Saturday, October 29, 2016

Stubs – Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath aka I Tre volti Della Paura (1963) Starring: Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, Michèle Mercier, Susy Andersen, Lydia Alfonsi, Glauco Onorato,  Jacqueline Pierreux Directed by Mario Bava. Screenplay by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Marcello Fondato. Based on the short stories "The Drop of Water" Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, "The Telephone" by F. G. Snyder and "The Wurdalak" by Leo Tolstoy. Produced by Salvatore Billitteri and Paolo Mercuri. Run time: 93 minuted. Italy/France. Horror, Foreign

Horror is not just an American genre, in fact, it’s worldwide. One example is Italy, which had its own “golden age” of horror, led in part by Mario Bava. While not a name that gets mentioned in most circles, Bava began his career as a cinematographer, working for the likes of Roberto Rossellini and helping to shape the screen presence of Gina Lollobrigida, Steve Reeves, and Aldo Fabrizi.

He started directing films in 1955 with Ulysses and I Vampiri (aka The Devil's Commandment or The Vampires or Lust of the Vampire). He began writing screenplays with Black Sunday (1960) (aka Mask of the Demon or La Maschera del demonio or Revenge of the Vampire or The Mask of Satan). Not all of his films are in the horror genre though, such as Erik the Conqueror (1961), a loose remake of the American film The Vikings (1958).

But it was another film that Bava worked on, Hercules (1958), which he worked on as a cinematographer, that brought AIP to Italy. Producer Joseph E. Levine had purchased the U.S. distribution rights to the film starring Steve Reeves and made it a box-office hit. Wanting to find similar properties, American International Pictures founders James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff hired European talent agent Flavio Lucisano to look for Italian commercial films for them.

In 1963, AIP struck a deal with Italian production company Galatea to co-produce nine films over the next eight years, one of which was Black Sabbath. Like many Italian films of the time, it had three to four short narratives that, when combined, would have a conventional film's run time. This was done to avoid high costs. The film also matched an up-and-coming actor or a much older actor with a European ingenue actress. This film would match both the up-and-coming with a European ingenue. And finally, the film was horror, which along with Westerns were a popular genre since they were cheaper than the sword and sandal fare Italian cinema had previously been famous for.

AIP secured the rights to Mark Damon and Boris Karloff, while the French co-production company Societé Cinématographique Lyre secured Michele Mercier and Jacqueline Pierreux, who appeared under the pseudonym Jacqueline Soussard. Galatea had Susy Andersen cast while retaining Mario Bava as the director.

Bava is credited with writing the screenplay and the film credits the following stories as the sources: "The Drop of Water" by Ivan Chekov, "The Telephone" by F.G. Snyder and "Sem'ya vurdalaka" by Aleksei Tolstoy, but these credits might be an attempt to make the film sound more literate than it really is.

The film was shot in an eight-week period between February and March 1963. Karloff was to not only star in one of the sequences, but also serve as a host to tie the three stories together. Since the film was to be dubbed in many different languages, including English, the actors could not phonetically pronounce the words and had to speak rhythmically so as to match many languages. AIP also had Salvatore Billitteri on set to not only supervise dubbing into English but also to make suggestions to Bava that would make the film more palatable to an American audience, which meant less violence than originally intended.

Still, in post-production, AIP made more cuts to the English-language version of the film. Not only did they re-order the segments, but they removed plot elements of prostitution and lesbianism from The Telephone.

As stated previously, the film is an anthology with three set scenes: The Drop of Water, The Telephone, and The Wurdalak. None of them sound especially scary and what the heck is a Wurdalak?

Boris Karloff uses his hosting skills, developed on his on anthology TV show, Thriller, which ran for two seasons on NBC 1960-62, and his gravitas as he introduces each segment.

Bors Karloff plays host for the film, introducing the three segments.

Drop of Water leads us off with the story of a nurse, Helen Corey (per AFI, Helen Chester by everyone else) (Jacqueline Pierreux), who is called to the house of Miss Perkins, a medium who has just recently died. It is a dark and stormy night to set the scene. Helen had been giving her shots to prolong her life and now that she’s dead, her maid (Milly Monti) has called her to dress the corpse for the morgue. Miss Perkins has a green-ish complexion and a hideous expression on her face when Helen arrives. Despite the maid’s warnings not to touch anything of Miss Perkins’, Helen cannot help herself when she sees a sapphire ring on the deceased’s finger.

