Thursday, June 4, 2015

Final Girl Film Club - Black Sabbath (1963)

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

Boris Karloff has some stories to tell you.

Also known by the title I tre volti della paura, which means "The Three Faces of Fear" in Italian, horror anthology Black Sabbath was the result of a collaboration between Italian production company Galatea, American production company American International Pictures, and French production company Societé Cinématographique Lyre.

Directed and co-written by famed filmmaker Mario Bava (Planet of the Vampires, Bay of Blood), the movie consists of three unrelated tales of terror, linked together by host segments in which Frankenstein himself Boris Karloff introduces each story in a creepy but conversational manner.

The Italian and American cuts have the stories in different orders, and the American version is the one I'm familiar with. It kicks off with a story entitled The Drop of Water, the story which the Italian version ends on.

On a stormy night in London, nurse Helen Chester is relaxing and boozing at home when she gets a desperate call from the servant of a medium who died while in the middle of conducting a séance. Some who knew her even believe she was killed by the spirits of the dead she was contacting. The servant needs Helen's help getting the corpse ready for burial, she just can't handle doing it.

Even though the servant warns that a curse will befall anyone who takes the medium's belongings, Helen immediately sets her sights on a ring the corpse is wearing. She steals the ring, and the spirits of the dead are not pleased.

A short and simple story of a bad choice and instant repercussions, The Drop of Water is packed with atmosphere and beautiful, colorfully-lit cinematography, a trademark of Bava's. The highlight of the segment is the nightmarish appearance of the medium's corpse, a very memorable image.

The American version not only puts the story The Telephone, which the Italian cut starts with, in second place, but there has also been some creative reworking done to it that makes it a different type of story than originally intended.

The Telephone centers on a young woman named Rosy, who comes home to her apartment one evening dressed to the nines and is soon receiving disturbing phone calls from a man who can clearly see her and everything she's doing despite her attempts to cover every possible vantage point. The caller is named Frank, and he threatens that Rosy will be dead before dawn.

Rosy knows Frank. He was her boyfriend, until she turned him in to the authorities for some crime. Now Frank is dead, has been for three months, and is contacting her from beyond the grave. Making phone calls isn't the only thing the spirit of Frank can do, it also magically writes a letter right in front of Rosy's eyes.

Frightened out of her wits, Rosy calls her former friend Mary, the woman Frank left for her, and asks her to come over. Mary does so, not believing that Frank could actually be in contact with Rosy but intending to get her psychological help.

The women are in the apartment together as dawn nears and Frank manifests physically, with murder on his mind.

There's not much to The Telephone, and I don't find it a very entertaining segment to watch. The bulk of it is simply Rosy walking around in her apartment alone, which doesn't exactly keep my attention rooted on the screen. The supernatural aspect is somewhat interesting... and wasn't in the original cut of the film at all.

In the Italian version of The Telephone, Rosy was dressed to the nines because she works as a call girl. Mary isn't Frank's ex, it's implied that she and Rosy used to be in a lesbian relationship. Frank was Rosy's pimp, and she did get him sent to prison, from which he has now escaped. He's not dead, he's not a spirit, there's no magic letter. He's just a man out for revenge.

Whether the spirit angle makes The Telephone more interesting or if it would be more interesting to watch with the real character dynamics, I can't really say, but the ending is so abrupt and anti-climactic that it's hard to imagine the story being very satisfying no matter what path is taken to that resolution.

The third story, The Wurdalak, is the standout of the film, both due to the fact that Karloff takes a second role within the story and because of its running time. While The Drop of Water and The Telephone both run just over twenty minutes, The Wurdalak is over forty minutes long.

Set in an earlier time period than the other stories, in an age before telephones, The Wurdalak starts off with Vladimire d'Urfe finding a decapitated corpse with a dagger stuck in its back while crossing the European countryside on horseback. Sickened by the sight, d'Urfe removes the dagger from the body and rides on.

As night falls, he seeks shelter at a farm that is clearly missing a decorative dagger from a wall. The exact dagger he has obtained. Still, he doesn't hesitate at all to befriend the family who lives there and ask to stay the night.

The family explains that the dead man d'Urfe discovered must be the murderous bandit Alibek, who has been killing their shepherds. Five days earlier, family patriarch Gorca (Karloff) rode off on a mission of revenge that was clearly successful. But where is Gorca now?

This is a land of superstition. The family tells d'Urfe that Alibek was rumored to be a wurdalak - basically another word for vampire. Gorca warned his kin that if he hadn't returned by 10pm on the fifth day, he may have become a wurdalak as well. Gorca implored them not to let him in if he arrived even one second later than 10 - they are to kill him.

Gorca's children do not heed his instructions. He arrives after 10 and they let him in. Although he exhibits very strange behavior, they don't confront him. And so d'Urfe has a front row seat as the family is torn apart by the grandfather-turned-vampire, and he can't just run away because he has become emotionally involved, having fallen in love with Gorca's daughter in record time.

A classic, unsettling vampire tale, The Wurdalak is, in the U.S. version, a strong capper to what is overall a really good, stylish horror anthology. It's not one I would choose to watch regularly, the pacing of most of the scenes is a bit too slow for that, but it's perfect for October horrorthon viewing.

Black Sabbath is a good movie, but its greatest pop cultural significance is really the fact that it inspired the name of the rock band Ozzy Osbourne fronted from 1968 to 1979. The band was at first called Earth, until they realized there was another band with that name. Seeing people line up in front of a theatre showing Black Sabbath, the musicians realized that music with a horror tone had the potential to be quite popular, so they took the name from the movie and started writing darker songs.

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