Friday, November 04, 2011

Black Sabbath

1961 ****

Ahh! It's the Gritted Teeth Lady!

One Saturday afternoon long ago, my sister and I had the misfortune of watching this anthology movie, and for a week or two afterwards we would look to each other for comfort just because we thought about her creepy, terrible face. We referred to her as "The Gritted-Teeth Lady," but I never knew the movie's real title. I mentioned this during the pre-thon chatter and Catfreeek dipped into her brain cauldron and in no time at all handed me a bowl full of one of my oldest fears. Thanks, Cat!

Released in Italy as The Three Faces of Fear, this was a lot of fun and a bit of a milestone for me. While I've watched a bunch of Argento flicks (half of them because I have the hots for his daughter), Italian cimema is one of my many horror blind spots. Seeing Bava's work from the early 60s afforded me some historically important style points of scary Italian movies.

The main thing: hella style. Make it look fancy and don't hold back. Check this kee-razy landscape Boris Karloff is parked on in the introduction. It's like he stepped off a package for the knockoff Turkish Star Wars figures known to all as Uzay.

What's that? You don't know Uzay?

These are totally for real

The first story is "The Telephone," about a young woman in her casually gorgeous apartment being terrorized by the voice of her murderous ex-boyfriend on the phone, fresh from his escape from prison. She calls an old girlfriend for help and they have a sleepover.

This is a skillfully told short story, in that the brief interplay between a handful of characters manages to convey the larger story they all share (without ever telling us what it is), and also manages more twists than you'd think could fit in such a small package.

And it's got boobs-s-s...oob. One boob. Sort of.

When I say hella style, I mean that it extends beyond the production design. It permeates the cinematography, with a heavy helping of the slooow pans across the room before we see what the characters are spooked by. And it informs the stories, which are more about atmosphere and mood than the mechanics of plot. Why doesn't the woman just call the cops? It's not important. Just the horror.

"The Wurdalak" takes place in 19th century Russia, and begins with a young traveller finding a headless corpse with a dagger in its back. Not having seen any TV dramas about fornesics, he yanks out the dagger as a souvenier. Stopping at the nearest household, he looks across the room (slooow pan) and clearly sees the place on the wall where the dagger is usually displayed.

When he tells the family his story, they inform him that their father was apparently successful in his quest to kill a mad Turkish wurdalak, a version of vampire that seeks the blood of those he loved while alive. The problem is that their father himself may have become a wurdalak during the fight, as he told them that would happen if he returned after midnight five days later, which as the young traveller hears this is just a few minutes away.

Julie's comment after watching part of this film was that it was like watching an opera. "The Wurdalak" is the most operatic of the lot, as the family pretty much just watches doom descend on them instead of -- as was briefly discussed -- stabbing their father in the heart. In one grim scene, Boris steals his own grandson out of his bed, telling him they're playing a game. The child in this is pretty much just a cypher, he only has a few lines which sound looped in (I couldn't even tell if the actor was moving his mouth). Oddly enough this non-performance actually adds to the feeling of unease.

Oh no they di'in't.

Despite the family's rapid demise, the traveller attempts to hit on the hot blonde, plying her with thoughts of escape. She says "Happiness, love... these things are not for me anymore." But she's pretty hot, so he pushes on and they make a go of it on horseback. This being the only tale with exterior shots, there are grander displays of gloomy atmosphere.

I noted in my Zombie review that Bava deployed a lot of movie smoke for atmosphere. Check out this magic moment where the smoke forms a giant screaming kid's face just to the right of the actor:

"Next stop, Pink Floyd's The Wall"

The first night I watched this I passed out at the end of "The Wurdalak," putting off my reunion with The Gritted Teeth Lady as I would an aunt that kisses you with a scratchy mustache. Julie joined me the following night and we got to it.

The innocently titled "The Drop of Water" takes place in Victorian London, although I didn't know that until I read the Wiki page. I assumed it was Rome or something. Everybody's speaking Italian, how should I know? I mean, what am I, costume expert?

Okay, I'm putting this off...ahem.

A nurse is pulled out of her small, cozy apartment to prepare a dead woman for pickup. The deceased was a medium who died during a seance, and she lies in the middle of her huge, opulant, cat-filled house, lying there with her HIDEOUS GRITTED TEETH.

Ha ha, I'm fine. Anyway, the nurse eyes a ring on the dead woman's finger, and when nobody's looking she snags it. In doing so she knocks over a glass of water, which proceeds to drip ominously. She looks at the dead woman's hand and there's a fly sitting where the ring was, which freaks her out. She looks at the dead woman's face and the eyes she closed earlier are now WIDE FUCKING OPEN.

I am, of course, mostly kidding with the tales of my heebie jeebies. As you can probably tell, the actress playing the GTL isn't an actress at all, but a fake head on a scarecrow body. When the nurse returns home she's effectively unsettled by a series of loud dripping faucets and a pesky fly. Thankfully this doesn't last long and we get to the terrifying punchline, that the Gritted Teeth Lady is there, there in the apartment!

In the past I've mocked movies for implying mortal fear just because of something being there (frogs in Frogs, the pop-up corpses in Poltergeist). For all my nonchalance during the buildup of this tale, every shot of the Gritted Teeth Lady sent a genuine electric shiver all through my body. All because she was simply "there." It was a surprising and heartwarming feeling. It was everything good about Horrorthon, held together by a toothy puppet. And speaking of...

Hey, 50P! You finally got your full-sized Zuni doll!


DCD said...

Love this review!! Damn, she is creepy.

Catfreeek said...

Fantastic! I was dying to hear how you received your childhood nightmare. She is one creepy dolly!

Johnny Sweatpants said...

First of all I love the Boris Karloff backdrop. Those Uzay figures are awesomely hilarious. Clearly the one to get is "Head Man" as he's the only one not directly based on a Star Wars character (although his head looks like it was molded after a Snowtrooper) and he comes with a sword and shield.

Anyway that was another excellent review Octopunk! Gritted Teeth Lady is positively horrific and I understand why her creepiness lingered decades after your impressionable young mind stumbled into her.

I'm assuming that Black Sabbath the band was named after this flick? That automatically makes the movie 40% more badass.

Catfreeek said...

You are correct JSP, they infact did get their name from the film.

JPX said...

I’m so happy that you were finally able to see this lost gem from your childhood. After reading your review I went home that night and watched the gritted lady segment. I was disappointed that it was so short but I can see why, decades later, you have never forgotten her – she’s very unsettling! Terrific screen grabs. I need to watch the other two segments. At some point we need to list all of the anthology films we are aware of and pick out the best segments from all of them.

I love that you mention the Uzay figures! When I was going to school in Albany there was a small comic book/toy shop and they actually had several of this figures displayed. I’m kicking myself for not picking one up (I’m sure I was very poor). I can see why the Boris Karloff shot made you think of these! Excellent review.

Johnny Sweatpants said...

On closer inspection Head Man's head is the Emperor's Royal Guard sculpt. JPX - you must get Head Man!