Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua & Marcello Fondato based on original stories by Ivan Chekov, F.G. Snyder & Aleksei Tolstoy
Directed by Mario Bava
An American International Picture
Starring: Boris Karloff (Himself/Gorka); Mark Damon (Vladimir d’Urfe); Michele Mercier (Rosy); Jacqueline Pierreux (Nurse Chester); Susy Andersen (Sdenka); Lidia Alfonsi (Mary); Glauco Onorato (Giorgio); Rica Dialina (Maria); Massimo Righi (Pietro); Milly Monti (The Housekeeper); Harriet White Medin (The Concierge); Gustavo De Nardo (Frank/The Police Inspector)
The first anthology film on our list is from the celebrated Granddaddy of Italian horror, Mario Bava. Bava’s contribution to horror cannot be underestimated (well, it can be, but we know better, don’t we?). Although not a flawless director (there are plenty of clunkers in his oeuvre, but the same can be said of Hitchcock and Argento), his successes have frightened viewers, inspired writers and filmmakers for years to come, and placed Italy squarely on the level of America, Great Britain and Japan, the most prolific horror-making countries. Bava all but invented the Italian film style known as Giallo, a pulp fiction-type of style involving knife-wielding serial killers that has sustained director Dario Argento for so many years, with his film Blood And Black Lace (1964). It is safe to say that without Bava, there would be no Argento, no Fulci, no Deodata, and the world of horror films would seem just a little less inventive.
After his film debut, Black Sunday (1960), became a huge hit, Bava found the two wise men of American International Pictures – Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson – knocking at his door. These two enterprising men reasoned that it was a tedious business to buy films from foreign markets and edit them to suit the American audience (i.e., remove anything that was even remotely scary) and that it would be much better to work with foreign directors during the production to ensure that they could get exactly the type of film that they wanted. AIP tried this with Bava and, although the result wasn’t exactly what they were looking for (AIP reordered the stories and heavily rewrote and reshot portions of “The Telephone” to turn the murderous pimp into an avenging ghost), there can be no doubt that Black Sabbath (known as The Three Faces of Fear in its native tongue) was a hit that defied all expectations.
Although there is little framing for the three tales (Boris Karloff bookends the film with a brief narration like an aged Rod Serling), Black Sabbath has all the hallmarks of a great horror anthology: a talented cast (made even more varied by its multi-national flavor), a variety of tales that feature good, suspenseful writing and (for the 1960s) an impressive body count. Its greatest strength is that, while all three stories deliver the goods, each one has its own special sinister style. Far too many horror anthologies fall into the trap of grouping like-minded tales together (usually because all the tales are written by the same author) and tedium sets in by the halfway point. No one wants to sit through a bevy of tales that build through an entirely predictable set of scare-set pieces, predictable because all the stories preceding it follow the same formula. Black Sabbath features only three tales (thus allowing more time to develop characters), each one giving us an effective monster (killer, vampire, ghost) and a unique sense of menace for the lead characters.
