Midnight Screaming: Mario Bava: Black Sabbath

black-sabbath-1963-movie-7After a long way away, I’ll start posting pretty furiously for a while again. First up is a trio of Mario Bava films to celebrate the return of Midnight Screenings!

Mario Bava’s 1963 omnibus film – the fitting inspiration for the band of the same name – isn’t among Bava’s many lesser-masterpieces of cinema. But it does showcase – with tripartite allure – how pliable his aesthetic predilections really were. A murderer’s row of guiding hands from Roberto Rossellini to Jacques Tourneur to Raoul Walsh all helped Bava in his younger days as a cinematographer – or, more accurately, he helped them – and his turn to directing later in life (already in his ‘40s when he completed his first film) cast further light on how preternaturally he knew how to enlighten the screen with a purity of visual/aural technique that even many more thematically literate directors had no clue for. He famously considered himself a hack of sorts, but his films reveal both a strikingly lucid command of the screen and a particularly lurid and consistent moral worldview that suggest he was much more than a mere mercenary for hire.

Even a “stripped-to-the-bones” tale without any added personality or outre fixations, like the first sequence of Black Sabbath, “The Telephone”, bears an effusive use of color that reminds us that it was no surprise Bava had originally considered painting. That is, until he found in cinema a way to collide the temporal freedom afforded by filmed time with the half-crazed abstraction that drew his heart away from the strict representational realm of conventional cinema. “The Telephone”, while slight, would certainly pass muster as a superior – and especially nefarious – episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with a Continental twist of course. A single-set story of a woman tormented by phone calls, inviting her former friend (and, implicitly, lesbian lover) over to protect her, it is the least-Bava like of the three features, without even a distant rumor of the supernatural. But it already seeds Bava’s fascination with turning previously coherent individual minds and bodies into unhinged tangles of nerves and limbs.

A promise that is fulfilled in the middle and longest tale, a family tale with the automatic nature of the paternal instinct suddenly on Bava’s chopping block. He treats the ties that bind us not as rope fashioning a stable domestic collective but as treacherous garrote wire ready to strangle us at any moment. The only tale on-the-box star Boris Karloff appears in (he also provides cheeky wraparound narration), Ubaldo Terzano’s lurid swirl of color really comes alive in this morbid fairy tale. A 19th century patriarch (Karloff) returns from a trip to slaughter a person infected with vampirism, with the father now obviously fallen under ill health himself. Although Bava does not formally announce the man is infected too, we are meant to intuit it. One might say the characters are meant to intuit it to, such that their actions against their better interest – their commitment to their family – finds familial instinct getting the better of the characters’ capacity for reflection and perception. Perception, I might add, that is impossible to deny with Terzano’s ravishing, psychosomatically-tinged mélange of macabre colors, each green a cut in the soul and every blotch of red a depth charge into the innocence of the family institution. The hearth rouses into a snakepit before thickening into a self-cleaning oven.

But, even still, the two previous shorts are mere appetizers for the finale, the tightest and purest hunk of Bava he ever directed. Obviously a kindred spirit of “The Telltale Heart”,  “A Drop of Water” distills Bava’s effusively exuberant style down to one apartment, one stolen ring, and one woman haunted by her immoral actions . The short pares down the grand arch of a Bava film into its molten core of billowing paranoia, reaper-fearing woe, and morals in shades of grey, assured to turn blood-red before the end. A snap-shot of a corroding psychology, this short derives every ounce of its animal charge out of the staggered drip of a faucet, the flaring chill of the blue palette, and the dexterity of Bava’s clever framing.  “A Drop in the Water” is pure cinema, a pencil drawing of Bava’s usual nightmare-Rococo. Bava externalizes the tension between moral surfaces and the hidden depths of human moral turpitude in the architecture of his filmic spaces. The visually oneiric qualities, the blaring images extended beyond reality, read not only as a disturbance of the facade of human gentility and gregariousness but as revelations of the moral bedlam in the character’s inner-lives.

The creaking, barely-together quality of Bava’s longer narratives was never exactly expert storytelling. But with just a small push of particularly expressionistic or proto-psychedelic imagery, shorts like “A Drop of Water” reveal how Bava’s disregard for narrative logic can tumble into a kind of free-form emancipation from narrative structure rooted not in story but a delirious interplay of color and flow, like the whole film is trapped in a nightmarish trance. This third short best suggests what Bava could fashion without the mitigating circumstance of narrative, how the enamel of visual shape and temperature could burrow right down to the marrow of human paranoia, greed, and terror.

None of these shorts are Bava’s most adventurous or the ones primed to test the boundaries of conventional representation, but their eclecticism invokes the adaptability of Bava’s surface-first aesthetic. They all snap-shot into his proclivities for the sensational, his predilections for the coolly sinister, and his preoccupation, his realm of comfort, where the vein of color and form meets the artery of feeling and sentiment, with longing and craving being his two perennial emotions to return to. But despite his adaptability as a filmmaker, his genre promiscuity – he dabbled in Westerns, sci-fi, crime, pulp adaptation – was united around a sense of fatalistic inevitability, a blood-curdling sense that fate is around the corner and that paranoia is never an end in itself, always a harbinger of more corporeal causes for concern. Because of this inevitability, suspense in his films isn’t a function of narrative tricks – “what will happen?” – so much as the choking realization that what we know will happen is the only viable solution for a trio of tales on an essentially predestined path for the grave. Death is the only option.

Giallo is always read as a series of unhinged Hitchcock regurgitations, but this emotional fatalism also reveals an odd kinship with American melodramatic maestros like Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minelli and, especially, Douglas Sirk (and Josef Von Sternberg before them). This makes Black Sabbath very much united in the Italian genre cinema project of recapitulating classical Hollywood forms, driving the latent urges and closet fixations of classic cinema to the topsoil for all to see while still somehow massaging the sensual and subliminal allure those American films achieved through insinuation and intimation rather than declamation. Black Sabbath is imperfect, but it is a three-course reminder that no director ever calculated a mood quite like Bava.

Score: 8/10



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