Italian filmmakers can produce duds as easily as anyone, but they appear to be virtually incapable of making visually uninteresting films. Visual expression is as central to Italian cinema as story-telling is to Hollywood. Obvious in the work of big names like Fellini or Bertolucci or Visconti, this skill is equally present in the work of low-budget horror master Mario Bava who, whatever the qualities of his scripts, executed his films with enviable visual distinction.
Black Sabbath, a three-part omnibus film from the ’60s is a case in point. Its first story, “The Telephone,” is confined entirely to a single apartment, in which Rosy (Michele Mercier) is terrorized by a caller threatening to kill her. The closed setting, far from being a hindrance, gives Bava the opportunity to show how limited means can be used to create a rich impression on screen when treated imaginatively. For example, instead of shrouding the set in the dark shadows of horror, Bava uses “high key” (i.e., bright and even) lighting, making it easy for the viewer to register the baroque trappings that tell us more about Rosy than the dialog, so that the set practically becomes a character in the story.
“The Wurdulak” (above), on the other hand, is lit and shot with all the dark mystery of traditional horror, including period trappings and an exotic, Eastern European setting. The title refers to a mythical creature, sort of a cross between a vampire and a zombie, that preys on those he/she has most loved in life. Boris Karloff stars as the patriarch who returns to terrorize his family. Bava makes every shot, particularly the exteriors, into a thick, lugubrious, evocative exploitation of the other-worldly premise.
It is nonetheless in the final story, “The Drop of Water” in which Bava proves his mastery. A nearly silent tale of a nurse haunted by the spirit of a dead woman whose ring she has stolen, the segment is a masterpiece of atmospheric settings, lighting, and selective sound. While the images create a foreboding warren of color and decaying decor, Bava strips the soundtrack down to a few, evocative effects, such as the buzz of a horsefly that appears at the moment of the theft, or the amplified “plop” of a drop of water, in a textbook example of expressive technique.
As if to prove just how sophisticated these chilling tales can be, Bava ends Black Sabbath with a final treat. The stories are framed by brief segments with (a dubbed into Italian) Karloff, speaking directly to the viewer. While the introduction warns the audience to expect terror, Karloff’s final address ends the film on a playful note in which some of the horror techniques are exposed as the tricks they are. Horror can all too often be an example of cinematic prostitution. That clever, knowing ending, and the smarts that precede it prove that in the right hands, horror can also be a class act.