Sunday, January 24, 2010


A lone woman is terrorized in her apartment by increasingly disturbing phone calls. The caller is closer than she thinks.

A travelling nobleman is taken in by a family in a remote cottage, who find themselves under attack from supernatural forces.

And a nurse called to prepare a dead body steals a ring from the corpse, without heed to the considerable consequences.

Mario Bava's anthology horror film BLACK SABBATH adapts a trio of short stories (including Tolstoy's "The Wurdalak"), using devices from literature, theatre, and film. The stories play linearly, with each more suspenseful than the last. Each story unfolds at its own pace, but adds to the whole of the film. But despite the differences in scope of each tale, Bava employs similar visual strategies for each one, adding to the unity of the whole. All three stories are suffused with ominous purple backlighting. Doors and windows uniformly conceal something dreadful, but never for long - something or someone horrible peeks through a frame in each tale, and the sound of a creaking door is always bad news.

Horror icon Boris Karloff delivered several memorable performances in the twilight of his career, and in addition to appearing in the central tale here Bava deploys him as a playful narrator in the film's framing sequence. Karloff's iconic weight helps seal BLACK SABBATH's classic status, but he returns the favor by happily playing along with Bava's more freakish impulses. The downright Brechtian final shot features Karloff riding away into the night, and you can't help but laugh with him as the artifice of the film is slowly, hilariously revealed around him.

BLACK SABBATH is very much a 60s horror film, but I don't remember any other horror movie firing so assuredly on so many fronts. Its free-spirited, even genial qualities don't detract from its thrills (and some genuinely terrifying moments, particularly in the final episode), but instead add up to a unique experience, even in the varied history of the anthology film.

(This review created for the Final Girl Film Club, run as always by the talented and terrific Stacie Ponder.)

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