Black Sabbath

by Charlie Largent Oct 21, 2023

Black Sabbath
Kino Lorber
1963 / 92 Min. / 1.85.1
Starring Boris Karloff, Michéle Mercier, Mark Damon,
Written by Marcello Fondato, Alberto Bevilacqua, Mario Bava
Photographed by Ubaldo Terzano
Directed by Mario Bava

Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson were not generally known for their altruism but as founders of American International Pictures, they would occasionally promote films beyond the reach of most small town movie houses including Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Fritz Lang’s Journey to the Lost City. AIP released Fellini’s film unscathed but Lang’s Asian odyssey was in fact two movies in one: 1959’s The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb were combined—and reduced—to a 94 minute “epic” for the matinee crowd.

AIP was just as cavalier with the work of another master, Mario Bava’s The Mask of Satan. When they bought the distribution rights to that 1960 shocker, they added a new voice track, a new music score, and gave it a new name, Black Sunday. The cherry on top was the movie’s poster which was literally eye-popping: a close-up of Barbara Steele glowering next to the hypnotic tag-line: “Stare into these eyes.”

Ticket buyers accepted the challenge and Black Sunday became Arkoff and Nicholson’s favorite thing—a hit. The cost benefits were sufficient to warrant an encore and in 1963 they grabbed the director’s The Three Faces of Fear and released it as an ersatz sequel: Black Sabbath. The movie was an anthology, a trilogy of terror if you will, but AIP reworked the film for stateside audiences, reshuffling the episodes and omitting vital scenes and plot points. It had the same effect as a time-traveler stepping on a butterfly: the meaning of The Three Faces of Fear had been altered.

Though AIP simplified, softened, and surely corrupted the implications of the original, the studio also made the film more available to young movie goers with an itch for grown-up thrills—in New York it opened on the bottom of a double bill with McHale’s Navy: “Their first full-length motion picture in color!” For those kiddies, the AIP version of Black Sabbath acted as a gateway drug to European Cinema.

Black Sabbath begins with host Boris Karloff speaking to us from a black void—obviously a budget-friendly setting but eerie enough to stiffen your spine. Straightaway, Karloff’s presence exposed one of AIP’s most drastic modifications, in the Italian version he was dubbed, but in stateside cinemas the great actor spoke in his own voice. And what a voice, with only a few words Mr. Karloff sets the mood; “Do you believe in ghosts?” 

There is a consensus among horror movie connoisseurs that Black Sabbath‘s first segment stands as Bava’s most frightening 22 minutes. It’s a compact cautionary tale called A Drop of Water starring Jacqueline Pierreux as Helen Chester, an itinerant caregiver used to late night calls—this rainy evening she’s been summoned to the mansion of a woman known for communicating with the dead, now the old recluse has joined her allies in the afterlife and it’s up to Ms. Chester to prepare the body for burial.

The bedchamber of this erstwhile fortune-teller is a riot of deep-shadowed green and purple, but even in the brightest light, the sight of this particular corpse would give anyone pause—the old crone may be dead but her wide-eyed gaze speaks volumes: “Leave now.” The nervous nurse is suitably rattled but her fear is overcome by fascination with the dead woman’s finery, in particular the gemstone on her finger. Helen braves the morbid atmosphere, including the omnipresent stare of the deceased, and fits her with a burial shroud. Then she steals the ring and races home. 

Her apartment is no more comforting; a storm is raging, window frames are clattering, and lamps are failing one by one. Whether it’s her guilt-ridden imagination or the howling wind, the crash of thunder and lighting has been joined by an unearthly wail. Candle in hand, Helen decides to follow the sound. The nervous audience has been expecting Helen to pay for her transgressions and that moment has arrived—Bava will not disappoint them…

Emerging from the bedroom with claws extended and wearing the same rictus grin, the rejuvenated hag is one of the more nerve wracking sights in horror films—no matter that it’s simply a wax dummy that moves like one of the animatronic figures in Disney’s Hall of Presidents, that face scares Helen to death. “Stare into these eyes”, indeed. Perhaps Black Sabbath really was a sequel after all.

The next episode, The Telephone, held the first position in the original version but here it’s moved to second place and suffers the most from AIP’s modifications. Starring Michéle Mercier and Lidia Alfonsi as “close” friends under assault by Mercier’s scorned lover, AIP’s new dubbing script eliminated the lesbian subplot and added a supernatural element to the story. Coming after the primal shocks of The Drop of Water, The Telephone doesn’t stand a chance. Bava worked miracles with a few shadows and some elegant camera moves but the story, already ambiguous in the original, collapses under the weight of AIP’s nonsensical censorship.

Karloff introduces Karloff in Black Sabbath‘s third and final entry, The Wurdalak. Known on the nation’s playgrounds as “dear Boris” years before Cynthia Lindsay’s biography, children adored Karloff, the monster whose pitiful fate inspired more empathy than terror. But the kindly grandpa who provoked tears with his portraits of misunderstood creatures had a real monster up his sleeve.

As the Russian patriarch with a supernatural secret, Karloff turns in one of his most unnerving performances. That soft purr of a voice embodies pure evil and to prove it, he carries an unusual trophy in his travel bag, a freshly decapitated head. The old man is named Gorka and he’s just returned to his family after a brief sojourn in the mountains. But he’s strangely reticent about the nature of his adventure—except that he succeeded in his quest, the liquidation of a “wurdalak” named Olibek. It’s up to Gorka’s family to decide if he himself has inherited the curse of the vampire.

Though the segment tends to drag, the film is still a superbly wrought thriller, and beautifully photographed by Ubaldo Terzano (surely with Bava sharing the view finder at every second). The actors and actresses, including Mark Damon (conveniently the star of AIP’s House of Usher), and the unmistakably Mod blonde Suzy Anderson slumming as a 19th century peasant girl, are at least visually compelling.

But it’s Karloff who lifts this short film to minor classic status. In his later years he was more determined than ever to bring the full measure of his talent to the screen—his work on the 1962 episode of Thriller, The Incredible Doktor Markesan, is perhaps even more unsettling. His collaboration with Bava remains a standout in a great career.

After a parade of home video releases, beginning with Thorn Emi/HBO Video’s 1986 release on VHS, Black Sabbath is back. Kino’s transfer looks fine, it appears to be this same image as their previous release Blu ray release in 2015. The extras include an in-depth audio commentary from Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas and Mr. Lucas appears to know everything about Mr. Bava there is to know… he should write a book. Also included is a mix of trailers featuring the films of Boris and Bava together and apart including Black Sabbath, Planet of the Vampires, The Crimson Cult and The Raven.

Here’s Mick Garris on Black Sabbath:

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