There’s something about a horror anthology that has always sucked me in. I remember distinctly my fourth-grade teacher reading aloud Alvin Schwartz’s immortal compendium of terrifying tales, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It was a mean collection to read impressionable young minds, in retrospect — my favorite story was always “Harold”, a three-page yarn about a malevolent scarecrow that began as foreboding creep-out (scarecrows are eerie things to begin with, after all) and escalated quickly in its final paragraph, concluding with a final image so implicitly violent and jarring that it’s a wonder these tales reached our ears. It was a year before my parents would decide that I was mature enough to see Psycho, my first real horror movie, and in the intervening year I combed the library for every book of ghost stories and urban legends I could get my paws on. I can vividly remember these disturbing compendiums, and I focused on the anthologies before graduating to full-length horror; any collection is bound to be hit-or-miss, but when a bite-sized nugget of horror actually hits, it’s quick, and nasty, and leaves an indelible impact.
We haven’t broached the topic in film form yet, but here goes: I still have the softest of spots for a good horror anthology. Although, no — it doesn’t even necessarily have to be good. I’d prefer it to be, but it’s far from a prerequisite; for every Creepshow or Tales From the Crypt there’s an After Midnight or a Tales From the Hood, and even when these anthologies are at their worst, it’s hard to cycle through a small compendium of eerie tales without hitting on at least one segment, or even a stray image, that works like gangbusters. And brevity, as with wit, is often the soul of terror; when was the last time you were truly scared by a 2-hour-plus horror film?
Italian horror pioneer Mario Bava’s Black Sabbathis hosted by Boris Karloff, a fitting master of ceremonies for a film so indebted to classic horror. (Or perhaps then-current horror; the camera movements, filming techniques, and glorious technicolor make it easy to forget that Black Sabbath was made in 1963.) It’s a singular feat, really: a horror anthology film that never misses the mark, relying on three tales of the macabre that chill to the bone. And Bava sculpts these three tales lovingly — each one is a masterwork of mood and tension, with distinct moments of chilling horror that just scream death.
It’s often filmed like a fever dream, small details like the layout of a creepy old house or a ringing telephone cutting through the silence sending a small army of shivers marching directly up the spine; Bava’s innovative sense of cinematics and colors predates fellow Italian luminary Dario Argento’s by a number of years. The kernel of Argento’s symphonic giallo style is sown here, from the way a wayward traveler marches deliriously through a raging storm to the way the predatory camera creeps through a dank corridor. It’s a lusty, vivid, terrifying collection; and when Karloff himself shows up to act in Sabbath’s stellar centerpiece, his gravely furrowed brow and deeply authoritative voice remind us of why he’s one of the most piercing old-timers in all of horror lore. Bava’s spectrum of influences — from spooky William Castle haunted-house lore and Hitchcockian style to grisly E.C. Comics imagery — is presented in all of its glory, all tied together by the thrilling vision of a filmmaker capable of synthesizing all of this genre minutiae into something remarkably singular.
Black Sabbathis practically perfect in every way, and that brilliance has continued to trickle down to this day: Argento, a brilliant visionary in his own right, owes Bava a series of royalty checks for pure style, and word on the street is that a certain well-regarded heavy metal band was somehow inspired by this film. For some reason, the name escapes me — anyone?
More 31 Days of Halloween:
Day 1: May
Day 2: The Night of the Hunter
Day 3: The Descent
Day 4: Night of the Demons
Day 5: Them
Days 6 & 7: Night of the Living Dead // Dawn of the Dead
Day 8: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Day 9: A Tale of Two Sisters
Day 10: When a Stranger Calls // Amusement
Day 11: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Day 12: The Orphanage
Day 13: I Know What You Did Last Summer
Day 14: Dressed to Kill
Day 15: Deep Red
Day 16: Jeepers Creepers