Thursday, November 15, 2007

Black Sabbath – review

Director: Mario Bava & Salvatore Billitteri

Release date: 1963

Contains spoilers

Anticipation can ruin a film. I have wanted to see this for such a long time, it was available on R1 DVD but was deleted and so could only be bought at ridiculous prices. It was then scheduled for an early summer R2 DVD release that never materialised. Recently I saw the Bava box set in a store but the price was prohibitive – as it had this film, but also Black Sunday (which I already own) and three other films that look interesting but not so much as I wanted to pay premium price for the box set. As it was I found the box set online at a third of the rrp, factory sealed, and thus I watched – finally – Black Sabbath.

As I say, anticipation can ruin a film. In the case of this film, however, it was not the case – quality will out. The film is held together by Boris Karloff and has three episodes, and a strange brew they make. The first episode, ‘the telephone’, is not supernatural at all, more a tale of the unexpected. It is rather good, however. The third, 'A Drop if Water', is kind of a ghost story meets the ‘Tell Tale Heart’ and (despite an all too rubber mask) is also very good and sends shivers up the spine. These two are notable, beyond anything else, for the wonderful lighting that Bava uses – as is (mostly) the centre film – 'The Wurdalak'. Being the vampire piece, this is where the review concentrates.

The film begins with a horseman, later revealed to be Count Vladimir d’Urfe (Mark Damon), riding through the countryside. It is in this segment of the episode that the normally excellent Bava lighting falters. Most of the scenes are clearly studio, but the few location orientated shots are too dark, despite an excellent sunset moment. The Count comes across a headless body run through with a dagger and places it over a nearby horse, having removed said dagger.

The Count reaches a farmhouse and, as soon as the shot of him entering the area comes on screen, you know you are in for a gothic treat. He ties the horses and enters the house. He notices that the dagger comes from the wall of the house and is then met, at gun point, by Giorgio (Glauco Onorato). After banter they go to see the body he has brought, but it is gone. The camera pans and we see Giorgio’s brother Pietro (Massimo Righi) running the corpse through the heart.

After re-entering the house the Count meets Giorgio’s wife Maria (Rika Dialina) and their son Ivan as well as the sister of the two brothers, Sdenka (Susy Andersen). It seems that the family are uncomfortable and this is because it was their father Gorca (Boris Karloff) who went hunting the Turk bandit Alibeq (the corpse the Count found) and his dagger was the one found. It transpires that Alibeq was Wurdalak, as the film explains they are “bloodthirsty corpses, they yearn for the blood of those they loved most when they were alive”. They can only be killed by stabbing through the heart. Anyone killed by a wurdalak will become one.

They want the Count to leave as Gorca has not returned and he said if he was not back within five days then they were to refuse him entry. Five days is up at the stroke of midnight. The Count refuses to leave as he has fallen for Sdenka. After midnight strikes the figure of the father approaches. They are wary, especially as he has been injured near the heart, but allow him entry. He refuses food and has his favourite dog – which is howling outside – shot.

Of course he is wurdalak and the genius of the film lies in the tension that is built as we wait for his attack. It really does build wonderfully as we know what he is, and as Karloff is so marvellous in the role (the only time he ever played a vampire), and Bava drags out the first strike masterfully. As we wait we are treated to the iconic image of Gorca revealing Alibeq’s severed head to the family.

The film does not have a notable twist, as so many of these episode pieces do. The way the film is going is fairly obvious. What it does have is a wonderful child vampire segment some sixteen years before ‘Salem’s Lot. It is also a very atmospheric piece and the fact that there is no twist is almost irrelevant as the section is so solidly built.

The DVD has an introduction by Alan Jones, which warns us about the credited authors upon which the film was based. He indicates that the Wurdalak was not a Tolstoy story and this is inaccurate. The fore-name he mentions, as credited, is incorrect but this is based on The Family of the Vourdalak by Alexis Tolstoy. A full English text of the story can be found in the excellent Vampires: Encounters with the Undead.

However, the other thing to note about the DVD, and indeed the version of Black Sunday in the set, is that both have an audio commentary by Tim Lucas, whose The Book of Renfield was recently reviewed on the blog and who, more importantly, has written what is classed as the definitive book on Bava’s work.

I really enjoyed this, all three parts are well worth seeing but, as always, I mark only on the vampire section. This was a solid story and an interesting vision of a classic piece of vampire prose, notable, if nothing else, for Karloff’s wonderful performance. 8 out of 10.

I’ll leave you with Karolff’s thoughts on vampires from the film’s introduction, “Vampires look perfectly normal, which, in fact, they are. Except they have the strange habit of drinking blood, especially the blood of those they love.”

The imdb page is here.


OllieMugwump said...

Great adaptation of a literary classic by Bava, with the great-plus of Boris Karloff, perfectly cast as Gorcha.

I've a few reccomendations; "Grave of the Vampire" featuring a 'dhampir' sub-plot and a great turn by Michael Pataki as bloodsucker Caleb Croft/Charles Croydon. "The Body Beneath" a micro-budget, but extremely novel piece concerning the Fords; an ancient all-English vampire clan preying-off their living descendants with Gavin Reed giving a wonderful, sneery Thessinger-like performance as their leader Rev. Algernon Ford.

Also somebody has post "Blood and Roses/Et mourir de plaisir"; Roger Vadim's "Carmilla" adaptation on YouTube.

Regards Ollie.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Olie, thanks for the recommendations. I have grave of the vampire, great story, poor prints and begging for a remake. I'll have to review it soon.

The Body Beneath, strangely I ordered the DVD of this just yesterday after Doc Despicable - over at the Frequency of Fear - mentioned to me.

Right, I'm off to You Tube as I'm itching to see Blood and Roses!

LoBo said...

It's been years since the last time i saw this on DVD. I remember i liked the whole film, but i liked segment The Wurdalak best.

I hope this film get's released on Blu-ray soon. I seem to remember The Wurdalak had great use of colours as Mario Bava is known for, so it should look very good in 1080p.

LoBo said...

I'm happy now.

Black Sabbath will be released on Blu-ray:

As you can see, it will be released on your country, the UK. I look forward to April.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Lobo, but before that Black Sunday is released on Blu-Ray over here :)

Good times

LoBo said...


Yes, i noticed that too. I have the American Blu-ray, but the forthcoming UK edition is supposed to better than the American version.

LoBo said...

Here is the first review of Black Sabbath + DVD and Blu-ray comparison:

Taliesin_ttlg said...

thanks Lobo