Black Sabbath: What is Browning to Bava?

Last night Paul Bond and I resurrected our bavatuesdays film festival. We got waylaid for a month or two, but now we are back. This experiment was in service to working out the details of how we will be collaboratively teaching  our True Crime class in a distributed manner, which is set to happen in just over a month and I’ll post more about that soon. Paul has already blogged about our discussion last night, and he notes we used a Google Hangout last night to broadcast and archive our video. It pains me to say it, but it was a lot easier than our custom video kit here at UMW. I’ve not given up on the kit option,  but for the rest of the bavatuesdays festival at least, we’re going to keep experimenting with Google Hangouts. We had a few glitches due to user error, but working through those was the point of this experiment from the beginning.

Last night’s discussion was off-the-cuff and informal, which is how I like it. My theory is that while a discussion might start slow and be searching for a rhythm, when you have two people talking about something they are passionate about (in this case Mario Bava’s films) sooner or later the conversation is gonna catch its stride. And by the end of this episode I think we did just that. We talked about a wide range of topics with this film from it being the inspiration for the more famous association of the English title for the film: the British heavy metal band Black Sabbath (Paul plays with this brilliantly here). Then we got into the dramatic differences between the American version titled Black Sabbath (embedded below)

And the Italian version titled I tre volti della paura, or the Three Faces of Fear (embedded below)

The differences are myriad, from the cut scenes with Boris Karloff to the ordering of the episodes to the music to the exclusion of a lesbian relationship to the bizarre ending scene with Boris Karloff. The final scene in the Italian version (which is not in the American cut) has Karloff riding off on a horse that the camera ultimately pulls back to expose the “magic” of the filmmaking, i.e., a mechanical horse with a bunch of people circling around shaking tree branches. As Paul notes, part of the reason behind this was that the Italian producers felt the film was way too dark and this would help lighten it up. He also notes, according to Tim Lucas, this is a moment wherein Bava exposes his now trademark, barebones approach to the amazing visual effects he creates.

After watching this scene I immediately thought of the final scene of Tod Browning‘s Mark of the Vampire* (1935) which does something very similar with Bela Lugosi. During our conversation—and this is why loose conversations are awesome—I started to think Bava is not only working with a titan of that era in Karloff while making Black Sabbath, but is obviously a fan of the 1930s U.S. horror films as evidenced by Black Sunday. So if Bava has Karloff riding a mechanical horse to expose the machinations of film at the end of Black Sabbath, it might be possible he was inspired by Browning’s direction of Lugosi at the end of Mark of the Vampire. Rather than truly being a vampire, it turns out Bela Lugosi was simply acting like a vampire in order to catch the real murderer in the film. A change-up that Lugosi thought was absurd, and that has since cast doubt about the value of Mark of the Vampire as a horror film. You can see the ending scene when Lugosi steps out of character behind-the-scenes below:

Interestingly enough, like the American version of Bava’s Black Sabbath, Browning’s Mark of the Vampire was cut drastically from its original 75 minutes to 60. The unsupported theories in the Wikipedia article as to why it was cut are fascinating. One theory states the film was cut to eliminate the incestuous overtones between the count and his daughter. Wow, there was fifteen minutes of that? 🙂 Another suggests that most of the cuts were of comic material  surrounding the maid. I want to do more research around this to see which (if any) of these theories might be true. But of all the connections with filmmakers from the monster era of the 1930s and Bava, I hadn’t really thought of Browning because his career was prematurely derailed as a result of the outcry over Freaks. But now that I think of it, Freaks made Browning one of the earliest U.S. cult directors operating on the margins of the studios. So whether Browning was an influence on Bava is not something I can say without more digging, but I am starting to see a filmic affinity.

Mark of the Vampire is in the public domain and available as a free download on the Internet Archive.


This entry was posted in bavatuesdays, movies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.