Monday, January 25, 2010

Final Girl Film Club: Black Sabbath (1963) Review

I naively thought that 1975’s Trilogy Of Terror was probably the first horror anthology movie ever made. It turns out I was wronger than Chow Mein on an Italian menu, because predating that made-for-television classic by a good 13 years was Mario Bava’s made-for-movie-theatres classic I Tre Volti Della Paura.

The original Italian title translates to “The Three Faces Of Fear”, but as is too often the case with foreign films, the distributors couldn’t just release it with the literally translated title of The Three Faces Of Fear. No. That would be too simple, make too much sense, and presumably put the idiot, who comes up with English titles for foreign films, out of a job. Instead, Bava’s prehistoric anthology gem is known in non-Italian speaking parts of the world as Black Sabbath (urgh).

Like contemporary horror anthologies Black Sabbath features three separate stories, book-ended by short segments featuring a “creepy” master of ceremonies (in this case, none other than, Boris Karloff). Also, like contemporary horror anthologies, the quality of the segments varies. The quality of the vignettes on offer here seems to be inversely proportional to their length. The last segment, A Drop Of Water, is the shortest and easily the sweetest. The second segment, The Wurdalak, is the longest and weakest. While the opening segment, The Telephone, falls in between in both length and quality. Like I said.

In the first segment, The Telephone, Rosy (Michele Mercier) arrives home alone in an alluring black dress, alluringly undresses and alluringly slips into an alluring robe. Sadly, all this alluringness is shattered when she starts getting menacing phone calls from someone who can clearly see her movements and who threatens to kill her before dawn. It’s not as frightening or as suspenseful as the opening act of the seminal menacing-phone-call movie When A Stranger Calls, but it’s still pretty compelling stuff that stands up very well considering it was made 17 years earlier. It also provides more evidence (if it was needed) that this basic plot works best as a short film, not a feature.

The second segment, The Wurdalak, is set in the olden days, with an olden days traveller stumbling across a homestead of worried family members mumbling ominously about the return of their father. If he gets back by a certain time everything will be right with the world. If not, he will return as a Wurdalak and that, apparently, is not good.

At first I thought a Wurdalak was a zombie of sorts, given all the early talk of the “undead”, but (and I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying this) when Dad (Boris Karloff) does return as a Wurdalak he looks more like a werewolf thanks to his excessively hairy costuming. As things progress, slowly, the Wurdalak’s victims fail to exhibit the hairiness of Daddy Wurdalak and look and behave more like vampires. All in all, this olden day tale of zombie werewolf vampire Wurdalaks drags on for too long and fails to generate any real interest or tension. Karloff’s performance, in particular, is lacklustre. He’s either stoned, just there for the paycheck or, most probably, both. The Wurdalak is really Black Sabbath’s saggy bottom.

It seems the “leave the best till last” heuristic was alive and well in 1963 because the third and final segment A Drop Of Water is a cracker. Nurse Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) gets a call to come help dress a recently deceased woman who she had been caring for. Before you can ask, why didn’t the housekeeper call the mortician instead of the nurse, the creepiest of creepy looking dead people is revealed and you’ll soon be more concerned with controlling any involuntary bowel movements than you will be with any of A Drop Of Water’s gaps in logic. After dressing the dead woman, Nurse Chester steals the her ring, and from there things get even creepier. I couldn’t tell if the dead woman was an actress or a mannequin. If she was an actress she deserves an academy award, if she was a mannequin then the effects team deserve one.

Even though the stories are quite different, Mario Bava does a good job of tying them together with a consistent style and tone. The lighting and shot composition are almost too artist for this genre of film. Whilst the film has a few dull spots (mostly in The Wurdalak segment), it is always nice to look at. Not withstanding the weak second segment, Black Sabbath starts and finishes strongly, and is a must see for anthology or horror fans.

Related Links:
Final Girl Film Club
Final Girl