Helen is called in to make Miss Perkins presentable.

But no sooner does she pull it off then it drops to the floor. While she’s looking for it, Helen accidentally knocks over a glass of water which drips down on the floor. Then she is attacked by a persistent fly which lands on the dead woman’s ring finger where the ring had been.

The deceased's ring proves too tempting for Helen (Jacqueline Pierreux).

When she gets back home, Helen puts the ring on her finger. No sooner does she do that then the fly attacks again and all throughout her meager apartment, Helen finds all the faucets dripping. Next, Helen finds the woman’s body lying in her bed and then the dead woman rises and stalks Helen throughout her apartment, which also loses electricity during the storm that is still raging outside.

Helen freaks out when she sees Miss Perkins standing in her apartment.

With the deceased woman standing over her, Helen begs for her life to be spared but ultimately ends up strangling herself with her own hands, if that’s really even possible. The next morning, the concierge of the apartment house (Harriet White Medin) finds the body and calls the police. When the body is found, there is an obvious wound on her ring finger, as if a ring had been torn off. The concierge acts suspicious and we hear the sound of dripping water.

Boris Karloff tries his hand at comedy when he introduces "The Telephone".

After a little comedic introduction by Karloff, we’re introduced to The Telephone. In this story, a French call girl, Rosy (Michèle Mercier), returns to her apartment one night and begins to receive several phone calls which suggest the caller is not only familiar with Rosy, but is observing her now, knowing as an example, that she is dressed in a scanty dressing gown when she answers the phone.

Rosy (Michèle Mercier) receives several disturbing phone calls when she gets home.

Freaked out, Rosy calls her friend Mary (Lydia Alfonsi), who looks a lot like her. While the story supposedly calls for them to not only be prostitutes and lovers, there is really nothing in the film to suggest either. Mary agrees to come over that night. But the next time the caller phones, he promises Rosy that no matter what she does, he will get his revenge.

Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) comes over to keep Rosy company.

Mary arrives and calms Rosy down and sends her to bed, giving her a large knife she can use for protection. But soon after she’s asleep, a man enters Rosy’s apartment and strangles Mary in a case of mistaken identity.

Frank (Milo Quesada) strangles Mary, thinking she's Rosy.

When he approaches her, Rosy realizes that it’s Frank (Milo Quesada), a man who has been dead for years. He tries to attack her, but Rosy pulls out her knife and kills the dead guy. (Other recounts state that Frank was her pimp that her testimony had sent away to prison, but again, none of that is revealed in the American version of the film).

Finally, Karloff introduces us to The Wurdalak, in which he has a starring role. It is 19th century Russia and the young nobleman, Vladimir Durfe (Mark Damon), comes across a decapitated body with a knife through its chest. He removes the blade and, seeing as it’s getting late, seeks shelter in the first real house he comes to. The people living there aren’t particularly gracious at first, with Vladimir being held at sword point by Giorgio (Glauco Onorato). He sees the knife and tells Vladimir that it belongs to his father, Gorca, who has been gone for five days hunting and killing Alibeck, a bandit and vampire.

Vladimir is introduced by Giorgio to the other members of the family: his wife Maria (Rika Dialina), their young son Ivan, Giorgio's younger brother Pietro (Massimo Righi), and sister Sdenka (Susy Andersen). Vladimir develops one of those instant and deep loves for Sdenka. The family warns Vladimir that they are waiting for their father’s return. When he left he had warned them if he hadn’t returned in five days to consider him a wurdalak, or a Russian version of a vampire that only drinks the blood of close friends and loved ones. 

Vladimir (Mark Damon) has it bad for Sdenka (Susy Andersen).

They are told to kill him as soon as they see him. The five days expire at 10 that night and warn Vladimir that he should leave, but he insists on staying.

Boris Karloff plays Gorca, the patriarch of the family and now a Wurdalak.

Gorca (Boris Karloff) doesn’t return until after 10, but his family doesn’t kill him, though they are certainly scared of him and with good reason. When everyone is in bed, Gorca attacks Pietro and flees with Ivan. Giorgio takes chase, but is too late, returning to the cottage with Ivan’s corpse. He wants to behead his son to prevent him from returning as a Wurdalak, but Maria prevents him. As a compromise, they agree to bury their son’s body. But when Ivan shows up at the door, saying he’s cold, Maria’s maternal feelings go into high gear. When Giorgio tries to stop her, she stabs and kills him, but when she opens the door, it is Gorca at the door and he attacks her.

