Column: The Vault of Secrets: Black Sabbath (1963)

 By Orrin Grey

Black Sabbath (1963). Director: Mario Bava. Cast: Boris Karloff, Michele Mercier, Lidia Alfonsie.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where, every other week, we’ll be unearthing a classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight, we’re tackling our second Mario Bava feature, Black Sabbath. We don’t have Barbara Steele this time, but we do have Boris Karloff, who looks like he’s having quite a good time. There are several versions available. I watched it via Netflix’s Watch Instantly, but it’s also available alongside Black Sunday in the Mario Bava Collection.

Black Sabbath, from which Ozzy Osbourne’s band took its name, is called “The Three Faces of Fear” in its native Italian. When it was released in America, American International Pictures decided to call it Black Sabbath to capitalise on the success of Bava’s earlier film, Black Sunday. The Italian title is probably a more accurate reflection of the film, which takes the form of an anthology of three unrelated horror stories, connected together only by sort of host segments done by Boris Karloff, reminiscent of the ones he’d already performed for the TV show, Thriller, in previous years.

There are various other reported differences between the different versions, including the order of the segments, though the version I watched, while definitely the American version, didn’t show the segments in the order that I’m told the American version generally shows them in. I can vouch that the reported changes to the segment, “The Telephone”, were all present, more’s the pity. I’ll talk a bit more about them when I get to that segment.

The version I watched opened with the segment, “The Drop of Water”, which was my first real exposure to the famously interesting lighting and colour choices used by Bava. It’s definitely a good introduction and a very creepy setting, with an especially ghastly central figure in the form of the deceased medium whose death drives the story’s plot. It’s probably the creepiest of the three segments. I’m told it’s shown last in some versions.

The second segment was “The Telephone”. I have read since that the American version is re-edited to remove a lesbian subplot, which actually drastically changes the nature of the events and turns what was otherwise a noirish revenge story into a ghostly tale with an ending that doesn’t really make sense. I think the Italian version would have been a lot better in this case and, if you see the American version like I did, I highly recommend seeking out a description of the differences afterward, so you can see how it should have been.

The final segment is the one people talk about most when they talk about Black Sabbath, and is the only one in which Boris Karloff actually plays a part. It’s a tale of vampirism called “The Wurdalak”. Pretty typical in storyline, it makes excellent use of the countryside and of various, fog-enshrouded sets, as well as some more of Bava’s lighting and colour, and has a pretty good ending.

That’s it for tonight’s installment of the Vault of Secrets. This’ll be our last installment of the year, but don’t forget to join us first thing next year, when we’ll be watching a couple of classic non-Wolf Man werewolf films.