Black Sabbath (1963)

*. Chekov! Tolstoy! Maupassant! Damn, we’re taking the high road here! Just because it’s a low-budget anthology horror film doesn’t mean it has to be Poe or Lovecraft!
*. Alas, the stories here have barely any connection to the work of these big-name authors. The origins of all three, in so far as they can be said to have origins, come from the pulps. You just can’t dress this genre up and take it anywhere.
*. I guess I should file these notes under the original Italian title, I tre volti della paura (The Three Faces of Fear), since it was released in America as Black Sabbath in a much cut (and indeed rearranged) form by American International Pictures, and I’m talking about the Italian version here. But I’ll stick with what’s most familiar.
*. I don’t think there’s any point denying this movie is trash, but Mario Bava made great trash and seems to have been perversely inspired by a low budget. The first and third stories here are delightful exercises in minimalism and constraint, with lonely women being terrorized by, respectively, a ringing telephone and the sound of dripping water.
*. So forget about the stories. They’re not important anyway. What’s important is the construction of suspense and the theatrical and otherworldly atmosphere evoked by Bava’s signature elements: dramatic zooms, wandering dollies, and garish, pulsing pools of colour.
*. “Death by self-suffocation.” Hm. That sounds a bit like swallowing your own tongue. I’m not buying it.

*. Apparently both Roger Avary and Quentin Tarantino say they were influenced by this film’s structure when writing Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino remarked in an interview that “what Mario Bava did with the horror film in Black Sabbath, I was gonna do with the crime film.”
*. I guess this was in the very early going, as I don’t see any connection between the two films in terms of structure at all. There’s no attempt in Black Sabbath to connect the three stories in any way other than the thematic, and even that is pretty loose (with the middle story, about the vampire/Wurdulak, being the outlier).
*. I think the third story is the strongest, with the rictus grin of the dead woman being a truly frightening motif. The first film struck me as rather obscure, especially given how minimalistic it was. The American release version was changed dramatically, and the fact that it could be changed so much tells you something.
*. The middle story, “The Wurdulak,” is the showpiece, with star Boris Karloff (who also does duty as the frame narrator) buried under living-dead make-up and a shaggy wig. Unfortunately it is also the most predictable and doesn’t give us anything more than another vampire tale playing out among the usual Universal-style sets. The shot of Karloff riding his stuffed mount through the night and  the little boy pleading to be let in are the only highlights.
*. The introduction is lousy, but the final pull back, revealing Karloff on his hobby horse riding through the studio, redeems the frame somewhat. I like this way of winding up, especially given Bava’s usual over-the-top manner of presentation. Did he take any of this seriously? Probably not.
*. I’m still not sure I understand this film’s reputation. It has its moments, but I can think of at least half a dozen Bava movies I’d rather watch. I think the English title helped given it a certain cachet. This is weird, as it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the movie, but it certainly caught on and stuck in people’s heads.
*. Today I think a lot of people reference it without knowing the movie very well, or from confusing it with Black Sunday. I’m not even sure if the members of Black Sabbath saw it before taking their name from a marquee they saw across the street from one of their shows. In any event, I think it’s second-rate work, only of interest to hardcore Bava fans.

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