Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on August 24, 2016
This Friday, August 26, finds TCM’s Summer under the Stars getting a little chillier than usual with an all-day marathon covering the career of horror icon Boris Karloff from the dawn of cinema’s sound era in the revolutionary FRANKENSTEIN (1931) through his elder statesman phase of the horror genre in Roger Corman’s THE TERROR (1963).
However, I’m zooming in on the last film in the Karloff filmography airing that day (and repeating again on Halloween if you miss it!) — and one that’s especially close to my heart since it’s the first film I remember scaring me on TV (courtesy of a TBS airing many years ago). BLACK SABBATH (1963) is the only anthology film directed by the great Mario Bava and Karloff’s sole excursion into Italian horror. Karloff plays a key role in the longest and most elaborate of the three stories, “The Wurdulak,” and also serves as the onscreen host tying all three tales together. What’s fascinating and well covered by now is the fact that Karloff actually shot his narrator duties twice, with the Italian and American prints featuring entirely different presentations. The Italian version also adds a lighthearted coda with Karloff astride a wooden horse used for one of his earlier scenes, pulling back to show the film crew in a delightful, barrier-shattering flourish.
BLACK SABBATH is especially useful in identifying the unique appeal of Karloff in the horror genre, especially among such peers as Vincent Price, John Carradine, Lon Chaney, Jr., and the one with whom he is most closely identified, Bela Lugosi. While Lugosi remained tethered in the public consciousness to one character (Dracula, of course) and represented the romantic but sinister “other” of Eastern Europe, the London-born Karloff was a kind of reassuring, sympathetic figure for monster movie fans. Even when made up as the Frankenstein monster, he was sympathetic and accessible, the kind of guy you want to take inside on a cold night and give a hot meal (as long as there aren’t any little children or lakes nearby). Karloff often exuded a paternal air, which made it all the more shocking when that very quality was turned against the audience; the first film to effectively pull this trick was Edgar G. Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT (1934), in which Karloff’s perverse Hjalmar Poelzig is a respectable patriarch with a perverse streak a mile wide as he indulges in implied necrophilia, kidnapping, and ultimately presiding over satanic ceremonies in his forbidding fortress.
Despite these sadistic detours, Karloff remained beloved for decades thanks to his genial air and wonderfully expressive voice. By the early ‘60s, the horror omnibus was starting to become a pop culture fixture after a long absence thanks to Roger Corman and American International Pictures’ TALES OF TERROR (1962) and a wave of anthology shows on TV dabbling in the macabre including NBC’s THRILLER, hosted by none other than Karloff. That show was gone from the airwaves in April of 1962 after a two-season run, leaving Karloff with more time to appear on the big screen with his hosting (and occasional acting) duties on the show no longer required. Incidentally, most of the personnel from THRILLER went over to another NBC show, the newly-formed and utterly terrifying THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, which premiered in September of 1962 and felt far more like a continuation of Karloff’s chilling program than its direct ancestor, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. Karloff also took time out to record storybook albums and embarked on a busy string of projects at AIP with no less than four titles in 1963: Roger Corman’s THE RAVEN and THE TERROR, Jacques Tourneur’s THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (featuring a great comic Karloff performance), and of course, BLACK SABBATH.
Very loosely adapted in part from stories by Guy de Maupassant, Alexi Tostoi, and Anton Chekov (among other writers, but that’s a whole other tangled story), BLACK SABBATH contains three stories: “The Drop of Water,” with Jacqueline Pierreux as a sticky-fingered nurse called in to prepare the body of a recently deceased medium who died in a trance; “The Telephone,” in which vulnerable prostitute Michèle Mercier is tormented by nocturnal phone calls from her pimp (who’s either dead or in jail depending on which version you see); and “The Wurdulak,” with Karloff as Gorca, who returns home to his family one night after hunting down a vampire that’s been preying in the vicinity… but he may be infected himself with the curse of feeding only on the blood of those he loves.
76 years old at the time, Karloff was suffering from arthritis and could only work four hours per day on the production at Italy’s famed Cinecittà Studios. Already in the Bava business thanks to its successful Americanizations of BLACK SUNDAY (1960) and THE EVIL EYE (earlier in 1963), AIP was heavily involved in the production of the film with company man Salvatore Billitteri on hand after his supervisory work on those earlier titles. In his outstanding tome Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, Tim Lucas interviewed screenwriter Alberto Bevilacqua about the relationship between the director and star:
The last episode of the film to be shot, “The Wurdulak” features the largest cast of characters and stands as Karloff’s only bloodsucking role. For any classic monster fan there’s still a palpable chill to be felt when Karloff first appears, revealing his face in a masterful shot that frames his wide eyes and famished expression in a dark nest of fur and tousled hair. We know something’s amiss right away when he proudly produces a severed head to hang outside the house, orders his faithful dog to be shot for howling in protest to his presence, and chastises his progeny for being uncomfortable when he wants to “fondle” his grandson. However, that’s just a taste of how dark things will become over the course of that very long night.
In a sense you could call this the first really modern vampire film as it moves away from the Dracula-centric notion of a foreign bloodsucker impinging on Western society and being dispatched by the powers that be. Here the menace comes from within the family unit with its head tearing away at their defenses one by one, reconstituting them as a twisted new household preserved them in undead amber. “One hesitates to use the word ‘evil’ in describing Gorka’s campaign against his family,” Lucas notes, “because he is driven by love, not bloodlust, to reclaim his family in death. Bava observes the phenomenon with great sympathy for his characters, yet with an almost scientific detachment for the goals of their guiding virus.” That said, it’s unlikely that anyone would be terribly happy to be on the receiving end of this particular type of love!
Seen today, “The Wurdulak” clearly paves the way for the idea of a vampire emerging from within rather than the outside. Everything from Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (with its undead children begging to be let in) to the classic graphic novel 30 Days of Night owes the tale a huge debt, with cinematic successors including Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967) with its chilling “triumphant” ending and the ‘80s cult favorite THE LOST BOYS (1987) with its sleep California town turned into a breeding group for vampires by a “loving” father figure bearing certain parallels to Gorca. In fact, there was even a 1971 Italian remake of “The Wurdulak,” Giorgio Ferroni’s NIGHT OF THE DEVILS (La notte dei diavoli), which throws a few modern wrinkles (and more than a few excesses) into the tale and pulls off a particularly nightmarish final act. However, we’ve never had a screen vampire quite like Karloff, and while BLACK SABBATH is unquestionably a horror masterpiece from start to finish, it’s his segment that had the greatest impact and still leaves a lingering chill with us today.
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