Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, made in 1963, is an omnibus film comprising three segments. The first segment, The Telephone, is interesting as a precursor of later giallo films but it really didn’t do anything for me. In the second segment Bava abandons contemporary settings and goes for full-on gothic horror. The Wurdulak (which features Boris Karloff) is a routine vampire story, or at least it would be in anyone else’s hands. In Bava’s hands it’s a gorgeous visual feast. Movies don’t get any more gothic than this. Bava achieves things with colour and lighting that are both strange and exquisite. I don’t think anyone has done better night photography. It’s so good that you expect the third segment to be a bit of an anti-climax but if anything it’s even better visually. The story is again a straightforward story of ghostly punishments for robbing the dead. It concerns a nurse called out one night to prepare a dead countess for her funeral. The nurse spots a valuable ring on the dead woman’s finger and you can guess the rest. What makes it extraordinary is that Bava doesn’t just tell the story through visual images, he tells the story almost entirely with lighting and colour. A stormy night with lightning is the oldest cliché in horror but Bava does it better than it’s ever been done. The pulsating light seen through a single window conveys an atmosphere not just of fear but of something truly uncanny.
I don’t think it’s Bava’s best film (for me his masterpiece is his 1973 movie Lisa and the Devil) but it’s definitely essential viewing.