Back when Black Sabbath, arguably one of the most influential bands in metal history, was starting out, they weren’t called Black Sabbath. Instead, the legendary metal gods went by the soft, rather hippy-sounding name Mother. After failing to have anyone show up to their gigs, they looked across the street to the local cinema where people were lining up around the block to see a horror film called Black Sabbath. From that point, they re-branded themselves after the film, coming to the conclusion that people love the thrill of being scared.
Black Sabbath deserves to be seen purely based on that merit alone. Released in 1963, Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath follows three separate stories, each one full of Italian horror beauty. Each one is introduced by the legendary Boris Karloff, playing the role of host with the perfect level of macabre. Though it was made over fifty years ago, I found Black Sabbath, a film that influenced not only one of the forefathers of heavy metal but Quentin Tarantino’s crafting of Pulp Fiction as well,to be an incredible horror masterpiece that should be seen every year along with Halloween and The Exorcist.
What I found to be the biggest standout achievement is Sabbath‘s lush cinematography. There are several shots in the film which, honestly, could be held up framed above your fireplace. Watching this after watching Black Sunday, Bava’s directorial debut, it’s abundantly clear that between those three years, he stepped up his game three, four, even five-fold. What I find most effective are the dramatic zoom-ins, used to throw the viewer head-first into the scare.
Honestly, what makes Black Sabbath an interesting film is the fact that there are two vastly different versions of the film: the original Italian version and the American version. Re-edited for American audiences, the American version features many alterations for it to be marketable, most notably being the order of the stories and the film’s score.
The Italian version features “The Telephone,” “The Wurdalak,” and “The Drop of Water,” whereas the American version goes: “The Drop of Water,” “The Telephone,” and finally “The Wurdalak.” I think the Italian’s version flows better than the American version; it starts off at the weaker of the three, “The Telephone,” and gets better as the film goes on. Whereas the American version features “Telephone” in the middle, creating a lull of sorts in the film’s flow.
Out of the two scores, I think the Italian version takes the cake. Lex Baxter’s American score is by no means awful—he scored several horror classics such as The Raven and The House of Usher, both directed by the legendary Roger Corman. However, Roberto Nicolosi’s original Italian score is so much better. Baxter’s score has a tiny level of cheese to it—perfect for a B-horror movie—but Nicolosi’s score takes the film more seriously, as if saying that Black Sabbath deserves to be thought of as just another B-rate horror flick.
For the sake of keeping a simple structure, I’m going to cover the individual stories in the chronology of the Italian version.
First up is “The Telephone.” It follows a woman, played by Michèle Mercier, who is called and stalked by a mysterious assailant. Out of the three stories, “Telephone” received the heaviest amount of editing upon its American release. Any mention of the main character being a prostitute and a lesbian relationship between her and her friend received the ax in the American version. But it’s not those seemingly important details that really mess up the American version for me: it’s the fact that American International Pictures, who ordered the Americanized edits, decided to inflict the short with a supernatural element, whereas the original didn’t have anything supernatural going on whatsoever. Watching the Italian version, what I loved about “Telephone” was that it didn’t have any supernatural elements at all; it was just a really creepy story about a stalker. The American version just shoe-horned in the supernatural really haphazardly.
Second up is “The Wurdalak,” a tale about a man, played by Karloff, who returns home from hunting down the Wurdalak—a vampire who feasts upon the blood of loved ones—looking rather sickly and hungry for blood. This short features some intense levels of atmosphere, benefiting from gloomy set design and Karloff’s impeccable performance. Although by no means an awful story—or even the worst one—I do think the Italian version lacks compared to the American version, purely due to Karloff’s melancholic, iconic voice being absent. The Italian dubbing simply doesn’t add up; if anything it detracts from the quality. I recommend you watch the English version of “Wurdalak” instead of the Italian version.
Finally, we get “The Drop of Water.” It follows a nurse, played by Jacqueline Pierreux, who steals a ring off the finger of a recently deceased witch. Throughout, the nurse is plagued with the recurring dropping of water. The more I think about it, the more I think this story is the best, mostly due to the horrifying mask-work done by Bava’s father. No amount of CGI can match the level of terror that comes from a quick zoom-in on that horrid, disturbing face. I honestly can’t think of a scarier image in the movie than of the witch slowly creeping towards the nurse, arms outstretched and evil along her face.
It’s so obvious to see why this film has had such a strong cultural impact. The intense, atmospheric scares still hold up today. I strongly recommend you include this film in your Halloween viewing. You can stream the English version on Tubi or the Italian version on Kanopy, both for free.