UK Release Date: 18th December 2017
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Mario Bava
Writer: Mario Bava, Marcello Fondato, Alberto Bevilacqua
Starring: Boris Karloff, Michèle Mercier, Jacqueline Pierreux, Mark Damon, Lydia Alfonsi, Susy Andersen
Synopsis: Italian horror maestro Mario Bava crafts an anthology of three scary stories, spanning time and location, as well as genre – from murderous giallo to spooky, supernatural ghost story.
Along with Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava is certainly among the names most people would immediately recall when thinking of the golden age of Italian horror movies. Bava was one of the frontrunners of the giallo sub-genre and a name associated with some of the most well-remembered European scary films. Black Sabbath, which would go on to inspire the Birmingham-based rock band of the same name, was conceived as a follow-up to Bava’s 1960 monster hit Black Sunday. It’s a compelling triptych of horror tales, weaved together by the iconic Boris Karloff in a self-referential framing device.
The first tale, entitled ‘The Telephone’ is a classic giallo-style story in which prostitute Rosy (Michèle Mercier) rings her friend Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) when she is terrorised by mysterious, threatening phone calls from a man who has recently escaped from prison. Supernatural chiller ‘The Wurdalak’ comes next, in which Karloff plays the patriarch of a family who may or may not have been transformed into the eponymous vampire-like creature after an encounter in the woods. In the final segment, dubbed ‘The Drop of Water’, nurse Helen (Jacqueline Pierreux) steals a sapphire ring from the corpse of a recently deceased medium and soon finds out that was a terrible idea.
As with just about any horror anthology film, Black Sabbath is of varying quality. Despite an intriguing premise, ‘The Telephone’ falls short. The necessarily brief running time leaves little room for the central mystery to develop and the pay-off is inevitably unsatisfying given how lacking the characterisation is up until that point. Mercier’s central performance is solid, but she is given only morsels of depth by the script and the cramped enviromment of the apartment doesn’t quite work.
It’s with the second segment that the movie cranks into gear, with ‘The Wurdalak’ made memorable thanks to a typically unsettling performance from Boris Karloff. With an enormous beard and terrifying eyes, he is nothing short of chilling and the romantic side plot between Mark Damon and Susy Andersen provides the depth that ‘The Telephone’ so sorely lacks. The measured tone really pays off in building the sense of ambient mystery, which is enhanced by some wonderfully grubby production design, and the final shot certainly leaves a chill behind.
Indeed, many of the best elements of Black Sabbath are a result of Karloff’s stunning performance. He is equally impressive in the wraparound segments, which see him in the classic role of the spooky narrator that was so popular with televised horror anthologies and playfully lampooned in Fright Night. The self-referential final gag is the perfect sign-off to acknowledge the inherent campy artifice of the horror anthology format.
There’s no such camp, though, in Bava’s final scary story. ‘The Drop of Water’ is a British-set tale in which the desiccated body of a medium, realised via a tremendously unsettling effect, is prepared for burial by a nurse. The body is terrifying even before the supernatural events become clear and the omnipresent motif of the titular sound provides ample tension en route to a pay-off that is as dark as anything else in the film.
Black Sabbath is inherently a mixed bag due to its anthology style, but two of its three segments serve as impressively scary stories and the film is notable as boasting a towering, physical performance from Boris Karloff – a deserving genre legend. This might not be the most memorable of Bava’s works, but it’s up there with the best horror anthology movies and a thrilling excursion for fans of 1960s European horror.
The DVD has an audio commentary from a Bava expert and an introduction from FrightFest head honcho Alan Jones. There’s also a bizarre interview with ‘The Wurdalak’ star Mark Damon that’s only tangentially related to anything in this film, plus a host of trailers.
Pop or Poop?
Despite its slightly disappointing opening segment, Black Sabbath rewards patient viewers with two very strong horror stories, told via stunning practical effects and flamboyant visuals by a master of the genre in Mario Bava. It’s Boris Karloff who crafts the most memorable, showy performance and guides things along as the narrator, but final segment ‘The Drop of Water’ is the one that will be haunting your nightmares whenever you switch off your bedroom light.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Black Sabbath is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now, courtesy of Arrow Video.