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An Englishman’s Guide to Italian Gothic: Black Sabbath (1963)

“Come closer, please. I have something to tell you. Ladies and gentlemen, I am Boris Karloff. Allow me to introduce three brief tales of terror and the supernatural. I hope you didn’t come to the movies alone. As you will realize by watching this film, spectres and vampires… are everywhere. There might be one sitting next to you! Yes, they go to the movies, too, I assure you.” – Part of Boris Karloff’s introduction to I tre volti della paura (1963)

The back end of 1962 saw director Mario Bava complete what is generally regarded, cautiously at least, as the first example of a whole new genre, the giallo. La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much), released in the US as The Evil Eye, is a darkly comedic fable that sees Letícia Román visiting her aunt in Rome only to become embroiled in a murder mystery, which she eventually solves with the help of doctor John Saxon. What the film lacks in the script department is amply made up for by its look and feel—Bava’s masterful use of light and shadow allied to stunning locations, a great score from Roberto Nicolosi and two likeable young leads.

Coming straight off that film, Bava was keen to get to work on another Gothic horror picture, it being two years since his international success with 1960’s Black Sunday. The opportunity to do just that was afforded by American outfit AIP, who were equally keen to repeat that success and also wanting a new vehicle for one of their star attractions – none other than the most famous horror actor in the world, Boris Karloff. It was decided that Bava’s new excursion into the fantastique would be a three-part portmanteau film after the fashion of that year’s AIP Roger Corman hit Tales of Terror, with the caveat that Bava steer clear of Poe for source material as that was the American director’s territory. The result, I tre volti della paura (“The Three Faces of Fear”), released in a bowdlerised form in the States as Black Sabbath, would turn out be one of the best films of Bava’s career and one of the crowning achievements of the Italian Gothic cycle.

Filming took place over eight weeks from early February to late March 1963 between Cinecittà and Titanus Farnesina studios, with producers Salvatore Billitteri and Paolo Mercuri, the latter having previously collaborated with Bava on Girl Who Knew Too Much and Fury of the Vikings (1961). The creation of the three tales of terror to come is credited in the opening titles to “Čechov

– Tolstoi – Maupassant” (sic), although, as we will see, this is not completely as it seems.

After the opening credits, the viewer is treated to a wonderful light-hearted introduction with Boris Karloff playing the horror host as he had done many times before on the ’60-’62 series Thriller. He delivers his welcome from a purple soundstage-set mountainside (or, knowing Bava, probably some crinkled-up brown paper or papier-mâché in close-up, more than adequately representing same), lavender and red gels imbuing his face with otherworldly hues, in front of a swirling blue back projection, making it almost seem as though the actor is inhabiting some crazed Steve Ditko conception of ‘Limbo’ from a sixties Doctor Strange comic. “But here I am chattering on and wasting time,” Karloff concludes. “So let’s get on with our first tale.”

Michèle Mercier in "The Telephone" segment of Black Sabbath.

Michèle Mercier in “The Telephone” segment of Black Sabbath.

Il telefono (“The Telephone”) is the first in the triptych, and the only one of the stories to be set within a contemporary milieu. As it features a telephone as a primary focus, it seems highly unlikely to be based on the work of nineteenth century author Guy de Maupassant, and, indeed, we find elsewhere a writer by the name of “F.G Snyder” is credited. As there seems to be no-one in the entire annals of cinema history to have ever gone by that name, it’s likely that Bava himself and/or script collaborator Alberto Bevilacqua came up with the story (the finished screenplay was by Marcello Fondato, who would later specialize in Bud Spencer comedies). However, in his audio commentary for the Anchor Bay DVD release of the film, Tim Lucas makes a convincing case for the tale finding its genesis in Maupassant’s 1887 short story ‘Le Horla’, which involves a narrator plagued with an unknown entity “watching…looking at…dominating” him in his own home.

Il telefono charts the similar unease of Rosy (the stunning Michèle Mercier), who it appears is some sort of high class escort or call-girl. Returning to her sumptuously rendered open-plan apartment, Rosy receives a number of phone calls, at first met with silence on the line, then with by sinister voice, whose owner knows her every single move as if he could see her as well as we can. For the first couple of minutes the only noises on the soundtrack are the sounds of the phone’s jangling ring-tone and Mercier nervously intoning “Pronto… pronto!

Apart from the odd occasion when she leaves the extended room, Rosy is the sole focus of Bava and Ubaldo (Black Sunday) Terzano’s roving, sweeping camera and, consequently, the viewer’s undivided attention. In a series of long, unflinching takes we watch her yawn and stretch, go into the bathroom, slip off her stockings, discard her little black dress, don a bathrobe – and start to display outward signs of rising panic as the phone calls escalate into death threats. This Hitchcockian trick makes the viewer complicit in the mysterious stalker’s little game, doggedly observing her every little move in her supposed inner sanctum with them.