Take “The Telephone,” for example: here is an example of the type of Giallo story that Bava would soon develop fully in Blood And Black Lace. The story is simplicity in itself: a woman is harassed in her home by an unseen maniac. A working telephone should be Rosy’s (Michele Mercier) lifeline; she can call for help if she feels so threatened, but the mysterious voice on the other end (apparently Gustavo De Nardo as Frank, her imprisoned pimp) tells her not to bother because he can get to her before the police can log the call (and a pair of eyes peaking in through the blinds of Rosy’s window lead us to believe that the mysterious caller might be right). Rosy is stalked by an instrument that can do her no harm as long as she doesn’t answer it, but there is no way for her not to respond to that infernal ringing. Bava is suggesting that Rosy is, to a certain extent, inviting this chaos into life, something that becomes clear when she unknowingly invites the caller, Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), into her home. Despite her stunning beauty and her apparent worldly-ways (being a callgirl does not lend itself to naiveté), Rosy falls for a trick cooked up by a lesbian who cannot bare to be separated from her. Alfonsi plays her part with an air of menace, and on first viewing we can not discount the possibility that Mary might have designs on Rosy that are as equally murderous as Frank’s. She has frightened Rosy partly to death just to get herself invited inside (rather Vampire-like), cruelly teases her (when Rosy catches her sprinkling a tranquilizer in her tea, she says it is “poison… compliments of Frank.”), and even scares her when she appears in front of her with a knife in hand. These are not the actions of a friend. Her confession the following morning is contrite, but Rosy’s sleeping form suggests that she has been violated in a way that hasn’t crossed the murderous Frank’s mind. Despite her written confession (which Rosy never reads), Mary is as much a danger to Rosy as Frank is and it is only a twist of fate that Mary is both sacrificed in Rosy’s place and has given the Rosy the means to save her own life (the knife hidden under the pillow). In the end, despite Rosy’s tears, we mourn neither for Mary nor Frank as the camera tracks over their dead bodies. Ultimately, Rosy is a far more fortunate victim than most of those inhabiting the Giallo genre. In fact, Rosy can be considered fortunate because she is the only surviving lead character in this entire film!
There is no such hope in “The Wurderlak,” in which a wandering innocent bystander seals his fate simply by coming across a headless corpse. The story dwells upon the fate of a man, Vladimir (Mark Damon) who lets his curiosity and emotions dictate his actions. Vladimir must satisfy his curiosity by finding the owner of the dagger sticking out of a decapitated man. Once he meets Sdenka (Suzy Andersen), he cannot tear himself away from the horror that is happening around him. In a strange way, “The Wurderlak” can be seen as the ultimate “boyfriend-meeting-the-parents” situation; Vladimir is trying to ingratiate himself into a family that is currently going through a massive change; they are become vampires at the hands of their infected patriarch, Gorka (Boris Karloff). One by one, Gorka’s family moves from living to undead and Vladimir would have no reason not to ride away from the carnage were he not in love Sdenka. Marvelously, “The Wurderlak” has the most restrained pace of all the tales; it takes its time to decimate the family, which drives the viewing audience crazy. Despite the fact that we never get to know Gorka before he takes his five-day trek into the mountains, there is no doubt upon his return that he has been infected. Unfortunately, his family cannot bring themselves to fully believe that they have let the greatest evil in the land enter through their front door. They take precautions, but they are halfhearted and easily circumvented by the undead Gorka. It is interesting that the tale concerns not just the drinking of blood but that of the blood of those whom the Wurderlak loved in life since it is this exact type of love that foils the family: neither Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) nor Pietro (Massimo Righi) can bring themselves to condemn their father as a Wurderlak, although they clearly have their suspicions, because of the love and respect they feel for Gorka which cannot be abandoned. They clearly want to give him every benefit of the doubt, to their grave misfortune, and this is exactly what the now undead Gorka is counting on. He worms his way back into the household using his former authority, which his sons cannot bring themselves to question, and then uses Maria’s (Rica Dialina) natural maternal instinct for her dead son, Ivan, to gain entry back into the house. Like a lover who has come to discover that his girlfriend is related to an inbred gaggle of freaks, Vladimir tries to spirit Sdenka away, but that same love that formally held the family together in good times comes to claim her while he sleeps. Sdenka pleads to be left alone, saying that Vladimir loves her, but Gorka counters with, “No one can love you more than us.” The love that claims Sdenka’s soul is infernal, but is love nevertheless, no different from the love that compels Maria to stab her husband as she makes her way to embrace the undead body of her son who, in the segment’s most chilling shot, kneels at her door and begs to be allowed to come in from the cold. The fact that it is Gorka’s unsmiling face that greets her when she opens the door is almost incidental: Maria will soon be reunited with her son, but she must fall to Gorka’s deadly kiss before that can happen. The same is true for Vladimir who, by the end of the segment, has no choice except to join Sdenka in the realm of the undead and submit to her bite in order to be united with her. As she bites him, Bava’s camera cuts to the faces of Gorka, Maria and Ivan peering through the window, passively approving of this new addition to the family, to a certain respect taking the place of Pietro, the one member who died blessed (If Pietro had been Sdenka’s husband rather than her brother, the comparison would be perfect). The fact that Gorka’s mission to rid the land of the Wurderlak had failed is almost incidental to what has taken place: the emergence of a new family from the ashes of the old, and from this unit the family of Wurderlak’s will spread far and wide, like a modern-day zombie plague. From the final shot of the three of them gazing through the window, one could almost forgive how monstrous it all is, considering how close-knit and loving they are.
