One hundred and twenty two years ago today, at 36 Forest Hill Road, Peckham Rye, London, England, William Henry Pratt was born. One hundred years ago, Pratt traveled to Canada to persue a career in acting and changed his name to Boris Karloff. Seventy eight years ago, Karloff donned Jack Pierce’s makeup and became the Frankenstein monster. Once upon a time in Italy, forty six years ago, Boris made a film with Mario Bava, and that brings us to today, the start of the Boris Karloff blogathon brought to you by Frankensteinia. There’s going to be a lot of Karloff talk right here at the Lair and on a ton of other great sites all the week, and I’m really excited to get to start with one of my favorite Karloff films.
Long before I knew anything about Mario Bava; I remember catching Black Sabbath playing on TBS sometime in the early eighties. The moody atmospheric film was completely different from anything I’d seen Karloff in before, and it completely captured my imagination. In many ways I can trace my fascination with Italian horror cinema back to seeing this film. When my interest into the genre was kindled some years later, it was partially because I found out Black Sabbath’s country of origin, and I immediately dropped a chunk of change on the two Anchor Bay Mario Bava boxed sets. They contain many great films, and I’ve talked about most of them at one time or another. Yet somehow I’d never talked about that mysterious first film that taught me about the varied career of Boris Karloff and the atmospheric films of Mario Bava.
Black Sabbath is an anthology film, and depending on if you see the American International Pictures release or the Italian film, the order and feeling of the stories varies quite a bit. While I am sure that the original version I saw was the AIP release, for the purposes of this review, I watched the Italian version. The film is made of three stories, and the Italian title of the film, I tre volti della paura, translates asThe Three Faces of Fear. It was given the title Black Sabbath by AIP to capitalize on the success of Bava’s Black Sunday which they had also distributed in America. In the Italian version, the three stories are book ended by Boris Karloff’s monologs which were refilmed, re-cut, and reordered for the AIP version. Boris once lamented their omission from the US version of the film and reminisced about how much fun had had shooting them.
After Karloff introduces the film while bathed in a glow of red and blue light, the film begins with ‘The Telephone’. As the segment begins, high class call girl Rosy (Michele Mercier) is harassed by a series of calls where seemingly there is no one on the other end of the line. After a few calls, a strange man begins to harass her and vows to strangle her to death. The caller finally reveals himself to be Frank (Milo Quesada), her ex-pimp, who has escaped from jail, and Rosy seeks solace with her estranged lesbian lover Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) who she invites over. The rest of the tale unfolds with lies, deceit, and mistaken identity combining for an unseemly end for all three.
“The Telephone” is a moody, atmospheric mini-gialli that functions as a great introduction to the stylish world of Mario Bava’s film making. In some ways, I feel like this part of the film with its jazzy score, moody lighting, and beautiful women foretell of Bava’s stylish 1964 film Blood and BlackLace. This is segment is truely Hitchcockian, but coupled with the Italian bent for sleaze that makes everything better. It doesn’t hurt that both women are absolute beauties either. It’s a wonderfully filmed story that hints at the direction Bava’s work would take.
The next segment is “The Wuderlack“, based on the story La famille du Vourdalak (Family of the Vourdalak) by Leo Tolstoy. As in Tolstoy’s tale, a traveler ends up in a small village just as their father, Gorcha (Boris Karloff) has gone off to fight a criminal named Ailbeck. Before he left, he warned them that if he did not return in five days, he would become infected with the blood curse wuderlack (a.k.a vampirism). In exactly five days, Gorcha does return, but he is a haggard, changed man. The family must decide what to do with Gorcha before he gets a chance to do all of them in.
If the first face of fear was the human monster, the second is a decidedly supernatural menace. Not only is this period tale gorgeously filmed, but it really utilized the gravitas that Karloff could bring to the screen in a spooky role. Gorcha is a horrifying character, and the iconic image of him staring through the window at the traveler always sticks in my head. Lavish and exciting, this second tale really keeps the film moving along at a great pace, and it does not at all draw back form the atmospheric tone of Bava’s film even though its setting wildly deviates. The Wunderlack is a classily told tale of vampirism, and there’s a pretty interesting post about the source materials over HERE. Bava would never touch on the classical vampire again (only the futuristic kind in 1964’s Planet of the Vampires), but the style of this film with it’s gothic setting, colored lights, and heavy fog reminded me much of his 1972 film Baron Blood.
The final segment is called “The Drop of Water” again casts the face of fear in a supernatural light, but this time the menace is a spirit attached to a ring. When an elderly medium dies, Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux), the nurse who has been charged with attending to the body, steals a ring from the old lady’s finger. As she does she knocks over a glass of water and a fly which has been drawn to the corpse buzzes around her head. Later that night, the lights at her home go out, there is the sound of dripping water, and Miss Chester receives an unexpected visitor.
“The Drop is Water” is also credited to a Russian author, this time Anton Chekov. I tried to track down some information on this story and came up empty so who knows where exactly Bava got this tale. “The Drop of Water” is the most macabre of the three tales with its ghastly ghost and Miss Chester’s terrifying fate. The ghost has an especially unnerving appearance, and its head was sculpted by Mario’s father Eugenio Bava. The majority of this segment focuses solely on Jacqueline Pierreux as Helen Chester, and her portrayal of a woman haunted by guilt and ghosts is very effective. While this segment has the most straightforward story of the three, I find it highly enjoyable. While there are many hints at Bava’s later work in this segment as well, the film that most often comes to mind during it is Susperia. Bava’s use of colored gels and atmospheric sequences undoubtedly had a profound influence on Argento’s films.
Only in the last moments of the film where Karloff bids us a farewell does Bava make a misstep. As Karloff still dressed as Gorka menacingly bids us to “Dream of me. We’ll become friends.” the camera rolls back and reveals the set, the cameras, and the special effects. While I can almost see this as an “it’s only a movie, folks” reassurance to those weak of heart, its tone becomes so vastly different in those last few seconds that I have a hard time reconciling it with the rest of the film. That being said, it’s not like ten seconds of footage at the end of the film could ruin the experience.
Black Sabbath is one of my favorite Italian films, Bava films, and anthology films. Its three segments are all very different, but with the stylish steady hand of Mario Bava guiding each of them, they feel like a cohesive experience. If you’re a fan of Bava, Karloff, or Italian cinema, this is a must watch, and I can’t recommend it enough. So check it out, and also check out Frankensteinia for a lot more about Karloff for today, his birthday, and all this week. This isn’t the last we’ve seen of Boris around here this week either, so until next time, Dream of me. We’ll become friends. Hmmm, that sounds creepy in an entirely different way when I type it out.