Black Sabbath

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“I’m…hungry.”

When you or I mutter those words, it might foreshadow an assault on the refrigerator or a quick trip to a favorite gastropub.

But when Boris Karloff utters those words, with his trademark eye twinkle and lip curl, you’d better get yourself and your loved ones inside and lock all the doors and windows.

Such is the lesson of Black Sabbath.

The anthology format has long been a staple of the horror film: bite-size stories strung together either by common source author (1962’s Tales of Terror or 1963’s Twice Told Tales), common creative hook (1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie or 2012’s V/H/S), some sort of common thread that binds the stories together (1988’s Waxworks or 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat), or some other hook.

1963’s Black Sabbath is neither the first nor the best of that tradition, but in uniting Italian master Mario Bava with horror icon Karloff, the film carves out its own delightful niche in horror history.

In addition to starring in one of the three tales of the film, Karloff “hosts” Black Sabbath in a series of cheesy (some might say unfortunate) introductions that offer a few chuckles but function exclusively to get us from one story to the next.

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The first story, called “The Drop of Water”, is set in London and follows the misadventures of an outcall nurse who gets summoned in the middle of the night to prepare the corpse of a witch who died in her mansion home overnight. When the nurse makes the fatal decision to steal the witch’s ring off her hand while she dresses the body, it sets in motion a nightmarish evening of otherworldly revenge. “The Drop of Water” is classic Bava, with gothic atmosphere; sudden, startling images; and a slow march toward inevitable revenge. The first glimpse we see of the dead witch in her bed—crazy eyes wide open, lips curled back in a menacing smile—does send chills up and down the spine, and “The Drop of Water” ends up to be a largely satisfying first chapter of the film.

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“The Telephone”, the second of the three tales, involves a French call-girl who returns home from “work” one evening and begins to receive a series of threatening telephone calls that escalate in their intensity over the course of the night. The sexuality of “The Telephone” is pervasive, not only in the long, lingering shots of lead Michele Mercier’s perfect body and her suggestively sensual interactions with the woman she calls for help, but also in the violently sexual overtones of the threats she suffers. In “The Telephone”, suspense and teasing are two side of the same coin, as are fear and titillation, desire and hatred, and sex and violence. And it is all practically incomprehensible. The original Italian version of the film planted this story firmly in the real world; but in adapting this sequence for American release, changes were made to add supernatural elements to the story. Those changes completely muddle the tale and ultimately undermine the segment, making it by far the weakest of the three.

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The coup de grace, however, is the third segment, “The Wurdalak”, featuring Karloff as Gorca, an elderly Russian vampire-like creature who must feast on the blood of those he loves in order to survive. Bold and atmospheric, “The Wurdalak” feels like the perfect mesh of classic Italian horror and the sensibilities of American International Pictures (AIP), the famous low-budget American studio that distributed Black Sabbath in the United States. A feast of classic horror tropes, “The Wurdalak” offers up vampires stalking the rubble of ruined castles, a baleful child demon, savagery and seduction, and Karloff. Oh Karloff! The horror icon rumbles through “The Wurdalak” like a force of nature, menacing and tragic at the same time, playful but intense, a vintage performance from a master of horror.

Ultimately, Black Sabbath is a bit too uneven to qualify as a total triumph, but the first and last segments offer enough simple pleasures and jolts and scares to satisfy any classic horror lover’s appetite.

Like Karloff’s Gorca, you may start the proceedings with a gnawing hunger that you can’t quite understand, but by the end of Black Sabbath you will have found yourself well-fed and gratified.

It’s Hard to Hang with The Gallows

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In 1996, the movie Scream famously articulated the “rules” you needed to follow in order to survive a horror movie of that era. Nearly 20 years later, I would humbly revise those rules with some suggestions as to how today’s teens might avoid finding themselves trapped in a horror movie altogether.

  1. First and foremost, if your high school drama club stages a play and the lead actor dies on-stage under highly mysterious circumstances, do NOT star in a revival of the play, on the same stage, twenty years later.
  1. If by chance you violate rule # 1 and do star in the revival of the play, do NOT sneak into your school late at night the day before the play is to open—twenty years to the day after the tragic accident—and do mischievous things on the stage.
  1. And finally, and I can’t stress this enough, but if you do ignore rules # 1 and # 2, do NOT—and this is very, very important—do NOT make sure you have multiple video cameras running at all times in order to provide a seamless, minute-by-minute account of all the horrible things that follow.

Ironic, actually, that rule # 3 should include the word “horrible”, because as it turns out, each and every one of my three rules are broken in the horrible new found-footage horror flick called The Gallows.

Found-footage horror films have existed for years, long before they were made famous by The Blair Witch Project, the success of which was less about pioneering a new subgenre and more about its ingenious marketing effort. Since The Blair Witch Project, however, the found-footage approach has too often been not a creative choice, but rather an excuse for poor production values, bad acting, and lack of vision.

To be sure, there have been some top-notch found-footage films in recent years. Barry Levinson’s The Bay was interesting if not all that scary. Norway’s Trollhunter was creative, thrilling, and fun. And the anthology V/H/S hit hard and fast and was legitimately terrifying.

But for every V/H/S, there have been a dozen films like the promising but dreadful The Houses that October Built, The Amityville Haunting, and The Frankenstein Theory. (Bluntly, if The Frankenstein Theory had actually been an honest-to-goodness documentary, and at the end of the documentary you would actually see actual, verifiable footage of a REAL-LIFE, man-made monster walking the earth…this movie would still be all but impossible to sit through.)

Actually, make that a baker’s dozen and add The Gallows to the ledger on the dreadful side.

At the start of The Gallows, we see home video footage of a school production of a play called “The Gallows” (that’s the name of the movie!), shot from the back of a typical high school auditorium. In hushed whispers, a mom and dad talk over the action and roadmap out the proceedings for us: complimenting the fine construction work on the set’s gallows and obliquely referring to some mysterious “last minute change” that can only foreshadow disaster. (If you put these two on an airport runaway with a couple of flashlights, their pinpoint guidance would keep all the planes running on time, no doubt.) Of course, disaster does strike, and after little Charlie slips the gallows’ noose around his neck, something goes wrong and little Charlie dies. Turns out the construction work on the gallows was not quite as good as they thought…or maybe just a bit too good?

Fast-forward 20 years, and a new crop of theater students is in the final day of rehearsals for a revival of “The Gallows”. Due to a remarkable collision of convenient antics, longings, and lazy plot devices, four of them wind up locked in the school at the witching hour, and before long, the sinister, ghostly Hangman starts to stalk them.

hangman

The Gallows manages to conjure up one or two brief—very brief—unsettling images. And it manages to construct a few—very few—jolts and moments of suspense. But for a movie that clocks in at an economical 81 minutes, it is somewhat shocking how much time drags on at the beginning of this movie before anything interesting (and that’s a relative term here) happens. Despite featuring twice the number of writers and directors here as usual—Travis Cuff and Chris Lofing share both duties—The Gallows delivers less than half the scares. And that’s being generous.

In the end, the victims of the Hangman turned out to be the lucky ones: they didn’t have to stick around all the way to the end of The Gallows.