Happy New Year, friends! I come bearing a belated gift featuring not one, but two horror icons in the form of the 1963, Mario Bava-directed, Boris Karloff-starring anthology film Black Sabbath. And in case you’re wondering, yes this title inspired a band that would go on to make some of the most well-known metal songs of all time (that’s good!) and whose lead singer kicked off the celebrity reality TV craze (that’s bad!). Oddly enough, I found the film in Shudder’s “Unhappy Holidays” section, even though after watching it I’m having trouble finding any connection to the holiday season. But I’m not here to start another “is it a Christmas movie?” debate. I just want to bone up on my Bava, as I’ve seen very little of his work and I also like the idea of getting more Karloff, who pulls double duty as host of the anthology and star of one of the segments.
To be fair, Karloff is minimally used in his role as host. If you’re expecting the usual wraparound device that weaves through or connects all the stories of an anthology, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Karloff’s introduction amounts to little more than warning people about vampires in the theater before digging into the movie proper. Although, I have to say that he is gray haired and jovial, kind of like… nah, it can’t be.
The first tale, “The Telephone,” follows a woman named Rosy (Michèle Mercier), who keeps getting threatening phone calls from someone she believes to be Frank (Milo Quesada), a man out for revenge after she sent him to prison. This leads her into the arms of Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), who she’d left Frank for, but may have motives of her own as Rosy recently dumped her as well. That all of the action takes place in one small apartment gives the story a trapped, claustrophobic feel as you keep guessing from where the danger will spring and if those closest to us are the ones from whom we have the most to fear. And, you know, now that I think of it, there are few things that remind us of holidays more than bickering with friends and family. In this case, though, the quarrel is less of the “you didn’t invite me to your wedding” sort and more the “I’m going to come into your room and strangle you in your sleep” variety.
If “The Telephone” is an appetizer of sorts, the second story, “The Wurdalak,” is definitely the main course. It’s by far the longest segment and features Karloff as Gorca, the patriarch of a Russian family who they believe has recently been turned into a wurdalak (you might know them as vampires). I’ll admit that it took me a bit to appreciate this particular offering, as I was already a bit disoriented by a movie where the actors speak English, get dubbed into Italian, and are then subtitled back to English. Try to explore Slavic folklore in that context and you lose some of the flavor in translation (and retranslation). But if you can keep up through it all, there’s a funky little family melodrama in there with healthy doses of decapitation and blood drinking. Plus, in contrast with “The Telephone,” this story makes use of some pretty elaborate set design to depict an ominous Russian countryside, complete with snow-covered mountains and people wearing fur-lined winter attire that one might associate with... nope, I’m not going there.
For our final course, we take another drastic shift in setting to early 1900s London for “The Drop of Water.” A nurse named Helen (Jacqueline Pierreux) has been called to care for the body of an elderly woman who recently died during a séance. Helen is convinced the woman died of a heart attack, but when she can’t help but swipe the sapphire ring on the corpse’s finger, she realizes the woman’s cause of death may have been more of the ghostly variety, and she may have just put a big supernatural target on her back. This is by far the freakiest of all the segments, with a set design that features some of the bright, popping colors that we expect from our Italian horror masters, and the makeup work for the corpse is simple but extremely effective (make her stop looking at me!).
This story’s focus on greed highlights the cynicism about human nature that seems to be a prevalent theme in Bava’s work. We see this in later works like Bay of Blood, a giallo mystery where the killer turns out to be literally everyone as they take turns picking one another off in pursuit of a large inheritance. Similarly, none of the characters in Black Sabbath are particularly noble. They’re selfish, cowardly, conniving, or a combination of the three in such a way that their demise often seems like more of a comeuppance than a tragedy.
And I’ll be damned if this theme wouldn’t seem right at home in the holiday horror tradition of films like Krampus, where a family’s inability to connect in a meaningful way leads to their downfall, or Christmas Evil, in which an unstable man who believes himself to be Santa Claus gives more than a lump of coal to those who don’t show goodwill toward their fellow man.
Sorry folks. I think I may have convinced myself that Black Sabbath could very well be a holiday film. It’s still kind of thin, but just the same, if you’re bored and can’t take another round of A Christmas Story, then you could do worse than giving Black Sabbath a shot. It’s by no means a perfect movie (I’ve never seen a film with as many scenes where characters literally sit in silence for minutes at a time), but it’s a charming diversion to keep you hidden away from that cousin who wants to tell you all about how he found this year’s ugly Christmas sweater. Plus, the connections to the holidays are also tenuous enough that you could just sit back and watch it any old time of the year. So, take a gander, and if I’ve wound up sparking another argument, I’m truly sorry.