Part of me and my girlfriend’s 30-movie Halloween marathon. This is a review of the English-language version of Black Sabbath, which, at the time of this writing, is available on YouTube for free, with ads.
When it comes to classic horror anthologies, Black Sabbath stands out as one of the founding fathers of the genre. Anchored by a towering and ominous Boris Karloff as the “host,” Mario Bava’s trio of scary stories has been hailed as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. One weak leg in this tripod makes me pump the brakes at that statement, but one cannot deny the craftsmanship and delicate touch that makes each of these short films memorable in their own way.
Before I proceed to review each short, it’s important to concretize this: I watched the English-language version of Black Sabbath, which runs 95 minutes in length (contrary to the Italian version’s 93 minutes), changes some of the stories, and even shuffles the order in which they’re shown. I realize upon further research watching this version might’ve been a mistake. That said, the reviews of the shorts will be conducted in the order in which they play in the original Bava version, starting with “The Wurdulak” and concluding with “A Drop of Water.”
“The Wurdulak” is set in 19th Century Serbia, where a young nobleman named D’Urfe (Mark Damon) discovers a decapitated corpse with a dagger plunged into its heart. He takes the blade to a small farmhouse, where he’s approached by Girogio (Glauco Onorato), who tells him the dagger belongs to his missing father. D’Urfe welcomes Giorgio into his home, where he lives with his wife, young son, Giorgio’s brother, and his sister, Sdenka (Susy Anderson). The entire crew is awaiting the arrival of Gorca (Karloff), the father of Giorgio and Sdekna, but when he finally does appear, after midnight, he looks haunted and disheveled.
“The Wurdulak” is the longest of the three short films in Black Sabbath at over 40 minutes, and feels every bit its length. It’s also the driest in presentation. Its misty, Gothic visuals seem to have inspired The Evil Dead two decades later, so seeing Bava capturing this visually grim countryside does indeed prompt some interest. However, it doesn’t spare the film from its mostly wooden acting and plodding narrative. The pacing in “The Wurdulak” is significantly less graceful than what’s executed in the shorts that follow (or precede, depending on the version you watch).
One note: at one point, Gorca gestures towards Maria (Rika Dialina), D’Urfe’s wife, who is holding his grandson, motioning to her that suggests he wants to hold him. When she gives him a frightened look, Karloff blurts his line: “Can I not fondle my own grandson?” The meanings of certain words sure do change over the course of 50+ years and multiple generations, and what once provoked fright now prompts an uncomfortable chuckle.
Starring: Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, Susy Andersen, Massimo Righi, Rika Dialina, and Glauco Onorato. Directed by: Mario Brava.
“The Telephone” centers around Rosy (Michèle Mercier), a French hooker, who returns home to her apartment late one evening to receive a series of harassing phone calls. The caller soon reveals himself to be a man named Frank, who was Rosy’s former pimp, recently escaped from prison. It was Rosy’s testimony that put Frank behind bars. Now, her only solace is her estranged friend, Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), whom she phones in hopes she’ll come to her apartment in effort to protect her from her former handler.
Bava and Ubaldo Terzano’s cinematography truly pops in “The Telephone.” Rosy’s apartment is posh and bougie, and the Italian aesthetic is on full display in showing it with gauzy whites, padded interiors, deep reds, and those sharp synths triggered by Roberto Nicolosi’s active score. This is an exercise in delicately crafted, meticulous slowburn tension that encourages you to listen closely both to the phone conversations and the dreadful silences that follow.
Starring: Michèle Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, and Milo Quesada. Directed by: Mario Bava.
The best comes last (or first in the American version) with “A Drop of Water,” the short for which Black Sabbath is best known.
It’s London in the 1910s, and a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) is phoned by a maid (Milly Monti) in order to tend to an elderly woman’s (Harriet Medin credited as “the Concierge”) corpse. She is actively rotting, with a facial expression and physical appearance that won’t soon leave your nightmares the moment you see her. As the nurse dresses her for burial, she confiscates a sapphire ring on her finger, inadvertently knocking over a glass of water in the process. Not minutes after, she’s disturbed by an ominously large fly. And then other strange events, from lights in the apartment turning off and on to the corpse eventually rising in effort to take back what’s hers.
“The Drop of Water” makes Black Sabbath worth the price of admission. The large, intensely decorated apartment towers over the characters in a way that makes the short feel dreamlike. Furthermore, despite the limited dialog, there is constant intrigue as Pierreux’s nurse becomes more aware and deliberate in her movements as things intensify. Towards the end of this roughly 25-minute short, an uneasy strobe effect featuring red and green lights begins to flicker throughout the apartment. By that point, you’re fully locked because Bava grips you with tension and ambiance.
Starring: Jacqueline Pierreux, Milly Monti, Harriet Medin, Guestavo De Nardo, and Alessandro Tedeschi. Directed by: Mario Bava.
NOTE: As of this writing, the Italian version of Black Sabbath is streaming on Tubi, free of charge, while the English-language version of the film is on YouTube, also free of charge.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!