into the distant horizon – 3D if ever I saw it – making a studio set seem to go on for miles. Juxtapose this with intimate close ups to ramp up the tension, claustrophobia and terror. The use of lighting in this story is at its most fantastical, all the primaries are catered for adding a real sense of dread and menace – little wonder later horror directors (most notably Dario Argento) took their inspiration from the Master. And the story simply gets darker as it unfolds, with no one coming out unscathed.

    The differences between the Italian and the International version are very minor, a few establishing scenes in the beginning, rather overbearing music and some unnecessary effects in the AIP version.

    The Drop of Water
    An impoverished nurse is called late one dark and stormy night to a nearby house whose wealthy owner has just died during a spirit reading. While dressing the body, the nurse steals a valuable ring off the owners dead hand, but once back in her own apartment is menaced by ghostly noises and an apparition of death.

    This story, whilst on the surface deals with a ghost haunting a thief can be viewed in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is ‘just desserts’. As presented it falls very much in the Poe bandwagon of terror, i.e. it is conscience that is the real adversary, and the ending, though explicitly showing the apparition is enigmatic enough to give the hint that there was no terror other than that of the mind. The nurse is played by noted French actress Jacqueline Pierreux and it is on her shoulders that the entire story rests, she being in every scene and mostly by herself. When introduced she portrays someone desperate, no money and severely impoverished, but with a dignity not befitting her situation. See how cold she is upon her entrance to the Medium’s house, barely hiding her selfish streak (you’ll have to watch the Italian original to gain the full impact of this having been slightly toned down for the US one). When she first spies the ring, Pierreuz does an excellent job of wrestling with the temptation – it’s all about the eyes. However the setup is a foregone conclusion as we already know how cold she is and once the ring is snatched things instantly take a turn for the worst – who’d have thought a common house fly could be so terrifying?

    Once the action moves back to the nurse’s apartment we get a lesson in horror direction: how to terrify using only sound, light and acting skill – the effect is mesmerising. And it is so simple and credit must go to the direction and to Pierreux’s skill at acting scared. Once the big reveal is made (shame the mask really isn’t up to much) the advancing apparition is as cold as the nurse’s actions. Here lies a delicious bit of ambiguity, the nurse wracked with fear literally strangles herself rather than face the horror of her actions – was she being stalked by the ghost of her victim or was her conscience too much to bear? I love the epitaph as well, the look on the neighbours face as the detective points out a bruised ring finger becoming indelibly printed on your mind.

    The differences between the Italian original and the International release amount to a few dialogue changes (the nurse is far colder in the original), far more reliance on sound effects in the Italian version compared to musical cues in the AIP and a slightly changed epitaph that reinforces the supernatural rather than leave a more open verdict. The changes are slight, but have a profound effect on the overall feel of the story, making the original version a far, far better watch.

    The Telephone
    Of the three stories, this one has had the most changes between the two versions; the original has a girl menaced by phone calls from an ex-boyfriend in what is a very psychological drama, the AIP version has the girl menaced by phone calls from a dead ex-lover and ramps up the supernatural element. There are other differences, detailed below, but this fundamental shift in tone makes for a very different experience. But in both the main character, Rosy, is threatened by a mysterious voice on the phone which continues to call her throughout the night. Made at a time long before caller ID, plug in phones, call blocking or even tracing, The Telephone is a huge red and black beast, resembling the devil himself, as it calls and calls, each ring driving a nail further into the insanity coffin. Rosy is played by French actress Michèle Mercier who would, the following year, become a superstar with her portrayal of the character Angélique in the series of films of the same name. But here she does a fine job of looking seductive and terrified at the same time.

    As mentioned above there are a number of other differences between the two versions, not just an introduced supernatural element, the most controversial of which was the lesbian relationship hinted at in the Italian version between Rosy and the girl she calls when she is at her wits' end, Mary. This relationship is at the backbone of the psychological drama that unfolds in that version, but was completely excised in the AIP version, leading to other (irrelevant) story elements introduced to make up the run time (in this case a neighbour walking a dog). The big story reveal in the Italian version leads to a sudden shock conclusion when the final reveal is made with poor Rosy devastated and insane at the final acts committed. Whereas in the AIP version there is no such big reveal and therefore the final reveal is meant to be a ghost leading to Rosy’s breakdown. It just about works, helped in this case by the new score, but the original version works far, far better as it is grounded in reality making the horror all the more real.

    So much for the individual stories. The introduction to the films is markedly different as well. Both have a narrator, stalwart horror face, Boris Karloff, breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience – remember this was made long before home cinema so the line “There might be one sitting behind you” was meant to instil a chill in the cinema going patrons – but while the words are the same, the way the character is portrayed is very different. In the original Karloff is in a small set bathed in blue and red light, the effect is very eerie; while in the AIP version Karloff is merely a floating head. Also in the AIP version each story is introduced by Karloff, this does not happen in the original, but there is a final epilogue scene showing Karloff in his Gorca makeup riding a prop horse who closes out the film on a light hearted note, as if to calm the audience from the horrors they have just witnessed. This is far more satisfying that the AIP version that uses comical music to achieve the same result.

    Taken as a whole the Italian original makes for a far better watch; the direction, score and sound are well layered and, even though the film hails from1963, still manages to unsettle. The AIP version was a huge success, but looking at it now the Les Baxter score gives a closer resemblance to ‘Hammer Horror’ than the original which is far more ethereal and uses sound effects to create atmosphere. As such I prefer the Italian original for being less ‘in your face’ and more atmospheric, but with both available in this set the choice is yours. If you are a fan of Bava’s, or Italian horror in general this set comes highly recommended, and even if you are not, it’s place in history means it should still have a place on your shelf.

    The Rundown

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