Black Sabbath (1963)
Director: Mario Bava
Writers: Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, and Marcello Fondato
Starring: Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, and Michele Mercier

The Plot: Black Sabbath is an anthology horror title that tells three separate stories. The first one told is “The Drop of Water.” This story tells of a Victorian-era housekeeper who is brought in to take care of a deceased fortune teller. As she goes about her job, she notices a fancy piece of jewelry that she intends to steal. When she does, she finds that she will have a night of true terror ahead of her. The second story is “The Telephone.” In this story, we are introduced to a modern woman who is contacted via the phone by a former lover who is supposed to be dead. The third story is “The Wurdalak.” Our final story tells of a nobleman who travels around Russia before finding a very peculiar family living in a cottage. As this family awaits the return of their father, it seems that they are all worried that he will return as a Wurdalak, a vampire. When he arrives, he is pale and quick to aggression, but they decide to wait the night out and see if it is their true father who has returned to them. This turns out to be a grave mistake.

The Review
There’s probably not a lot that a novice like me can truly say about Mario Bava. He was a filmmaker who took the complexities of set design, lighting, and visual atmosphere very serious, and he took full advantage of the color schemes that were allowed him. Although I have not even finished one third of his filmography, I believe that his work within the horror genre can not be over appreciated. Inspiring nearly every Italian horror filmmaker between the sixties all the way through to the eighties, Bava was the quintessential “visual” filmmaker. He was so far ahead of his time that he made laps around his contemporaries. Simply watching a few scenes from Black Sabbath should immediately introduce audiences to the style and atmosphere that would make Bava famous. If there is only one thing that makes Black Sabbath a unique experience though, it is the anthology narrative. One of the earliest and most effective uses of this device, Bava would prove to be an originator within this area of horror as well. Yet, despite his visual trickery and narrative structuring, the version of Black Sabbath that I have watched has been tampered with and is not the true version that should be seen. Even still, with all of the tampering that went on during its North American distribution, Bava’s mastery of the horror genre is in full detail for all to see.

Unfortunately, American International Pictures was the original distributor who grabbed Black Sabbath when it was first released. Roger Corman and the folks over at AIP may have delivered some fantastic bits of exploitation cinema throughout the years, but they rarely had respect for the foreign properties that they would pick for distribution. In the case of Black Sabbath, AIP took the sequence of short stories and placed them in a very different order that unfortunately doesn’t seem to build towards the crescendo that Bava’s original film would have. Along with this, they also included some tongue-in-cheek bumper segments where Boris Karloff introduced a couple of the stories. While these bits are not totally out of line with the visual style of the movie, their slight traces of humor certainly do not seem to fall in with what the rest of the movie intends to bring forth. The sequence called “The Telephone” has also apparently been cut down to remove a lesbian subplot which completely effects the narrative in such a way that AIP had to shoot additional footage in order to make the story work. Truly, this is a sad predicament, but as its own movie this version still works to enough of a degree that audiences could still get an understanding for Bava’s style and what he did with this movie.

It is unfortunate that the movie begins with “The Drop of Water,” because it is absolutely the best and most memorable story of the three. Featuring the visual motif of a shriveled up elderly fortune teller, her face is enough to send shivers down the spine of most viewers. Why the folks at AIP thought this was a good opener for the movie completely baffles my mind. This sequence is a closing segment if ever there was one. Building on a tremendous amount of suspense and featuring the most outrageous lighting in the film, “Drop of Water” is actually frightening. When the elderly woman, whose face looks like a distorted plastic doll, stares directly into the camera, it becomes obvious that this is the sequence that audiences will remember. This is the one that will prevent the kids from being able to fall asleep. Although I do not intend to bury the other pieces of this anthology, all three are pretty solid, but “Drop of Water” is a nightmarish trip into the bizarre and it is certainly a big part in why this movie is still so fondly remembered.

“The Telephone,” which is our second short in this anthology, is a dark trip into paranoia and the great fear we have of someone watching us from afar. The short is slow to build and features some surprising hysterics provided by our lead actress, but the jazzy soundtrack and dark phone calls keep things very brooding. Unfortunately, the removal of the lesbian subplot completely changes the dynamic of the story. Changing it from a very human piece of horror to a ghost story, the bits and pieces of the story no longer seem to add up in a way that they normally should have. Despite this, the set design is awe inspiring and the massive bed that the character Rosy sleeps upon is very well designed. Some of the lighting here is also quite epic and it makes for a standout sequence. In this version the movie ends with “The Wurdalak,” and it seems to have gained its place by featuring Boris Karloff in one of the leads. Unfortunately, The Wurdalak comes across as long and it breaks up the pace of the movie. In the original film, The Wurdalak was the center story in this trio – and that certainly seems to make sense. Setting such a story in the middle would provide the audience buffer room and it would help build the dramatic tension necessary when ending the movie with The Drop of Water. However, this version of the movie is still tolerable, but audiences who know a bit about the original film will be tormented by how much better Bava’s edit seems to be.

The Conclusion
It seems a bit difficult to truly judge Black Sabbath correctly without having seen both version of the film, but I can only say that the AIP print absolutely entertained me. It is fun, it is creepy, and it is an absolutely compelling watch. I can only imagine that I would like Bava’s version better, but for the time being, I rate this a four out of five. This is quality filmmaking.