Monday, January 25, 2010
Final Girl Film Club: Mario Bava's "Black Sabbath"
For this month's Final Girl Film Club, I sat through my first-ever horror anthology! (I have seen most of "Creepshow," but that doesn't count, because it was New Year's Eve and I started in the middle and passed out before the end from too many AEtinis.) This was also my first-ever Mario Bava movie and I just fell in love with him. I want to explore his oeuvre. But first, "Black Sabbath."
This is a spiffy new release which apparently restores a fair amount of footage from the 1963 film, particularly from the first segment. Everyone's dubbed in Italian, even Boris Karloff, who is visibly speaking English in his "welcome to our horrorshow" introduction to the series. The anthology includes three stories, apparently set in three different time periods and places, none of them related at all. Somehow though a similar mood pervades them all -- the same sense of creeping dread. And because they're essentially short stories (although I seriously doubt they're actually adapted from Chekhov, Tolstoy and De Maupassant, as the credits claim), the action moves pretty fast. There's no time for long dream sequences or whatnot as in many of your other vintage horror films. These stories get down to business!
In segment #1, "Il Telefono," a gorgeous woman alone in her plush apartment receives a series of violent and sexual threats via her spiffy red-and-black telephone. She calls a friend for help, and it quickly becomes apparent that the two are... more than friends. Apparently the lesbian-implication footage was largely removed when the film was first released. The segment is campy but sexy, and creepy in a very giallo way -- you get the sense that these women are in peril because they're so gorgeous. While you're still sorting out how to feel about that, matters reach an inevitably grisly conclusion, and we're on to #2!
"Il Wurdalak" (Italian for "The Wurdalak") is the longest and I guess the best-known chapter, starring Boris Karloff as a patriarch who returns to his family after doing some vampire-hunting ("wurdalak" apparently is Olde Country for "vampire"). Perhaps he is a vampire himself! I wanted to like this chapter, just as I want to like all vampire stories, but I am finally confronting an uncomfortable truth: Vampire stories just put me to sleep. I don't know if it's the dreamy mood, or the key role of sleep & hypnosis, or just all the standing around. (Why is there so much standing around in vampire movies?) Last fall I rented Tod Browning's "Dracula" and it took me three nights to get through it; I kept waking up on the couch to the DVD menu. Same for the Spanish-language version, same for "Dracula's Daughter." Maybe I just require vampire tales to be enlivened by campy elements, as in the Coppola version of "Dracula" or "'Salem's Lot." Anyway, although things here are kept moving along pretty briskly, with horseback riding and guns and severed heads, I just about fell asleep. Two things kept me awake: 1) Creepy child vampire!! Crying in a high-pitched voice! Absolutely fantastic. He did not get near enough screen time. 2) The voluptuous heroine is named "Sdenka," which is very Olde Country, and which also sounds like "Stinka." This amused me.
Chapter 3, "A Drop of Water," woke me up quite thoroughly. A hard-drinking, tough-talking single nurse, who appears to live in the 1930s and seems to have a pretty fun little apartment, gets called out in a storm to dress the body of a recently deceased countess. The countess' maid is wigging and doesn't want to do it. So the nurse briskly does her job, listening to the maid go on about vengeful ghosts and how the countess died during a seance. Before heading home, the nurse pockets a ring from the body. Shouldn't have done that!... This sequence is short but fantastically effective. When the countess (played by a ghastly dummy, above) makes her first reappearance -- well, I knew it was going to happen, but I just felt my spine turn to ice. (I would have screamed if Karloff hadn't made me so sleepy.) Water drips from a faucet, a fly lands on a table, a hand reaches around a corner: the tools of a movie ghost story are so basic, but Bava deploys each one so expertly. The man is a master craftsman. I left the lights and radio on all night.
What impresses me is how different these stories are, yet how consistent the mood is. They're a contemporary (well, for 1963) thriller, a vampire tale, and a ghost story. But somehow they all go together. At the end, Karloff appears again in his Wurdalak costume, and the camera pulls back to show you his horse is a fake and so are the trees he's riding through. It's all just a show, a three-ring circus if you will -- you're invited to buy a ticket and have fun. Whee! I'm in. Thanks Stacie. Looking forward to the next one. In the meantime, I want more Bava!