Wednesday, October 8, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Black Sabbath

Boris Karloff returns home in the middle segment of horror anthology Black Sabbath.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 8: Black Sabbath (1963)

This is what fear looks like. Black Sabbath, originally titled The Three Faces of Fear, is a horror anthology from Italian cult filmmaker Mario Bava. It is comprised of three tales of terror, each focusing on people who have allowed fear to consume them. As fear becomes the primary motivation, logic and reason go out the window – and with them, the hope for salvation.

With that emotional core as the only connecting thread, Bava tells the stories of a modern woman being terrorized by her telephone as she lounges alone in her apartment; a man in the early 1800s who arrives at a family’s home after one tragedy but whose very presence portends an even greater tragedy; and a pre-World War I nurse whose nagging conscience manifests itself in an all-too-real way.

Though it lacks the overt religious implications of his previous and intentionally similar-sounding Black Sunday, overtones of moral turpitude and divine punishment ring throughout each segment. This is most evident in the middle portion, in which the head of the household, played by an unmistakable and irreplaceable Boris Karloff, may or may not have been turned into a vampire. Religion has always had its place in horror films, often in a direct battle between good and evil, and Bava employs this to add gravity and weight to the proceedings.

Anthologies have been around since the beginning of storytelling – think “One Thousand and One Nights” or “The Canterbury Tales” – but are particularly well suited to horror. With each segment in Black Sabbath the length of a short film, the tension ramps up to an almost intolerable degree right from the start, and Bava sustains it the whole way, providing catharsis only in the mayhem that results when the tension finally breaks.

With recent horror films like the V/H/S series and The ABC’s of Death, anthology movies have been thrust back into the spotlight. Efforts like these find their DNA in the George Romero-produced Creepshow and in EC Comics such as “Tales from the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror.” They have a reputation for being hit or miss, mostly as a result of the creative teams behind each story working on different wavelengths. While the conceit may tie things together, there is rarely a thematic underpinning to the effort.

This is not the case with Black Sabbath, for which Bava directed each of the three segments, and while the stories traverse time and space, they resonate in their shared preoccupations with guilt and punishment. There is nothing but this to connect these gruesome tales, but Bava ensures they feel of a piece, and the whole enterprise benefits from the guiding hand of a horror maestro.

Tomorrow, we pick our side in the fight between good and evil.

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