This isn’t necessarily a reprint of my original review. While the content of the film remains the same, Kino has released a restored Blu-ray edition. I will include new information in italics regarding the placement of segments and bonus content.
Today’s terrifying film is the 1963 Mario Bava anthology film Black Sabbath. This was my first Bava film and while I know fans recommend Black Sunday I went with this because of my love for anthology films, a genre that you really see a lot of in horror but not usually done well. The saddest thing about Black Sabbath is how apparent it is that there’s an US cut as the stories are grossly out-of-order and one story is entirely changed due to its lesbian content. The switching of the segments in the new Blu definitely helps ramp up the suspense, although the lack both cuts does hurt. Black Sabbath has one good story, a great “host” in Boris freaking Karloff, and some strong costuming but little else. Maybe I’d do better to watch the original Italian cut and while I was creeped out, it wasn’t as good as other films out there.
Hosted by Boris Karloff the film tells three tales of supernatural horror including a woman who steals from a corpse, a call-girl getting strange phone calls and a town under siege from a vampire.
As with all any anthology film I’ll discuss the individual stories and review them. Overall, there’s really one story worth watching and that’s the creepy as hell A Drop of Water which comes first in the American cut and has thankfully been restored to the finale in this version. By placing A Drop of Water in the finale, you have time to build up to the suspense as it’s really the strongest of the trio. The other two, The Telephone and The Wurdalak range from good to boring respectively and in the American cut of The Telephone the entire tone of the story is changed but I’ll get to that in a second. Something to keep in mind while watching this is that the acting is all dubbed which can always be disorienting to audiences not expecting that. The dubbing is better in this version, although I would have enjoyed the option to use subtitles or dubbed. I’ve read that’s an option, but if so I couldn’t find it on my copy. I’ve seen a few Italian horror films and the dubbing in this is far better than in others. Sure you’ll notice the audio is dubbed but it’s not at all like watching a Japanese film where the dubbed dialogue ends ten minutes before the actor stops talking. Fans of ample bosoms will also love this as the Italians definitely love the low-cut dresses which you get plenty of in the film.
I mentioned before changes between this version and the Italian. If your watching this on Netflix Watch Instantly (as I did) or Amazon you’ll get the US cut. Said version has the stories out-of-order with A Drop of Water being first followed by The Telephone and The Wurdalak. The original order is The Telephone, The Wurdalak and A Drop of Water and that is how this is played. If you enjoy the American cut, unfortunately that’s not an option on this disc. I’m inclined to believe the US cut still isn’t in the right order because the film opens with Boris Karloff (in an awesome floating head intro, you don’t see those enough) telling the audience that the first tale is about vampires only to have another introduction follow right after saying the first tale is about ghosts! In my opinion the original, Italian order is the way to watch this film. By placing A Drop of Water first you get the best story with the strongest scare first only to have it followed by two stories that aren’t scary at all (one isn’t even a proper horror film in its revised context) and ending with the worst story of the trio! The original order gives you the two weakest stories first and ends on a truly terrifying note. Not to mention the introductions would actually make sense. There were additional Karloff cutaways with him talking to the audience that were removed from the US cut as well. Karloff certainly has more screentime in this version and he’s awesome. The finale actually gives you a bit of humor as a send-off; ending the movie by pulling the camera back to show how he’s riding a horse (it’s a mechanical horse). It’s a funny way to add a blast of humor to the horror as well as poke fun at the movie-making process. Sadly you don’t get enough of Karloff just riffing. In the few instances where he’s introducing the stories you can tell he’s having a blast.