This is followed by the film’s best segment, “The Drop Of Water.” In this segment, it is easy to identify with the harried Nurse Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux), who is pulled away from her cozy home on a rainy night to trudge to a spooky house in order to dress the corpse of a creepy old woman who just may be a witch. Though not entirely professional, Nurse Chester is understandably put out by the task, for which she suspects that she will not be sufficiently paid, and therefore gives into the temptation of stealing a ring from the dead finger of her stiffened client. The audience can almost be heard quietly saying, “Go on, take it,” as she eyes the ring for the first time. And what is the purpose of characters in a horror film if not to take just the type of deadly risks that the audience would have far more scruples about taking? We are vicariously forced out of homes on a stormy night to put shoes on a dead hag’s feet and make off with a ring as our reward. This is closely followed by our stalking by a vengeful corpse, but we get to live to see the sun come up; Nurse Chester is not so lucky.
“The Drop of Water” scores the best in the overall film for several reasons: its atmosphere alone sells the story. That huge house that Nurse Chester is forced to go to is fantastically creepy, littered with cats, old books and evidence of a life squandered whilst chasing the black arts. Milly Monti is perfect as the nervous-nelly housekeeper who wants nothing more than to get away before the old woman’s corpse decides it’s no fun being dead and does something nasty. And Nurse Chester’s screams when she finds the corpse in her bed or when a hand grabs her from behind are the most realistic in horror cinema. But long before we get to that point, Bava gives us a slow buildup as Nurse Chester finds her ears assaulted by the constant drip… drip… dripping that reminds her of her crime. As soon as she gets back home, a dripping sound constantly follows her and, although the source is always something mundane (an umbrella, taps in the sink and tub), she can never be rid of it. As such, the film makes the case that Nurse Chester’s death was self-inflicted by her guilt at stealing the ring. True, it is impossible to strangle yourself in the real world, but those are her own hands that go around her neck in her final moments, and the image of the old woman lying on her bed could have been nothing more deadly than the nurse’s own bedgown lying in wait for her. But we, the seasoned horror fan, know better: it was not guilt that followed Nurse Chester home from her midnight call but an avenging spirit. The look on the concierge’s (Harriet White Medin) face tells us that she too will learn the lesson that Nurse Chester has learned, never wrong the dead because they, unlike the living, have nothing to lose.
Many, including Boris Karloff, were slightly uneasy at Bava’s decision to end the film on a joke (the camera reveals that Karloff is riding a fake horse through a fake forest), but after the carnage of the previous three tales (all the major characters are killed with the sole exception of Rosy) the reminder that we have been watching only a movie is a reassuring conclusion. For its time, Black Sabbath was as daring as the best Hammer horror films being produced and still shines as an example of great horror and great filmmaking because Bava’s vision produced a film that would never sink into the depths of campiness, disregarding the two schlockmeisters who commissioned the film. And even if we don’t get to hear Boris Karloff’s unmistakable voice, the fact that a different language is coming out of his mouth adds to his menace and makes Black Sabbath the pinnacle of his last few years. Black Sabbath may not have heart-stopping special effects, but the stories don’t need it: they give off a sense of class, old world charm and genuine creepiness.