Monday 16 January 2012

Viva Bava, Part 3: Figure in black which points at me

This series has repeatedly discussed the profound influence Mario Bava and his imitators would have on the American horror film of the 1970s and 1980s, but the flow of ideas went both ways. I've already referred to the importance of Psycho, but it is to the series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by American International Pictures and Roger Corman, beginning with 1960's House of Usher, that Bava's next feature is most obviously a homage.

By 'homage', I only partly mean 'rip-off'. I tre volti della paura, released in August 1963, is not one of Bava's best films, but though not a masterpiece it's much more interesting than it appears on the surface. It's conducting a cinematic dialogue between Gothic horror and the emerging giallo, and points both to Bava's roots and to his future; not to mention that its importance in the development of exploitation horror is vastly underrated.

Oh, and when AIP released it in the English-speaking world they decided to give it a title reminding audiences of Bava's previous hit, Black Sunday; and thus a film whose original title means The Three Faces of Fear (translated literally for most European markets) became Black Sabbath, and as such a couple of Birmingham lads, members of a band called Earth, spotted the film's poster at a cinema across the street from band practice. They realised the occult theme attracted crowds, renamed themselves, and the world was given a great many awesome guitar riffs.

Black Sabbath is an anthology film composed of three horror stories unrelated by plot. They were put in a different order for release in America, and 'The Telephone' was butchered to remove a lesbian subplot, but thankfully it's the Italian original that has survived. In that version, the film opens with an absolutely delightful soliloquy by Boris Karloff - yes, that Boris Karloff - obviously having an amount of fun one can't usually obtain legally, standing in front of a vaguely scary-looking background while discussing whether creepy-crawlies attend cinemas (they do, apparently) and introducing the horrid tales we're about to see unfold.

We begin with 'The Telephone', the first Italian thriller film shot in colour, which is set entirely in the Paris apartment of Rosy (Michèle Mercier), a callgirl who receives phone calls in which a man threatens to kill her. Rosy realises the anonymous caller is likely to be Frank (an uncredited Milo Quesada), a recently escaped convict her testimony condemned to prison. Terrified, she asks her former lesbian lover Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) to come over so she'll feel safer, but unbeknownst to her it was Mary, masking her voice, who was making the calls all along just to be able to spend some time with Rosy. Unfortunately for both of them, the real Frank is out on the prowl too.

In the second segment, 'The Wurdalak', Vladimir, an aristocratic fop (Mark Damon, of House of Usher), rides through the wilderness of an unspecified region of eastern Europe (portrayed, as it was in Black Sunday, by Italy) when he discovers a headless body with a precious dagger in its back. He comes up to a house where Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) informs him that the dagger belongs to his father Gorca, meaning that the dead body must be the wurdalak, an undead monster Gorca had set out to hunt.

The household otherwise consists of Pietro (Massimo Righi), Giorgio's kid son Ivan (the actor's name isn't listed), as well as his wife Maria (Rica Dialina) and his sister Sdenka (Susy Andersen, the name adopted by Maria Antonietta Golgi - it was the sixties, remember, and Bava himself assumed an English nom de plume on occasion). These last two seem to cast a lot of longing glances at each other, or maybe I just want that to be true because, with due respect, they're both extraordinarily fit.

Anyway, Gorca (Boris Karloff) soon returns, but he seems changed, harsh and cruel while refusing food. His sons' suspicions that he has himself been turned into a wurdalak are confirmed when Gorca kills Pietro and drags off Ivan because, in the best idea the film takes from the Aleksey Tolstoy story this segment is based on, the wurdalak attacks those he loved in life. Vladimir, revealing himself as the hateful scumbag he seemed from the first, persuades Sdenka to run away with him because, he claims, he loves her, but will they manage to escape the growing wurdalak clan? (No.)

In 'The Drop of Water', set in Victorian London, a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called late at night to the home of an elderly medium who has just died. While preparing the dead body, she is tempted by the precious ring on the dead woman's finger and nicks it, when a glass of water tips over and drops of water fall to the floor; she's also annoyed by a fly. While at home, she is haunted by dripping water and supernatural occurrences all over her flat.

