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Black Sabbath (DVD)

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Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy - Fantasy / Theatrical Release: 1964 / Actors: Lydia Alfonsi, Susy Andersen, Rika Dialina, Boris Karloff, Michele Mercier ... / DVD released 2007-10-23 at Anchor Bay / Features of the DVD: Colour, DVD-Video, NTSC

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      01.08.2008 08:50
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      A very effective horror anthology film

      A review of just the film. A region 1 DVD can be imported for less then £10, although you'd be better off getting the Mario Bava boxset (available in a region 2, UK release) which is inexpensive and includes four other films.

      This is a fantastic Italian horror, made in 1963. It was directed by Mario Bava, the greatest Italian horror director of the decade. It's a compilation of three short horror stories (all apparently literary adaptations, although I don't know the originals). This style of horror movie - a few short stories in one package - was quite popular in the 60s, the most famous probably being those made by the British company Amicus. Black Sabbath is the best anthology horror I've seen, even beating the 1940s British classic Dead of Night.

      The first story, The Telephone, is the weakest. A young woman, Rosy, is terrorised by threatening phone calls, the caller seemingly able to see what she's doing. This might be the first ever 'scary phone call' horror film, but that's part of why it's not so good: it's nowhere near as scary as later efforts (the first ten minutes of Scream is very much in the same vein, but is a lot more frightening). It's also let down by a really silly plot twist, which sets up an unbelievably predictable counter-twist.

      Bava's visual stylings as a director were always incredibly good - like Hitchcock, it doesn't really matter who's in a Bava film, the director is very much the star. The Telephone segment at least looks very nice, with Rosy's over-decorated apartment providing a pretty backdrop for the action. But the problem, really, is that there *isn't* any action to speak of. The calls aren't creepy enough to build up much suspense, and the payoff isn't up to much. Luckily the other stories are much, much better.

      The Wurdalak takes place somewhere in Russia, in some ill-defined olden days. A young nobleman stumbles upon the corpse of a vampire. He takes refuge with a local family (and falls for their comely daughter). But the vampire-hunting patriarch, Gorca, may also have been transformed into a vampire (or 'Wurdalak' in the local legends) - and frankly the old boy doesn't do a lot to allay suspicions.

      This is a wonderfully bleak and often genuinely frightening story. The studio-bound sets aren't a million miles from Hammer horror territory, but the way they're filmed, and the lighting, bring out a sense of dread and despair you wouldn't see anywhere else. There are some nice shocks - a face at the window, a figure looming in the foreground - but it has some moments that are genuinely uncanny (the ghostly child's wailing call, for instance), and presents a haunting vision of evil. It's helped immeasurably by Boris Karloff as Gorca, giving one of his greatest performances, an unbelievably sinister turn (even dubbed into Italian and with a silly moustache). Old Boris was always a class act, but I don't think he was this unsettling in anything else.

      The last story is The Drop of Water. A rather down-at-heel nurse steals a ring from a corpse she's laying out. Soon she finds herself hearing the same noises that were in the dead woman's house - a buzzing fly, a wailing cat, an endless drip drip drip of water. Is it all in her mind, or is something nastier going on?

      This really is a hell of a good finale. Bava's visual stylishness is as great as always, with the nurse's shabby-genteel apartment constantly flicking between light and shadow. The corpse is unbelievably horrible, with staring eyes and rictus sneer. But this time round it's the sounds that are scary. Even before the ring is stolen we're treated to the disorientating noise of a gramophone winding down mid-song, and when things really kick in - creaks, drips, buzzing - it gets scary. There's a sequence of sustained fright that's as good as anything I've ever seen, and the ending is tremendous. Plotwise this is a lot like the kind of 'poetic justice' type stories you get in Amicus films, but the treatment is brilliant.

      The film has a prologue in which Karloff, in normal clothes and standing in what looks like a prog rock album cover, tells us vampires are real. The original Italian version is the one to see (apparently - I've not seen the dubbed American version), but it does have a very silly coda featuring Boris again, this time on a mechanical horse, an oddly jokey conclusion that rather spoils the effect of the scares we've just seen.

      This film was originally called The Three Faces of Terror, a sensible and appropriate name. Black Sabbath is a foolish name, there being nothing resembling a Sabbath in any of the stories. I believe some rock band from the Midlands took inspiration from it, possibly Judas Priest*.

      This is probably the scariest pre-1968 film I've seen. Don't let the age or the subtitles put you off, this is horror gold. It's not particularly gory, but it is very effective. You could do a lot worse.

      * Ha ha. Do you see what I did there?

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