After a newspaper drops through her letterbox with a headline telling of a former lover’s escape from prison, Rosy desperately makes a call to the only person she seems to know, Mary (Lydia Alfonsi), for help. Immediately after it is revealed that to the viewer that it is in fact she, apparently Rosy’s spurned lesbian lover, who has been making the calls, as an elaborate ruse to get back into her life. However, in the final scene jailbird Frank (Milo Quesada) does indeed turn up, strangling Mary with one of Rosy’s stockings before meeting his end when Rosy succeeds in stabbing him.

With a slinky, jazz-based score from Roberto Nicolosi, bravura camerawork, and resplendent in lurid, saturated Technicolor, Il telefono is stylish, sexy and contemporary; if The Girl Who Knew Too Much planted the seeds of the giallo genre (along with, of course, the still popular Edgar Wallace krimi thrillers from Germany’s Rialto films and others), then this mini-masterpiece defined the way in which it would flower. It set out the textures and hues that would characterize its palette, visually and aurally. And, as Tim Lucas has pointed out, it provided the visual tropes that would define Dario Argento’s entire body of work.

Boris Karloff in "The Wurdulak" segment of Black Sabbath.

Boris Karloff in “The Wurdulak” segment of Black Sabbath.

We are hurled back into the realms of the more purely Gothic with I Wurdulak (“The Wurdulak”), which is no less sumptuously mounted. A dashing young Mark Damon (who’d played a similar role in Corman’s House of Usher [1960]) plays Count Vladimir d’Urfe, whose journey across the nineteenth century Russian countryside is interrupted by his discovery of a man’s body with its head missing and a dagger in its back. He soon learns that the dead man was a “Wurdulak”, a “bloodthirsty corpse” who “yearns for the blood of those he loved most when he was alive”, and that the dagger belonged to Gorca (Karloff), the patriarch of the household Vladimir finds himself in, who had five days earlier set out to catch the monster and has not yet returned.

Doubtful of this story, Vladimir decides to spend the night at the family’s cottage, thanks mainly to the charms of the young Sdenka (Susy Andersen) rather than anything else (in the best Italian genre movie tradition the two homely, rural wenches are flawlessly furnished with Anita Ekberg make-up and hair), and learns that “those who kill them also become Wurdulak”. Gorca had said that if he returned after five days he would “not be himself” – and it comes as little surprise to the viewer that the five days are up, “Tonight, at the stroke of midnight”. In a masterfully directed scene, we hear a distorted, funereal church bell announce the witching hour, and as the family nervously watch at the window, we are made party to Gorca’s approach through the howling wind, first witnessing the hooded and cloaked figure shamble over a rope bridge, then with the camera panning along with his feet as they drag through the mud towards the cottage, before sweeping up to reveal the rest of a hulking, grizzled and wild-eyed Karloff.

Karloff gives one of the most terrifying performances of his career as Gorca. Particularly unnerving is the subsequent scene where, in the knowledge that Gorca is now driven to “feed on the blood of those he loves best”, we see him hold and pet his tiny grandson, Ivan (played by an unknown and uncredited child actor). As he does this, we hear a gunshot signalling the death of the family dog, that Gorca, who had adored the dog in life, had just forcibly ordered his son to bring about to cease its constant howling. Later in the night, when most of the family are asleep, a panning shot of a bedroom reveals a long shadow appearing on the wall behind the sleeping child’s bed, before we see Gorca carrying off the child with a disturbing, lascivious leer across his face.

However, surely the most chilling moment, and one of the most unnerving in Italian horror cinema, is when young Ivan returns and is heard, outside in the howling winds, crying “Mama, Mama. I’m cold,” in an unearthly, echoing voice. Shot from a raised angle suggesting the parents’ view from their window, the boy looks small and vulnerable, his face obscured by darkness and distance; the next shot of him is from behind, facing the house, knelt down with has arms plaintively outstretched to the door. Something about this, the disembodied voice, the hidden face, and the strange, fixed position, still has the power to chill. The boy’s father, Pietro (Massimo Righi), soon discovers that blood is indeed thicker than water when the mother, Maria (Rika Dialina), fatally stabs him when he tries to prevent her from going out to Ivan. As in Black Sunday, we’re again seeing the family unit eat itself from the inside like a cancer.

It is known that Bava had a passion for Russian literature (in addition to being a voracious reader of those yellow-spined Edgar Wallace paperbacks), and, true to the credits, this tale actually is by one of the classic authors cited – Tolstoy. Well, sort of. The story is based on the novelette Sem’ya Vurdalaka (Семья вурдалака, 1839), or The Family of the Vourdalak, by the War and Peace author’s less famous brother Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy. Compared to Black Sunday‘s almost name-check-only adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Vij (Вий, 1835), I Wurdulak is a good deal more faithful to its alleged source material.