'The Drop of Water' is the weakest of the three segments by far, brought down by a boring, derivative story. The other two are excellent, but before we get to that we need to appreciate the glorious ending, in which the fourth wall is not so much broken as smashed down and danced upon. The closing soliloquy is delivered by Boris Karloff atop a horse; and before we know it Bava zooms out, the horse is revealed to be mechanical, and Karloff laughs maniacally while PAs run past him with branches on what we can now very clearly see is a film set. It is one of the most surreal, delirious, incredible scenes I've ever seen in a film, and I can't believe they cut it from the American release.

There's thus a lot of tongue-in-cheek self-referentiality to Black Sabbath that I like very much - and so did Karloff, who declared his segments the most fun he'd ever had in a film. The horror veteran's presence is one of Black Sabbath's greatest assets, not just in his demented soliloquies but also in his more serious turn as a blood-sucking grandfather (the only time Karloff played a vampire, incidentally).

The episodes pretty much stand or fall with the actors: 'The Telephone' is anchored by Mercier (alone for half the running time) and Alfonsi, 'The Wurdalak' can rely on Karloff, Onorato and Dialina even as Damon is an annoying, bland disappointment, while Pierreux's weak performance dooms 'The Drop of Water'.

'The Telephone' is the most obviously proto-giallo of the three segments. There's a shot of Rosy's stalker peering through the curtains that is very reminiscent of Norman Bates, with an attending focus on the eye that also marks Black Christmas a decade later and countless horror films since. It's also here that the fetishism of the gleaming knife, absent from The Girl Who Knew Too Much but characteristic of the later giallo, is developed, and a later stylish murder in which a character is strangled with a stocking is a sign of things to come.

The superficially less proto-anything 'Wurdalak' really points both to Italian Gothic horror and the gialli of the future. The scene in which Vladimir is introduced to Gorca's entire family is, let's face it, a 'meet the meat' scene. It's basically a bodycount picture in Gothic trappings: the killer does not have an aim in the pursuit of which he may kill people (as in Black Sunday, where Asa is trying to resurrect herself by draining Katia's life force) but the killing is itself the aim; and the way in which individuals are isolated and picked off one by one is distinctly slasherish. The idea of Boris Karloff as the original slasher villain, though inexact, is too tempting to just be dropped, even as the final scene is not at all in that later tradition but rather cribbed from Dracula:
And then insensibly there came the strange change which I had noticed in the night. Her breathing grew stertorous, the mouth opened, and the pale gums, drawn back, made the teeth look longer and sharper than ever. In a sort of sleep-waking, vague, unconscious way she opened her eyes, which were now dull and hard at once, and said in a soft, voluptuous voice, such as I had never heard from her lips, 'Arthur! Oh, my love, I am so glad you have come! Kiss me!'

Arthur bent eagerly over to kiss her, but at that instant Van Helsing, who, like me, had been startled by her voice, swooped upon him, and catching him by the neck with both hands, dragged him back with a fury of strength which I never thought he could have possessed, and actually hurled him almost across the room.

'Not on your life!' he said, 'not for your living soul and hers!' And he stood between them like a lion at bay...

I kept my eyes fixed on Lucy, as did Van Helsing, and we saw a spasm as of rage flit like a shadow over her face. The sharp teeth clamped together. Then her eyes closed, and she breathed heavily. (p. 116)

Even with such literary references, it's encouraging to see that Bava's exploitation instincts were being honed. There's a head prop, crafted once again by his father Eugenio, that is far better than anything they managed to create for Halloween: Resurrection almost forty years later, and in general the gore (of which there is little) is of the excellent quality one has come to expect. 'Exploitation' means something else too, though, and indeed Black Sabbath is quite desperate to emphasise its actresses' heaving bosoms; 'The Telephone', being a half-hour segment of the lovely Mercier in a nightgown, is pretty much just a delivery system for titillation.

It's a beautiful film, shot by Ubaldo Terzano and Bava himself to emphasise otherworldly indigoes and dark blues. I praised Bava's black-and-white cinematography in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and I'm sad to see there'll be no more of the exquisite contrasts of that film; but his mastery of colour here almost makes up for it. It's an important film: transitional, certainly, 'lesser' Bava, perhaps, but no less entertaining for that.

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