You only hurt the ones you love; Gorca kills his own grandson, turning him into a Wurdalak.

Meanwhile, Vladimir and Sdenka have fled the cottage and taken refuge in the ruins of a nearby cathedral. As Vladimir sleeps, Sdenka rises from the bed and goes outside. There she sees Gorca and is surrounded by her family members, who have all been turned into wurdalaks.

Sdenka wanders out into the ruins where her family, now all wurdalaks, wait for her.

When Vladimir finally awakes, Sdenka is nowhere to be found. Going back to the cottage, he finds her lying motionless in her bed. When she awakens, she accepts Vladimir’s embrace and then bites him on the neck, turning him into a wurdalak.

The film was released in two versions. First came the Italian which opened on August 17, 1963. Though I haven’t seen this version, it is my understanding it is somewhat more explicit than the American version, no doubt revealing more about Rosy and Mary's relationship and profession. The Wurdalak is also supposedly more violent than the American version.

Despite AIP’s edits to make the film more palatable to American audiences, the film was, for the most part, panned when it was released on May 6, 1964. The Boston Globe's review referred to the film as "three short films botched together". More recent reviews have been more complimentary with one by Entertainment Weekly referring to The Telephone story as "Bava's most simply frightening work.” They must have seen a different movie than I had.

Perhaps the film’s most long-lasting legacy is that it inspired a rock band in England named Earth to change their name. With another group already with that name, the band was looking for a new name and persona. With the theater near their studio playing the film and noticing the long lines of people waiting to be frightened, Earth became Black Sabbath. The band recently called it quits and, as of this writing, is on its final tour, The End.

The metal band Black Sabbath actually took its name from this movie.

The rock band aside, Black Sabbath is more a study in melodrama than real horror. The opening story, Drop of Water, is sort of obvious. You know as soon as she’s told not to touch anything that the nurse will. While it may be hard or impossible to strangle yourself to death, I’ll let others work that out for themselves, when the ring is missing from the nurse’s finger, you also know the pattern will continue with the concierge who has obviously taken the ring. A better twist would have been the ring to be back on the corpse’s finger.

The Telephone is rendered almost unfathomable by the edits. Not sure why I’m supposed to care about Rosy or why Frank is out for revenge; sort of crucial for the story to succeed. We’re left with a mess of a story that no one cares about.

The Wurdalak runs too long. It’s one of those stories that if the family had just done as they were told, then none of this would have happened. Also note, when you’re fleeing a vampire, don’t stop for the night at the first place you come to. Keep riding. Oh, lessons that are learned too late.

But to keep riding, you'll need a real horse, which this film apparently lacks.

The acting is rather blah, not helped by the fact that everything appears to be dubbed. Even Boris Karloff can only carry the film so far. Too bad he’s not a better actor, but even then I doubt anyone could have really saved the film. While Karloff had considerable gravitas with horror films thanks to his starring roles in Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), it is sadly wasted here. Perhaps the Italian is better, but like self-strangulation, I’ll leave that for others to discover.

Most of the women in the film seem to have one thing in common, they are well endowed, which has nothing to do with their acting skills. Michèle Mercier, who had previously appeared in Francois Truffaut's’ Don’t Shoot The Piano Player (1960), is perhaps best known as Angelique in Angelique, Marquise des Anges (1964). It’s really hard to judge her acting skills from The Telephone, but surely she is better in other films, she has to be.

Jacqueline Pierreux had been appearing in Italian films since the early 1940s. Sadly, Black Sabbath is her best-known role, so it’s really hard to judge her acting. Suzy Andersen, despite the Americanized sounding name, is really an Italian actress born Maria Antonietta Golgi. She had a very short film career, which included the role of Tamar in Thor and the Amazon Women (1963) (original title: Le Gladiatrici aka Women Gladiators), a sword and sandal film Italian cinema had been known for prior to the early 1960s. Nothing in her filmography to really brag about either.

If you’re looking to be bored this Halloween, I could definitely recommend this film. It is sadly like the other AIP horror films, and I’ve seen a few, more costume drama than real shake in your boots horror. And the films' budgets make them feel more claustrophobic than anything else, which for some, I suppose, can be scary. Trying to appeal to American sensibilities is a difficult thing to do, as standards do change over time. But it’s hard to imagine a time when this mess would have really appealed to anyone.

Be sure to check out other Horror films in our Horror Films Review Hub.

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