Immediately after my initial delving into his giallo classic Blood and Black Lace about two years ago, I’ve deeply appreciated the style and impact that filmmaker Mario Bava is so renown for amongst horror-lovers. I still can’t get over the languid aesthetic of this particular film, bathed in some of the richest, most vibrant colors I’ve seen in any horror. Despite these very positive first impressions, however, I never ventured much further into the rest of Bava’s filmography; thus, I decided to check out his classic anthology film Black Sabbath. I didn’t realize it until after my viewing, but I ended up watching the American edit of the film, as opposed to the original Italian version, so maybe keep that in mind throughout this review.
Overall, I enjoyed Black Sabbath quite a bit, but like many anthology films it certainly comes with its fair share of inconsistencies. It does, however, start off on a pretty high note with its first segment, “The Drop of Water”. The common thread that I’ve seen among Bava’s work is his exquisite use of color and lighting, and it’s probably most prominent in this section of the movie. It deals with a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) being haunted by the spirit of the dead woman whom she steals a ring from. Although I’m a bit tired of film plots that are initiated by and/or revolve around the death of a woman, I think the use of suspense is used to great measure here. Some parts are genuinely pretty creepy, and I think the cinematography and use of sound and shadows really aids with this. It got pretty campy at certain parts, but that’s probably to be expected with giallo. Altogether, this proved to be a really impressive, compelling start to the anthology; I’m only disappointed that it wasn’t longer.
Following this strong initial segment is the weakest story of the lot, titled “The Telephone”. It mainly consists of a woman (Michele Mercier) who is being stalked by a mysterious man from her past. I learned afterward that the US edit of the film left many important plot details of this narrative intentionally vague – apparently, the woman is a prostitute, the man is her ex-pimp, and the other woman she contacts for solace is her lover. These details would definitely make for a more tantalizing tale and I fully regret not seeking out the original version beforehand! What we’ve got left here is a bit of a sluggish story, where not much happens until the very end. In the meantime, the camerawork in this segment spend an obscene amount of time fragmenting and sexualizing the protagonist’s body. In retrospect, male-gazing is really the only prominent thing that is done during this section, as most else about it is boring and bland. At the very least, however, it looks nice and gives us an early glimpse at how spine-tingling “phone call horror” can truly be.
The final segment of the anthology, “The Wurdulak” is, arguably, the slowest, most visually impressive, and weirdest of them all. It takes place in the Russian countryside in the 19th century and is undoubtedly influenced by such aesthetic and costume. The added twist is that the narrative revolves around a family man turned flesh-eating vampire played by Boris Karloff! Indeed, some of the most fun parts of this entire film are the introductions from Karloff himself edited between each section, presented with his style of distinct, silly campiness that seems to rival Legosi’s work for Glen or Glenda. Delightfully, his performance in “The Wurdulak” is pretty terrific, adding the perfect amount of weirdness to a story that would have otherwise been unapologetically morbid and dreary. The highlight of the entire piece comes with an amazingly ridiculous shot of Karloff riding a fake horse through the fake woods with a glare that could melt ice. This has also got the most fleshed-out story of the entire film, though I think its being twice as long as the other two is slightly jarring and gives the illusion of it being a bit overlong. Nonetheless, it’s another fine work that, once again, looks pretty amazing.
The Black Sabbath anthology certainly benefits from having all of its segments directed by Bava himself; once again, however, this is certainly not a free pass to total consistency, as it does have its fair share of issues. Despite all of these quibbles, however, the qualities produced in the final work – especially pronounced in “The Drop of Water” – help to show how Bava is regarded as one of the most exquisite pioneers of horror, and how this is hailed as a true classic of giallo goodness.