So let’s discuss the individual stories. I’ll go in the US order just to show you how it doesn’t work. My thoughts on the content of the stories remains the same. Again, the order works better in Kino’s cut because the first two stories, particularly the incredibly long Wuderlak tale, help ramp up the horror before you get the most frightening one of all. The first tale, A Drop of Water, follows a nurse named Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) whose charge, a medium, dies. As she’s preparing the body for burial Helen gets greedy and takes a ring off the dead woman’s finger. As we all know (or should) you never steal from the dead and the old woman isn’t going peacefully. A Drop of Water’s greatest inspiration appears to be Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart with Helen hearing a buzzing fly throughout the story and the obvious story of a guilty conscience driving one to insanity. I’ve included the image that will give you nightmares above but if anything you should watch this short! The shot of the dead woman is beyond frightening and I have no idea if that’s a mask or what but it scared the bejesus out of me to the point that after watching it, I turned on every light in my house if I left my room! Helen prepares the woman for burial and any time the camera cuts back to the face it subtly takes on a different appearance and looks slightly different, as if the woman’s still alive! Once Helen returns home and strange things start happening the film’s atmospheric reliance on noise and darkness works to great effect but your just waiting for that face to arrive. Of course Helen enters her room and sees the woman lying on the bed. Here’s my exact response to that image: “If that body starts to move I’m out! OMG she’s moving!” Yep the woman gets up and starts moving complete with creepy hands coming around the corner! Just thinking of it gives me the creeps! From there the story ends with a “crime doesn’t pay” moral but I was incredibly scared!
The second story is The Telephone, following a woman named Rosy (Michele Mercier) getting strange phone calls from her ex-pimp Frank. Rosy testified against Frank and believe he’s coming to kill her. This film got the heaviest revisions for the US release and the story suffers for it. For starters the film never explicitly states Rosy’s profession, you learn by her detailing Frank’s career that she was once a prostitute. After that she calls her friend Mary (Lidia Alfonsi) to come stay with her. In the American cut you assume these two women were friends but in the Italian cut it was stated they were lovers. This makes sense as Mary discusses them not speaking and how she still cares for Rosy no matter what. The problems continue as in this version you don’t understand why Mary is so secretive and she pens an odd note about Rosy being mentally ill. Apparently the Italian cut revealed that Mary was posing as Frank to get into Rosy’s good graces only to have the real Frank show up. The real Frank returning is included here but it appears more like the escaped mental patient trope. The original version was to be a film noir instead of a horror film and I’d be interested to see that. The Telephone starts up intense with the bizarre phone calls between Rosy and Frank. I’m always wary of strange people calling incessantly in movies, mainly because I’ve had that happen to me and it’s scary as hell. I wish that suspense had been sustained instead of having Rosy call for Mary which moves the story away from the actual telephone. Not to mention any character who doesn’t bother to lock her damn door deserves to die, sorry Rosy. It’s good but not great although dudes should be happy with the quasi-nudity from the beautiful Michele Mercier. The Telephone is the story that benefits the most from seeing the original cut. It is heavily explained that the two women were lovers, and the conclusion is frightening and suspenseful with a twist I didn’t expect. Because the relationship is allowed to develop, the twist is actually effective.
The final story is The Wurdalak about a family in a small village whose patriarch (played by Karloff) comes back as a vampire. This was by far the weakest story. For some reason it felt like the longest of the two and really pulled out the film’s hour and 32 minute runtime with a variety of elements that made me feel it should have been a standalone movie. You have the arrival of a prince (Mark Damon) who falls in love with one of the women, then there’s vampire story. The romance never feels genuine, just a trope of the vampire genre and it felt excessively talky. I kept wondering, why is this story longer than all the others? It’s due to all the exposition as we have to introduce all the characters (there’s about seven characters to the three or four of the previous stories), and describe the tropes of the vampire. All of this comprises ten minutes of story and the rest is watching the vampire pick off people one by one. There are some fantastic makeup effects, particularly on Karloff who gets to show he could have been a terrifying vampire, and there’s some fun when the little boy vampire starts wrecking havoc. After that though we have the prince running around with the girl he’s in love with and discussing her need to escape the vampires. It all ends fairly predictably and for some reason there’s no outro from Karloff. The film simply ends with the end of the third story!
The only issue with the Blu-ray is the fact that there’s no bonus content. There is another Blu-ray from UK company Arrow that includes both international and US cuts, but it is only playable in international Blu-ray players. I would have enjoyed both cuts to allow you to see the differences and how the cuts and switching up of segments creates a totally different film.
Black Sabbath starts out good and then peters out from there. I do recommend watching the segment, A Drop of Water, and maybe The Telephone if you enjoy real-world horror. The final story is fairly boring and the way the US cut is chopped up and sewed back together makes for a clunky film experience. With the original cut restored and the stories placed in the proper order, Black Sabbath is the movie it set out to be. Atmospheric, intense, and loaded with different types of scares I was able to enjoy it a lot more than I did the first time.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.