Halloween Endurance Test: Black Sabbath (1963)

Not intent to make the only watchable Barbara Steele film, Mario Bava then topped himself with the most important movie in heavy metal: Black Sabbath. Curated by Frankenstein’s monster himself, Boris Karloff, Black Sabbath is an early incarnation of the popular “horror trilogy.” Three otherwise disconnected horror-themed short stories tied (usually) together by a famous narrator. George Romero and Steven King did one with Creep Show. Snoop Dogg has his Hood of Horrors. So Bava has his own Black Sabbath, a film so iconic that it caused Bill Ward, drummer from the “heavy blues” band Earth, to sit up, take notice, and start penning songs about Satan falling in love.

The first story here is the Telephone. Which, as far as horror stereotypes go, would be classified as a “psychological thriller;” had that term existed at the time. A young woman comes home at night, and gets a call from an unknown assailant who warns that he’s coming for her. He can see everything she does (as she puts on her robe, calls her friend for help), and warns her that it will be no use.

What’s great here is the pacing. There’s never a “down” moment. The victim, Rosy, calls her friend, and right after she hangs up the phone, her assailant is calling her. An assailant Bava then immediately identifies! Whereas in a modern trilogy the director would keep you guessing about who the assailant is, here you know from the start, and thus have to watch the film tortured by the knowledge.

Taking things over the top, there’s also the obligatory twist ending. Bava wasn’t known as Italy’s top exploitation filmmaker for nothing!

The second story is the Wurdalak, Black Sabbath‘s centerpiece. Starring Boris Karloff as the titular monster, this story looks to be Bava’s version of a Hammer film. Taking place in an abandoned Medieval village, Bava makes use of his back-lit, fog-draped sets once again. Riding along the riverside, a lone traveller finds a corpse with a ceremonial dagger sticking out of its back.

Bringing the body to the nearest town, the traveler learns that it was an infamous Turk, and that the world’s a better place now that he’s dead. He also learns what a wurdalak is: “a bloodthirsty corpse; [yearning] for the blood of those they loved most when they were alive.” The Turk was one, and the missing village patriarch is well on his way of becoming one.

“Wurdalak” is clearly villager for “vampire,” as both drink your blood, and pass on their affliction by doing so. Both can only be destroyed by being stabbed through the heart. This adds a layer of interest onto the story. As the wurdalak is obviously a regional variant to a vampire; one has to wonder if it’s a true variant. Did some Europeans believe in wurdalaks instead of vampires?

The wurdalak returns, creeps everyone out, and orders that his howling dog be shot. Foreshadowing a theme (animal cruelty) that Italian exploitation cinema would become famed for in years to come. There’s also a familiar thematic tie to zombie films after a child is murdered by the wurdalak. The mother does not want her son stabbed through the heart, even though everyone knows that he’ll then return, thirsty for her blood.

I was going to make a quip here about how I felt this segment moves too fast. A mere 20 minutes after meeting the Sdenka at in the village, the traveler already professing his love for her. Too much, too soon? Then I realized that wurdalaks only prey on those they love. So the love had to be established early, to explain post-transformation Sdenka coming back around for the traveler later.

Black Sabbath‘s final story is the Drop of Water, a cinematographers dream. The colors in this segment are amazingly done. One minute in, the protagonist, a nurse, answers a late night phone call. It’s a stormy night, so when the lightning crashes she’s bathed in green, only to be painted red when the sky blacks back out; leaving only her reading lamp as a light.

Clearly inspired by Poe’s “A Tell Tale Heart,” “the Drop of Water” deals with the aforementioned nurse preparing her recently deceased charge for burial. While dressing the corpse, a ring falls off its finger. The nurse pilfers the ring, only to find a fly having replaced it on the finger.

Every time the buzzing fly is chased away, dripping water starts to dominate the soundtrack; setting the nurse on edge. Imagine Ennio Morricone’s minimalist, amplify the floorboards, soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in the West and you’ll have an idea of what Bava composer Roberto Nicolosi was going for here.

Flies, rumbling thunder, water drops, cat meows, and the nurse’s own frantic breathing makes up the majority of the soundtrack. You’re already creeped out before the corpse reanimates to take its ring back.

Stick around after the story, though, for one of the most inexplicable endings ever used in cinema. Karloff, still dressed as the wurdalak, wishes the viewers a safe trip home, and then Bava pulls the camera back; destroying the scene. You see that Karloff is riding a mechanical horse, and can see the crew-members holding trees in front of the camera and running by; thus creating the illusion of movement. Your guess is as good as mine as to why Bava decided to break down the 4th wall here.


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