The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bava: Black Sunday and Black Sabbath

Noticed a dynamite new service on my pay-per-view last's the Indies and Foreign channel, and it's got all kinds of goodies, ranging from Coen Brothers to Spaghetti Westerns to nasty horror flicks which are still in theaters. They've also got some great older horror stuff as well, such as Lair of The White Worm, and Mario Bava's second-best frightfest, Black Sabbath.

In case you've never heard of Bava, he's a very heavy hitter among filmic scaremeisters. It's very unusual when horror movies are actually scary, and he helmed two of the scariest. He was also a cinematographer before he graduated to director, and his visuals stand and head and shoulders above the competition. Black Sunday is maybe the best-looking horror movie ever made; you have to go back to Bride of Frankenstein before you can find anything remotely as good. And even though color is much harder to handle, and color movies only really started to look good relatively recently, Black Sabbath is a pretty tremendous stab at making a proper looking color horror movie.

But Bava was a pioneer in a lot of ways...for one thing, even though Hammer, starting in the middle 1950's had been making relatively feeble attempts to put genuinely gruesome gore on film, Bava leaped lightyears ahead. Black Sunday came out in 1960, but it would still be rated R today, just for the first scene, where Barbara Steele is put to death with a spike-lined iron mask which is hammered onto her face with a huge mallet. Completely and utterly cringeworthy.

And as I said, the guy actually knows how to scare you. Scares were few and far between in earlier horror films...the first sequence in The Mummy, maybe, and Charles Laughton's demise in Island of Lost Souls...Val Lewton purveyed some good scares in Cat People and The Body Snatcher...The Uninvited had its moments, and Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon had some bite...Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein, oddly enough, managed to be much scarier than most of the ostensibly serious Universal flicks.

But there's just this real murderous fucked-up quality to Bava...the imagery is very unsettling, and he knows how to build a scene, and build it and build it, then milk it for all that's it's worth. There's this longish sequence, after some pretty hair-raising preliminaries (little black scorpions boiling up out of Barbara Steele's emtpied eyesockets, to name one), where Barbara's newly-resurrected servant/lover Javutich pries a Mask of Satan off his own face, then tricks a poor innocent physician into following him into the depths of the castle...Javutich gets way out ahead in the catacombs, and the sawbones shouts for him to stop, whereupon the distant swinging lamp halts. The doc runs up to the lamp, finds it hanging in mid-air.Then the door to the crypt opens, off to one side, and the only way out is past Barbara's stone coffin, which starts to shake and bounce on its slab, finally shattering (I kinda cribbed the opening sequence in The Dead from that). By this time Barbara's eyeballs have grown back, although her face is still all full of nasty spike-holes, and we get a pretty traumatizing shot of her looking up at the doctor...starting with the part where Javutich rises from the grave, the sequence is probably the scariest ten minutes ever committed to film up till that point.

The film gets less good after that, but it's still pretty strong...even the lousy dubbing and the performances of John Richardson as a young callow hero and Ms. Steele (she's scary all right, but she's not an actress) don't sink the thing. It's a pity that it's not all as good as its first two-thirds...but up until then, it's straight-up nightmare juice.

Wound up revisiting my DVD of it after watching Black Sabbath on that Pay-per-view channel...Sabbath was the follow-up to Sunday...Sunday was a big hit, very influential, and Bava responded with a three-part anthology film narrated by Boris Karloff, and featuring BK himself in Part Three. I don't think it's as good as Sunday, although there's a lot to admire, and the first and third segments really click. In the first part, an attractive blonde is called in to prepare the corpse of a witchy lady for burial; as water drips in the background, ever more unnervingly, the babe dithers about stealing a very valuable ring from the stiff's hand. The corpse, by the way, isn't some live person pretending to be dead, but an extremely creepy-looking prosthetic with really shiny eyes and grinning teeth. Anyway, our heroine buckles under temptation, steals the ring and books...later, at her apartment, with water dripping all over the place, she's scared out of her wits by progressively more awful bits of business, which culminate in a visit from the old lady, who really looks like she could frighten you to death.

The second episode is, surprisingly, kinda of unwatchable...a woman of dubious character gets phone calls from a guy she thought was dead. It's just no good at all, and doesn't really go anywhere. If I were you, I'd fast-forward, because...

Part three, The Wurdalak is pure gold. It's based on a story by Alexei Tolstoy, and it features Boris Karloff in the last of his really great horror performances. The segment unfolds in a nifty visual style that manages to retain most of the value-intensive qualities of the photography in Black Sunday while combining them with color; remarkable stuff.

Story has a poor uninteresting romantic lead stumbling into a very bad situation, becoming entangled with a blonde babe in an extremely doomed household where Karloff the patriarch sallied forth some time earlier to kill a bandit who everybody thinks has become a vampire...catch is there's a time limit, and if Karloff comes back too late, he'll become a vampire himself, a Wurdalak, a bloodsucker who specializes in going after loved ones. Well, Karloff returns with the bandit's head, but he's also got a lethal-looking wound in his chest, and arrives right as the grace period ends. After that, things get real uncomfortable in the old family home...Karloff is acting awfully odd, but no one quite has the heart to chop his head off. Big mistake. The noble young guest gets more entangled with the babe even as Boris goes after the family's youngest son...the scene where Boris is riding off with the kid is especially chilling. Afterwards, the kid comes wandering back...and dies. But even though he's deader than hell, his mom won't let the others do the needful...things just keep on deteriorating, and even though our hero tries to escape with the girl, the whole rest of the family comes after them...

Wurdalak is so strong that it actually makes you forget about the middle section, which is a genuine achievement...Sabbath and Sunday make a great double-feature. In between them, in 1962, Bava did a creepy muscle-man flick called Hercules in the Haunted World, which is uneven but well worth seeing---among other things, it was clearly an influence on Raiders of the Lost Ark! After Sabbath, he made Planet of the Vampires, which is also very watchable, if rather wacky. His movies started going downhill, however...I wouldn't give you too much for things like Baron Blood and House of Exorcism. But if you haven't seen Sunday and Sabbath, you really need to correct that deficiency.

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