Shock-O-Rama: Black Sabbath (Mania.com)

By:Chuck Francisco
Date: Saturday, December 08, 2012
Source: Mania.com

Anthology films have to face more challenges than their contemporaries. It isn't enough that they tell a compelling tale; they have bring their A game to the plate several times, typically giving us at least three  complete, bite size experiences. And filmmakers are working with a limited budget of minutes to present a full story within. Like the links of a chain, each individual segment has to hold up for the whole to succeed, and one weak portion could doom the endeavor entirely. If you take as an example the recently released V/H/S, anthologies can score wildly divergent ratings, depending on the viewer's impression of the tales told from top to bottom (and their internal cohesion). It's no secret that horror and the short film work together like Scooby and Shaggy, as they have since before there was even cinema to showcase it. Poe mastered the art of the horror short story, and publishers like EC Comics exposed an entire generation to the macabre in an abbreviated form. Some of my favorite horror films where anthology pieces from the 70's and 80's (Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, and The Twilight Zone). Today we're going to look at what is perhaps the most artistically interesting of them, Black Sabbath.

 

 

This 1963 Mario Bava film is a study in unique camera angles and vividly unsettling colors for which the director would become famous. Unsurprising as the horror maestro held a career as a painter with his father before going into film. The effective utilization of color absolutely serves him well here, most especially during the segment "The Drop of Water", the tale which I consider the most gripping and frightening of the bunch. Before detailing each of the segments, it's important to know their exist canyon-esk differences between the original Italian theatrical release and the American release.American International Pictures reordered the stories, changed the score, added different introductory segments by Boris Karloff, and moved a lesbian subplot. The result is a lesser cinematic experience, which doesn't build nearly the taut tension available in the Italian version, as the most effectively horrific tale is severed up first instead of last! Here they are in the original Italian order.

 

 

The Telephone is a smart, sharp, noir flavored tale. The original Italian incarnation follows Rosy, a French call girl, who begins receiving threatening calls from her former pimp, Frank. Our girl Rosy's testimony sent him up the river, and he's threatening vengeance upon her for it. This tale is the most altered for the American release. Originally, it contained no supernatural subtext, being simply a sadistic piece of revenge noir. Rosy reaches out to her ex-lover, Mary, who immediately comes to see her. The latter gives the former a tranquilizer to help her sleep, and proceeds to confess via letter that Frank never called; it was Mary pretending all along, as a ploy to assist the two of them rekindle their lost love. Unfortunately, the real Frank arrives and strangles Mary, mistaking her for Rosy. It's a far cry from what AIP brought to American audiences. Cutting any pretense of a relationship beyond plutonic, modifying dialog, and adding a new insert shot with voice over for the confession letter sequence transforms this story into a ghostly mystery with a confusing ending (Rosy stabs Frank, who's been assumed to be non-corporeal until this point). No matter how it's cut, The Telephone is the first Italian thriller shot in color, and is considered by some to be the first Giallo film (though Bava's own The Girl Who Knew Too Much is more commonly thought of in this regard). Certainly see both versions and come to your own conclusions, but realize both are very good. 

 

The Wurdalak should hold a incredibly important place in the horror trophy cabinet, being the only onscreen portrayal of a vampire by the legendary Boris Karloff. The plot details the unfortunate misadventures of a 19th century nobleman, Vladimir, when he stumbles across a family who is on the verge of being vampirically cursed. The head of house warns him that if his father returns late, it means that he's become one of the undead monsters. However, old Vlady can't shake off the shackles of love at first sight. He won't leave sexy Sdenka's side, as one by one her family are turned into ravenous creatures of the night. His eventual welcoming of their dark embrace is clever and unique enough to help this tale rise to sit at the big boy table with the other two. Make no mistake, though, despite it's important feat with Karloff and it's stylish period piece trappings, this is the weakest of the three stories told in Black Sabbath. Ah but even the worst is better than the strongest tales among other anthology films. In a bout of incredibly bad editing fits, the American version features this as the last segment. As a result, the version many have seen is hamstrung in the suspense department by a slowly unfolding period piece, where the Italian version instead features the milk curdling fright of The Drop of Water to send patrons on their way with.  

 

And speaking of The Drop of Water, we've yet to touch on a moment so terrifying that it send shivers up my spine even to this day. The reveal of a freakish faced elderly medium walking toward our protagonist is so unsettling to the lizard brain that any sort of rationalizing won't push the fog of fright away. Massive credit for the ghost's mask is due to Eugenio Bava, Mario's father, who sculpted it from scratch. If the frightening visage of the old woman were all The Drop of Water had going for it, it would be a middling to strong entry among anthology horror segments. What fills it over the tipping point into greatness are the livid colors, from a palate of choice which Bava really works for all it's worth. Adding on to that with amazing lighting choices that feel similar to those used much later by Argento in Suspiria, and subtly unsettling camera work that puts viewers on edge without them realizing it, and The Drop of Water would be worth seeking out if it weren't attached to the larger film. But it is, so you should really be seeking it out right now. 

The American AIP version is available streaming on Netflix, which is good as I'd recommend purchasing the Italian version to watch first, then go back and check out the weaker release for free (as long as you're a NF member). Unfortunately, it appears that the standalone release is out of print and thus overpriced. However, there are a couple of Bava collections that feature it. I'd recommend The Mario Bava Collection: Volume One from Anchor Bay. In addition to Black Sabbath, it also contains Black Sunday, The Girl Who Know Too Much, Kill Baby Kill, and Knives of the Avenger. However you take your Bava, be sure not to have it too close to bedtime, else your sleep might be quite restless.

Saturday Shock-O-Rama Streaming Suggestions

The streaming suggestions have been absent from the last few weeks' worth of Shock-O-Rama, and that's most because I haven't come across a great number of interesting things to recommend. This week, however, I've got something special to share. Last week Incognito Cinema Warriors XP released episode 203.5, an online continuation of episode 203. This hour long scathing review takes Resident Evil: Retribution to task, laying into it for all a man and his robots are worth. And did I mention it's completely FREE? 
Embedded, for your pleasure: 
 
 
And if you simply can't get enough horror happenings here on Mania, might I humbly suggest checking out Tuesday Terrors? It's got all the shocking news to keep you current (and possibly help you survive until the credits roll).
 

 

Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a horror co-host of two monthly film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA (home of 1958's 'The Blob'): First Friday Fright Nights and Colonial Cult Cinema. You can hear him on awesome podcast You've Got Geek or follow him out on Twitter.



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