Home Video Hovel: Black Sabbath, by David Bax


Given that he was not exactly known for restraint when it came to brilliantly garish lighting or smoky, cobweb-filled production design, Mario Bava’s films make great candidates for rediscovery on Blu-ray. In selecting 1963’s Black Sabbath to be one of the first films in their Mario Bava Collection, Kino has made a spectacular choice among spectacular choices.

Consisting of three short films, Black Sabbath is an anthology horror film, a precursor to more recent cult phenomena like the V/H/S films and The ABCs of Death. Unlike those, all the films herein are by the same director. For reasons unknown or unimportant to us, the film was recut and re-sequenced against Bava’s wishes upon initial release but Kino gives us the more popular original version, with the intro and outro by Boris Karloff and the segments in their correct order.

Entry number one, “The Telephone,” is the most narrowly focused and minimalized of the three. Taking place entirely inside a smallish apartment, the story is that of a young woman who returns home from a night out and immediately begins receiving persistent, threatening phone calls. The man on the other end of the line assured her that she will be dead before morning and seems to be immediately aware of all her actions even though the blinds are closed. As the threat gains new contours and begins to hint at a conspiracy, Bava maintains a lean sense of building danger. Still, it’s the slightest segment of the film and merely a primer for what’s to come.

The second short, “The Wurdulak,” is the centerpiece. It’s both the longest and the most lavish of the pieces, taking place in the rural nineteenth century and almost entirely in a blue and purple night that soaks into farmland and ancient ruins alike until the lights and colors seem to come out of the very surroundings themselves.

I’m not sure what the literal translation of “wurdulak” is or in what language but the term clearly refers to vampires. A traveler seeking refuge for the night while on his way to the city is invited to stay at the small farmhouse of a local family. It happens to be the same night that the family’s aged patriarch (Karloff) returns unexpectedly from the woods, claiming to have killed the wretched wurdulak. During his long absence, one of the young women in the clan has given birth. The old man displays an intense interest in the child in a way that seems to alarm only the traveler (Mark Damon), at least at first. Soon, the menace reveals itself to come from more than just the old man. The traveler finds himself even more of a stranger than he thought.

The aesthetic sparseness of “The Telephone” is left far behind in this installment. Bava fills the frame not only left to right but also from foreground to background with atmospheric signatures. Every table, chair and creaking floorboard, every cobweb, every toppled stone wall is licked with eerie light. In the short’s scariest moment – the impossible sound of a dead child calling out for his mother – it seems as if you can hear the boy’s voice careening off every piece of the landscape.

“The Wurdulak” may be the baroque cornerstone of Black Sabbath but if you’re just looking for old-fashioned scares, the final segment, “The Drop of Water,” is for you. The story is that of a young, small town nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) who receives a call from the housekeeper of a local wealthy woman who has just passed away. The nurse is asked to come prepare the body for the undertaker. She complies and, while performing her tasks, seizes a moment of opportunity, taking something that doesn’t belong to her.

What happens next, of course, is that the nurse is haunted by the dead woman’s ghost. It’s pretty run of the mill stuff, really. The real treat is the old lady’s unchanging, horrible death grimace, as well as Bava’s matter of fact presentation of it.

Kino’s Blu-ray of Black Sabbath is a worthy purchase and a blast to watch. To get the full effect of the colorful richness, you’ll want to make sure the room you view it in is nice and dark. And then, when it’s over, you’ll want to turn on all the lights.

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