So what of “Čechov” then, or Chekhov as he’s better known to readers of English? Final tale La goccia d’aqua (“The Drop of Water”,) turns out not to be based on a work by Anton Pavlovich as one might expect (and many still assume), but one “Ivan Chekhov”; another writer who doesn’t appear to exist anywhere outside of Bava’s wry sense of humour.

"The Drop of Water" segment in Black Sabbath.

“The Drop of Water” segment in Black Sabbath.

This story starts with another telephone call; in what appears to be fin de siècle London but could just as easily be Paris, Helen (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called away from a session with her gramophone player (whose music ominously grinds to a discordant halt as she leaves) and a bottle of whiskey, to prepare a freshly expired elderly patient for burial. When she at first beholds the hideous, distorted visage of the dead woman, in life a medium (“They say the spirits of the dead killed her. Ghosts!”), she is horrified, until her gaze avariciously fixes on the valuable-looking topaz ring on the corpse’s claw-like finger.

Almost immediately after Helen has stolen the ring, knocking over a glass of water in the suspenseful process, a fly – that age-old symbol of impurity, temptation and corruption – suddenly appears on the finger of the dead woman. Returning to her shabby apartment, she finds herself plagued by not only the fly but the persistent drip, drip, drip of a faucet, inspiring her increasing terror until, in a horrifying moment, she is face to face with the dead woman herself, come to reclaim her property.

As in Il telefono, the protagonist’s own home becomes a hostile, terrifying environment, made unfamiliar through Bava’s masterful lighting of the segment. A blue light continuously pulses through an oval window to represent the storm outside, accompanied by purple and green hues of no discernible diagesic source, imbuing the darkened apartment with a sinister otherworldly quality.

The hideous appearance of the avenging medium, gliding towards Helen out of the darkness, is one of the most iconic and frightening shots in Bava’s entire body of work. The twisted face, surely more distorted and corrupted than any face could possibly look so recently after death, was created by Mario’s veteran father Eugenio Bava, as was the severed head of the Wurdulak “Alibeq”, pulled out of a bag by Karloff in the previous tale.

Whilst certainly more E.C. Comics than Chekhov, The Drop of Water is still a strong note to end on, leaving us with a close-up of Helen’s grimacing face, her dead eyes staring out at the viewer. However, after working the audience up into a state of stark terror, the final sequence lightens the tone. Karloff is on horseback in full Gorca regalia once more, but this time it is as himself to deliver an outro in which he warns the viewer to “watch out on the way home” – before the camera pulls back to reveal a studio set with a prop horse and several stage hands gleefully running around with branches to emulate the horse’s movement. This fun, fourth-wall-breaking little coda must surely have sent contemporary European audiences walking out of cinemas with big smiles on their faces.

However, English-speaking audiences saw a very different version of the film. AIP were concerned that some of the material was too dark and adult in tone for the mostly juvenile audiences that were flocking in droves to the Corman-Poe movies, so the version bearing their title, Black Sabbath (in an obvious bid to repeat the success of Black Sunday), is a very different experience. The stories were re-ordered – Black Sabbath starts with The Drop of Water followed by The Telephone and The Wurdulak – and Karloff filmed new introductions to each tale, appearing either as a disembodied head against a black background or in a forest. What’s more, the story of The Telephone was drastically altered to remove anything hinting at a lesbian subtext and also transform it into a ghost story. The scene where the newspaper telling of Frank’s release arrives is doctored to show a ghostly letter seeming to write itself. As with Black Sunday and The Girl Who Knew Too Much before it, Roberto Nicolosi’s excellent score was replaced by a more generic (but still good) one by top AIP soundtrack man Les Baxter.

Although this is the version most familiar to American audiences of a certain vintage, the Italian version is vastly superior in every aspect but one: the price to pay for seeing the film in the Italian language is that one forfeits the pleasure of hearing Karloff’s dulcet tones. American and British fans could not enjoy the original version until 2001, when Image released it on a Region 1 DVD that revealed the film’s true beauty. Although very much a film of its genre, it certainly cannot be dismissed as ‘trash’, as many mainstream critics would probably like to. Although he himself would have most certainly denied it, Bava here shows the artistry of a Fellini or a Visconti–a master craftsman at the epicentre of the creative flowering of 60s Italian cinema. It is a classic not just of the horror film, but of world cinema.

Of course, by 1963, Bava now had competition that he didn’t have with Black Sunday, with numerous other Italian directors now cranking out Gothic horrors at a rate of knots. Another strong example of the genre from same year, The Virgin of Nuremberg, was helmed by one Antonio Margheriti, who would use the Gothic form in his own way to push the boundaries of screen terror.

About Rob Talbot

Returning from early days of Diabolique, Rob Talbot is a compulsive writer and cult cinema obsessive. He also writes for UK horror magazine Scream, including the popular 'Eurohorror of the Week' column for their website, and has also been published extensively in Starburst and Bedabbled!: British Horror & Cult Cinema, amongst others. Other obsessions include Italian soundtracks, Krautrock, and hard SF novels.

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