By Cleaver Patterson.
There was a time before the advent of CGI, when horror movies had to rely on subtlety to induce fear in the viewer. Indeed older films from the horror genre still work today because they used elements, such as fear of the unknown or being alone, which viewers will always be able to relate to. Two films by Mario Bava – the director credited with starting the golden age of Italian horror during the early 1960s – Black Sabbath (1963) and Baron Blood (1972) – epitomise what this master of the macabre did best, inducing a feeling of tension and seeping unease within the viewer.
Black Sabbath, Bava’s follow-up to his cult chiller Black Sunday (1960), consists of a trio of supernatural stories. Introduced with a comic air by the king of horror, Boris Karloff, the stories themselves are anything but humorous. The Drop of Water tells the tale of a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) who, after stealing a ring from the body of a dead countess whom she has been preparing for burial, is haunted by the ghost of the said noblewoman with grisly results. In The Telephone a woman called Rosy (Michèle Mercier) is terrorised by nuisance phone-calls from her former lover Frank (Milo Quesada) whom she believes to be dead. Are the calls a figment of her imagination as her friend Mary (Lidia Alfonsi) claims, or are there more sinister forces at work? The trio of tales are rounded off with The Wurdalak, a 19th century story of vampires and ghouls starring Karloff himself, as the patriarch of a family determined to keep his offspring together forever.
In contrast Baron Blood took the form of a single story, revisiting the theme of a witch’s vengeance from beyond the grave, which Bava had successfully used in Black Sunday. This time the said sorceress places a curse on Baron Otto von Kleist (Joseph Cotten), one of Austria’s most notorious noblemen, known as Baron Blood. Centuries later the Baron is accidentally resurrected, when an incantation is recited aloud as a joke by one of his descendants Peter (Antonio Cantafora) and his girlfriend Eva (Elke Sommer), resulting in typically macabre fates for anyone unfortunate enough to cross the Baron’s path.
Watching these films today, over forty years after their first release, it’s not hard to see why Bava was, and still is, considered amongst the most influential and cutting edge auteur’s of horror cinema. That he was able to attract such Hollywood legends as Karloff and Cotten, as well as box-office stars like Sommer, to work for him only went to prove the power he had and the esteem in which he was held within the film community. Both films are very much of their time – Black Sabbath particularly has a strong resemblance to a Hammer film, reliant as it is on atmosphere as much as any blatant viscerals. It also has an air of one of Roger Corman’s shockers for AIP (American International Pictures), the company that distributed Black Sabbath in America. Equally suspenseful Baron Blood, which unusually for a Bava film was shot on location in Austria, does succumb to gore, though even here it is inferred more than actually shown. The Baron’s dungeon set within the bowels of his remote castle, is a wonderfully visualised collection of torture implements which wouldn’t appear out of place in an Edgar Allan Poe novel, providing a particularly gruesome demise for the castle’s caretaker in a creaky iron maiden.
Bava’s influence as a filmmaker was felt most strongly however in a sub-genre of horror cinema which, though not peculiar to Italy, was to become closely linked to films made in that country. Giallo films, mystery thrillers with a heavy emphasis on stylised and frequently over-the-top, set-piece murders, focusing on victims in particularly vulnerable situations, had their origins during the early 1960s with films like Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). During the early 1970s director Dario Argento took Giallo to new heights (or depths, depending on your point-of-view) in a series of films that largely left little to the imagination. Bava on-the-other-hand, (either intentionally or simply due to the restraints of the period in which he was working) had a subtler approach, though he used it to no less startling effect. The Telephone segment of Black Sabbath, as well as the scene in Baron Blood where a local doctor is despatched by the resurrected Baron, are wonderful examples of how to ratchet up the tension before culminating with a frequently shocking denouement.
Though Baron Blood may appear brasher than many of Bava’s earlier films, it, along with Black Sabbath, is still superior to much produced today in the name of horror cinema. As such they are perfect examples of Bava’s best and most psychologically haunting works.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.