Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 23, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1963)

5. Black Sabbath (with Salvatore Billitteri)
Right from the opening minutes, Bava lets us know he isn’t messing around. As “Black Sabbath” opens, we are immediately presented with a mixture of brilliant, psychedelic colors. As Boris Karloff introduces us to the world of horror we’re about to enter, red bathes his face and purple, yellow, and blue dances around him. This use of color continues throughout the film as each of the three tales has a specific hue directly tied to it.

The opening tale, “The Telephone,” is characterized by the bright red title device. (The same red phone that would later appear in “Blood and Black Lace.”) It’s the weakest of the three but is still a lot of fun. The story has a voyeuristic edge to it and is packed with eroticism, mostly due to Michele Mercier. Maybe it’s just because she’s partially nude the whole time or perhaps her panicked state brings out a certain vulnerable. Either way, it’s a very sensual performance. Lidia Alfonsi is also great as her bitchy best friend with suspicious motives. The piece has a lot of fun playing with audience expectations. We’re never exactly sure of where it’s going until the end.

The second tale, “The Wurdulac” has light blue night skies. It’s a very dark story, as cold and harsh as the winter weather it takes place in. A decapitated head, the dead child, and downbeat ending are unusual for the time. There is a sense of dread as the undead consumes everyone. Boris Karloff’s lead is perhaps his most sinister role and completely devoid of the hints of whimsy that usually characterizes him. There are several chilling moments: A mother desperate to respond to her child’s cries of help, even if he is a vampire now. When the only living member of the family is surrounded and closed in on by her now predatory relatives. Or when a barking dog is forcefully silenced off-screen. It’s really an excellent, startling tale of foreboding horror.

The last segment, “A Drop of Water,” lacks the edge of the other two but also happens to be the scariest. Odd colors floating inside a room from the thunder storm outside, most noticeable purple, highlights this one. What’s really fun about this story is, for the majority of its runtime, most of the odd events can be explained by its lead character’s guilty conscious. It’s not until the end when things get really weird. The corpse at the center of the story is a little fake looking, especially towards the end, but is also sort of eerie, mostly due to its permanently staring eyes and fixed grimace. It exploits common spooky things: Flies, thunder storms, cats meowing, and dripping water, building to full-on nightmare imagery by the end. The movie then closes with an irrelevant outro from Mr. Karloff.

The American version is quite different. The order of the stories is rearranged. (“A Drop of Water,” then “The Telephone,” and then “The Wurdulac.”) Karloff introduces each tale. A bland new score is added. “The Telephone” is drained of all of its eroticism and turned, bizarrely, into a ghost story. “The Wurdulac” has some of its harsher elements lessened but is still powerful, especially with Karloff’s voice now present. The cheeky original coda is discarded for something less interesting. Even in a reedited form, “Black Sabbath” shines. Bava created another horror classic, something both startlingly progressive and visually beautiful.
[Grade: A]

6. The Whip and the Body
The opening shot of “The Whip and the Body” is of a horse running along a beach, a castle in the distance silhouetted against a purple setting sun. The use of colors and a castle by the sea reminded me of Roger Cormon’s adaptation of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The comparison to Poe is apt. A story of twisted sexuality, madness, obsession, ghosts, and sprawling castle manors, the tale is one that wouldn’t be out of place in a collection of the master’s stories.

“The Whip and the Body” is Bava at his prime, a supremely atmospheric master work of Gothic horror. Il Maestro’s use of color has never been moodier then it is in this film. Green dominates the palette. Characters walk the halls of the haunted castle, foggy, moody greens cast on the stone wall, impenetrable shadows dominating the rest of the frame. A ghastly green hand lunges towards the camera in a shot calling out for a 3D transition. At one point, Christopher Lee leans into the shot, his face illuminated by a deep red. Tony Mendell, playing the designated hero Christian, walks the hallways in one scene, approaching a crypt. Shades of amber pass over him, lending a deeply paranoid, creepy tone to the moment, as the audience expects something to jump out of the shadows at any minute. At another point, we cut from a full moon in the sky, to a woman’s curls in a bed, and then pan over to her eyes, singled out by blue lighting among the bedroom’s darkness.

The dreaded zoom does make an appearance but is highly effective in one moment. A character enters a room full of furniture covered by white sheets and, as her eyes scan the room for a glimpse of something strange, the camera reels in and out on the objects.

Besides Bava’s phenomenal direction and the rich atmosphere, what also elevates this to classic status is Christopher Lee’s performance. Despite, once again, having his naturally sinister baritone dubbed over, Lee still gives a great performance, as a charismatically cruel man. Despite his vicious actions, it’s quite obvious why he could inspire such uncontrollably passionate desire, even from beyond the grave. He’s undeniably powerful. Playing the object of Lee’s twisted lust is Daliah Lavi. Another glamorous and gorgeous woman that Bava has cast his camera on, Lavi is wholly believable as a woman torn apart by her own desire. As the film progresses, she becomes more and more manic. The film’s cast is rounded out by Alan Collins, the Italian Peter Lorre, as a put-upon manservant and Harriet Medin as a tortured mother. Tony Kendell is the designated hero of the piece but Bava’s interest clearly lies in Lavi and Lee. Likewise, Kendell’s character is generally uninteresting and his romance with Ida Galli never really goes anywhere.

One of the most revolutionary things about the film is its frank treatment of sadomasochism. I mean, its right there in the title. Lee brutally whips Lavi twice throughout the film and, both times, the film doesn’t shy away from portraying her obvious enjoyment of the act. The central theme of the film, if I’m reading this correctly, is about Lavi coming to accept this part of her personality. Only after she rejects her self-imposed mental oppression and embraces the fact that she both fears and loves Lee’s sadistic prince, can the story resolve itself.

The moody score combines the movie’s horrific and romantic side excellently. The movie does an odd thing at the end of the second act. It uses a title break to announce the “end of part one.” All minor problems aside, “The Whip and the Body” is over far too soon. It’s a spooky piece of daringly erotic horror atmosphere, a showcase for the director’s mastery of mood. (And continuing the tradition of Bava's films getting bizarre, unrelated alternate titles in America, this film was originally released over here as "What." What the hell, is more like it.) [Grade: A-]

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