Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Halloween Holocaust: Black Sabbath (Mario Bava, 1963)

If I had to pick a movie to introduce the uninitiated to the genius of Mario Bava, then it'd probably be this triple threat of terror. This is for several reasons. Firstly, it gives you a sampling of a couple of different facets of the man's work; we get a giallo for starters (in the original Italian version at least; apparently the AIP cut presents the stories in a different order), followed up by a double dose of atmosphere-dripping, period Gothic goodness. Secondly, the anthology nature of the film means that a modern audience, unacclimatised to the relatively slow-burning pace of older genre fare, shouldn't have a chance to get bored and zone out. To put it another way, if you don't like the tale being told at a given moment, then another will be along fairly shortly to take its place. Hopefully this shouldn't happen though, as I'd say that Black Sabbath is one of those somewhat rare instances of an anthology movie being consistently strong throughout, where as the majority of titles in this format are usually uneven, to say the least. 

I'll admit that I wasn't initially that enthralled with the first story; but like much of Bava's work, it's grown on me exponentially with repeat viewings. Watching a lot of gialli since my last viewing has undoubtedly helped to aid my appreciation of it. Using a premise that would later become a (perhaps overused) staple of the horror genre, "The Telephone" is, as you can no doubt guess, the tale of a woman being threatened by a mysterious caller. I'll say no more than that in case you haven't seen it, but suffice to say, it's an effective little thriller, that still feels surprisingly fresh, considering how many times we've seen similar stories told since. 

The centerpiece of Black Sabbath, and its longest tale, is "The Wurdalak", and is worth seeing alone for the fact that Frankenstein's monster himself, Boris Karloff, gets to play a vampire. This particular novelty aside, it's a thoroughly gripping and affecting piece of work. Karloff, in one of his last great performances, projects an appropriately imposing presence, that's infused with an element of sinister charm. What makes this story especially chilling is its portrayal of a family that is torn apart when the familiar becomes the other; or the heimlich becomes unheimlich, if you prefer. 

As effective as these two tales are, I'd say that personally, I think they saved the best till last. Due to seeing so many horror films over the years, I've got to the somewhat unfortunate point where they don't really scare me any more. But thankfully, there are still the odd exceptions. "The Drop of Water" doesn't exactly have me scrambling behind the couch, but there is something undeniably and insidiously creepy about it, that seems to become more apparent with every viewing. If I'm not mistaken, Bava himself thought that this mini-movie was the finest technical achievement of his career, and I'd be hard pressed to disagree, as I doubt I could find anything about it that isn't perfectly placed and brilliantly executed. 

In a nutshell, it's the story of a woman who is haunted by the spirit of a recently deceased medium, after she steals a ring from the corpse whilst dressing her for burial. A superlative example of cinematography and sound design, it features a fantastic central performance by Jacqueline Pierreux as the morally dubious nurse, whose transgressions earn her an inevitable, and ghastly comeuppance.

The endings of all three stories are undeniably bleak, and, apparently not wanting to send his audience out on a downer, Bava concludes the film with a light and playful coda, that pulls back the fourth wall and reveals - and revels in - the mechanics of illusion which made all this spine chilling possible. Paradoxically, it somehow makes the perfect ending to a practically flawless film; which is to say, they really don't make 'em much better than this. 

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