Boris Karloff - Gorca
Susy Andersen - Sdenka
Mark Damon - Count Vladimir D’Urfe
Michele Mercier - Rosy
Lidia Alfonsi - Mary
Jacqueline Pierreux - Helen Chester
Milly Monti - The Maid
Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Anthology
Running Time - 93 Minutes
Three short tales of supernatural horror. In “The Telephone,” a woman is plagued by threatening phone calls. In “The Wurdalak,” a family is preyed upon by vampiric monsters. In “The Drop of Water,” a deceased medium wreaks havoc on the living.
I wanted to review something classic for the first review of the year and I figured it’s been a while since I tackled anything from Italian director Mario Bava. It’s also been forever since I’ve done a review for an anthology movie. So why not just do both and review Mario Bava’s 1963 anthology BLACK SABBATH?
BLACK SABBATH is known for a few things. It’s the only film where Boris Karloff, best known as Universal Studios’ Frankenstein’s Monster, played a vampire. The title of the film is probably better known as the inspiration for one of the greatest heavy metal bands to have ever existed, as long as a song of the same name. BLACK SABBATH also inspired Quentin Tarantino when it came to the narrative structure of a little known 1994 film called PULP FICTION. Who knew a film that many horror audiences don’t really talk about a whole lot about these days would be so influential in pop culture? The real question is - is BLACK SABBATH any good?
BLACK SABBATH is made up of three different horror segments that don’t relate to the other. There’s no real wrap around story besides Boris Karloff acting silly as the film’s host. But each of the stories varies in quality, but all are worth a look.
For this review, I watched the original Italian version [the stories are in a different order in the International dubbed version].
Probably the film’s worst segment, "The Telephone" is still a watchable half hour due to the use of strong tension and suspense throughout. The story is pretty much centered on Rosy, who receives threatening phone calls by who she believes is an ex-lover who is supposedly dead. The segment plays out as a short giallo film that contains twists and turns that make you rethink what’s really going on.
I’m not sure if this is the first horror film that really focused on using a telephone as a scary device to drive a story forward. But I’m sure it influenced other horror films since, like BLACK CHRISTMAS, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and SCREAM to name a few. The segment is also set in a single location, making it feel like a stage play that was shot on film. While Bava brings a ton of suspense and tension throughout, especially as the segment gets nearer to the end where things just fall apart for all the characters involved, there’s nothing really dynamic or memorable compared to the other two stories. Characters aren’t really fleshed out and things happen a bit too easily to keep the narrative flowing. The only real interesting aspect was Rosy and her friend Mary implying some sort of lesbian relationship, which was taken out of the International Versions of BLACK SABBATH.
That being said, the direction does what it needs to do and has the classic tropes of a giallo. And the actors involved do a good job bringing the story to life. But unfortunately, there’s just not enough going on here as a whole to make it stand out from the rest of the segments.
"The Wurdulak" is an entertaining segment that deals with Slavic vampires that destroy a family from within. It stars Boris Karloff as the patriarch who has been afflicted by this vampiric disease, manipulating and terrorizing his naive family into becoming part of his Wurdulak clan. And despite an Italian dub over his voice, Karloff’s performance carries the story as he looks creepy and sickly in front of his relatives who know he’s a threat but are afraid to do anything about it out of loyalty. His body language and his many close-ups, especially on his yellowish eyes, really carries a level of dread that permeates throughout the segment from start to finish.
The story is memorable due to the fact that it follows a different type of vampire that’s not really used a whole lot on film. While you still have the traditional vampire bite marks on the neck, having to be invited inside a location and the transfer of the disease through feeding on blood, there are different elements at play. There’s an assumption that the curse leaves the body after five days if you don’t feed. Wooden stakes don’t seem necessary to kill a Wurdulak, as any sword or dagger would do - especially if it’s used to decapitate the creature. And the Wurdulak just seems focused on drinking blood without any sort of sexual aspect and hypnotism at play. I think a full feature would have worked for this story, just to understand the differences between a Wurdulak and a common vampire most of us are familiar with.
The only negative aspect happens to be a tacked on love story that plays into the finale of the segment. Vampire stories usually involve romance, but this one comes out of nowhere. Two characters meet and just fall in love with no build at all. I don’t care about this angle or any of the characters, so this subplot didn’t work for me at all.
What does work is that the acting is very good. And Mario Bava’s direction is just wonderful here. It reminds me of a Corman-Poe feature of the 1960s, with incredible cinematography capturing a Gothic landscape that feels like a character all its own. Colors pop and a sense of terror slowly builds, especially when a child is endangered [which creates chaos both visually and storywise]. The use of lighting, shadows and camera angles just create a visually stunning segment.
"The Drop of Water"
The final segment is "The Drop of Water", a really fun segment that involves a caregiver who steals a ring from a medium who has passed away. Thinking she’s gotten away with her crime, strange things begin happening to her - possibly from beyond the grave. It’s the most supernatural segment of the three, with a use of special effects and visual style that makes it the favorite of the three stories [although I prefer "The Wurdulak"].
Personally, I feel "The Drop of Water" is the creepiest of the three stories. That’s mainly due to the sound design, which is strongly used to convey a level of dread and uneasiness throughout the segment. There’s this constant sound of dripping water that’s heard from beginning to end, creating tension and anxiety.
There’s also the beauty of the visuals. The corpse of the medium is pretty frightening, appearing with a creepy smile when you least expect it. There’s also a great use of lighting, with neon colors becoming prominent as the haunting increases. It’s obvious Dario Argento’s color palette was inspired by this portion of the film.
The acting is quite good in the segment as well. But it’s overshadowed by the cool visuals and strong sound design that raises the fear factor. I wish the segment was longer to focus more on the narrative, as it’s a bit too simple. But it’s a nice conclusion to a fun anthology.
THE FINAL HOWL
While not the greatest horror anthology out there, Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH is a master class of style in terms of its presentation, even if some of the stories presented aren’t as dynamic as the direction and cinematography. The film looks more beautiful and grows more atmospheric with each segment, capturing tension and genuine creepiness as each story plays out. Boris Karloff manages to steal the spotlight any time he appears, although the rest of the actors do fine in their roles.
None of the segments are terrible, but some are weaker than others. "The Telephone" has a great concept and carries a lot of giallo tropes, but its one location set up doesn’t allow a ton of style visually. "The Wurdulak" has a great story about Slavic vampires that manages to be creepy and shows how fallible human beings are, despite a love story that doesn’t really work since it comes out of nowhere. And "The Drop of Water" has the most stylish and terrifying visuals involving a corpse that enjoys popping up when you least expect it, despite not much of a story due to its shorter runtime.
Still, BLACK SABBATH is a must see for anyone who enjoys horror anthologies that especially feel like those old EC comics from back in the day. I’m sure children of the grave and iron men will get a kick out of this one.
(8 out of 10)