With the exception of movies made by Dario Argento, I’m a relative newcomer to Italian horror. During the last few years, however, I’ve ended up inadvertently watching “blocks” of them directed by some of the other Italian horror legends. For example, this summer I watched three of Lucio Fulci’s movies: City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The New York Ripper.
For the latest monthly Kryptic Army challenge from Kitley’s Krypt, I watched two from Mario Bava: Black Sabbath and Blood & Black Lace.
I must admit, based on what I’ve seen, I’m not a huge fan of Mario Bava. Maybe I just haven’t watched the right movies, because as I research him, I see that he participated in the production of some landmark films:
- I vampiri (1956). Referred to as the first Italian horror film.
- Hercules (1957). Credited with sparking the Italian sword and sandal genre.
- The Day the Sky Exploded (1958). The first Italian science fiction film.
- The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). Regarded as the first Italian giallo film.
- Planet of the Vampires (1965). Thematic precursor to Alien.
As I review this list, I now wonder if perhaps he is more important for being an influence on subsequent directors rather than being a great director himself.
His first solo directorial film was the gothic horror classic, Black Sunday (1960), with Barbara Steele. I had previously seen it, as well as Planet of the Vampires (1965). Combine these two with Black Sabbath (1963) and Blood & Black Lace (1964) and there’s no doubt that Bava was a genius with lighting, shadow and color. All of these movies have a striking appearance and, in the last two in particular, a fondness for using the “movement” of light (?) with flashing lights slowly and repeatedly creating shadow and darkness, like a giant neon sign is always flashing just off screen.
I just learned that I apparently watched the American version of Black Sabbath, which is quite different from the Italian version. That may explain why I was not too impressed by it. The differences I’m reading about the two versions explain some of the issues I had with it, particularly one of the stories in the anthology, The Telephone. What I watched was an anti-climactic ghost story; what Bava originally made was a non-supernatural revenge tale.
Boris Karloff narrates the movie and stars in the story called, The Wurdalak. For me, the narration segments are weak; there’s not really a common thread to tie the stories together. Based on a novella by Aleksey Tolstoy (Leo’s second cousin), The Wurdalak is a dark tale about Russian vampires. I liked this story better than The Telephone, but still found it only average. Karloff is great in it, though.
As neutral as I am about these two parts of Black Sabbath, I absolutely loved the third, The Drop of Water. It’s a familiar tale of being haunted by your actions, but is full of atmosphere and style. Part Poe and part Twilight Zone, this third of the movie is perhaps one of the creepiest segments I’ve ever seen in an anthology. The face of the elderly dying woman is truly horrifying and the scares are genuine. I recommend Black Sabbath simply for this segment.
But I really can’t recommend Blood & Black Lace for any reason. It’s not awful, but its content is certainly not as lurid as its title. Compared to the giallo I’ve seen, this one is relatively bloodless. Not that it needs gore, but it needs something to distinguish itself from any number of murder mysteries with multiple suspects and a twist ending that you see coming from a mile away.
All right, I guess those two images are pretty great. But that’s a perfect example of what I was saying about Mario Bava. His movies are beautiful to watch. But without the images, the wonderful shadows, light and color, there’s not much else to recommend about Black Sabbath or Blood & Black Lace. I hope that doesn’t make me a blasphemer, but we are each entitled to our opinions… right?