powered by AFI
Anthology horror films enjoy a tradition in the genre that goes back to Dead of Night (1945) and earlier classics but with few exceptions the form has rarely been exploited as effectively as it was in Black Sabbath (1963), directed by Mario Bava, one of the great fantasy/horror directors of Italian cinema. Released in its own country as I tre volti della paura (which translates as The Three Faces of Fear), Bava's excursion into murder and the supernatural opens with "The Telephone," in which Michele Mercier is being terrorized by an anonymous phone caller, threatening her with death. An early precursor of the popular giallo subgenre (inspired by the lurid covers of Italian paperbacks known as the "gialli"), this first story has a sexually charged atmosphere, lush color photography and a fetishistic attention to detail (a silk stocking held by a strangler, a knife under a pillow).
The second story, "Il Wurdalak," is a gothic period piece set in rural Russia and opens as Gorca (Boris Karloff) returns to his family after slaying a vampire. But his homecoming unleashes the curse of the undead and soon only Vladimire (Mark Damon), a visiting nobleman, is left to fight the evil scourge. A wonderfully creepy and atmospheric yarn, this middle section is particularly memorable for its nightmarish set design (old ruins and landscapes drained of color are juxtaposed against incandescent mists and midnight blue skies), and some truly disturbing moments like the spectral appearance of the undead child. But it's Karloff's haunting presence which gives this episode a special frisson.
The concluding story, "A Drop of Water," stars Jacqueline Pierreux (the mother of French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud) as a nurse who steals a ring from the corpse - a former medium - she is preparing for burial. It's a decision that she will pay dearly for later when she's alone at night in her drab apartment. Often cited as the most representative example of Bava's genius in working with color, visual effects and sound, "A Drop of Water" is arguably the most frightening of the three tales.
Bava was offered Black Sabbath after the phenomenal box office success of Black Sunday (1960), his first bona-fide hit for American International Pictures. Boris Karloff was part of the package deal and was in the midst of a career revival thanks to appearances in Roger Corman productions like The Terror (1963), The Raven (1963) and Tales of Terror (1962), an anthology of Edgar Allan Poe stories that obviously inspired the structure of Black Sabbath. Some tongue-in-cheek introductions by Karloff for each story were actually filmed by Bava but later discarded by order of the distributor. But more significantly, Bava's completed film was drastically altered for American release. The original music score by Roberto Nicolosi was replaced by one from composer Les Baxter, the order of the stories was rearranged with "A Drop of Water" appearing first and "Il Wurdalak" last, and a new introduction was shot with Karloff, to list just a few of the changes. Still, for some who saw Black Sabbath in its altered, English-dubbed form, the film was a revelation and made them converts, anxious to seek out other Italian horror films.
For more information on the making of Black Sabbath, everyone is encouraged to rent or purchase the Image DVD and read the liner notes by Tim Lucas, the editor/publisher of Video Watchdog. That will only whet your appetite to see additional Bava films and to learn more about him, something that Lucas will remedy shortly with the release of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, his mammoth biography of the director due for release in the Spring of 2003. You can order an advance copy now from his web site at http://www.cinemaweb.com/videowd/announce.html.
* TCM is showing the original Italian language version with English subtitles.
Producer: Paolo Mercuri
Director: Mario Bava
Screenplay: Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Marcello Fondato
Production Design: Riccardo Domenici
Cinematography: Mario Bava, Ubaldo Terzano
Editing: Mario Serandrei
Music: Les Baxter, Roberto Nicolosi
Cast: Michele Mercier (Rosy), Lidia Alfonsi (Mary), Boris Karloff (Gorca), Mark Damon (Vladimire d'Urfe), Susy Andersen (Sdenka), Massimo Righi (Pietro), Jacqueline Pierreux (Helen Corey), Harriet Medin (Miss Perkins).
By Jeff Stafford