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Shadowvision: “BLACK SABBATH”

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Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.

From the inception of this article, Shadowvision was never about just watching movies in black and white. If it was just a weird force-of-habit or something akin to that, I wouldn’t have much of a reason to devote time every week to share it with the world. Rather, Shadowvision was about the cinematic experience and how that, as a whole, changed by remove a crucial and intended visual element.

To some, it’s cinematic heresy, disgracing the language of film by rejecting the intended work of the cinematographer; to others, it’s experiencing visual art through another set of eyes, embracing the frame in a way the cinematographer may never had imagined. In any case, there’s an experimental edge to the column, and in doing so, there would automatically be films that suited the experiment and those that did not. And this week, Shadowvision finally meets a subgenre that had been on the mind of this writer since day one: giallo.

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Indeed, Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH is one of the first (and seminal) giallo films ever made, and an especially curious subject considering Bava’s genesis in black and white films. Furthermore, it’s also one that’s absolutely gorgeous in color, and regardless of the cut you’re seeing, there’s an air of levity among the Karloff-bound wrap-around that adds to the somewhat reflective nature of the piece. But nevertheless, the film felt among the most appropriate giallo pictures to translate into monochrome, especially when compared to the more surreal and sexualized giallo of Dario Argento.

On the technical side of things, BLACK SABBATH is fairly easy film to accommodate for black and white. You can increase the contrast to your liking, but in a weird way, the hot lighting used for colorful giallos almost paint the film in a natural black and white cinematography. By that fault, it’s somewhat futile to increase the brightness as well. It also should be mentioned that this edition of Shadowvision was for the extended Italian arrangement of the film as opposed to the AIP release.

As you may have picked up from the previous paragraph, BLACK SABBATH is actually surprisingly gorgeous in black and white, with the calculated stage-play-esque cinematography familiar to many black-and-white horrors of the era. In fact, there’s many moments that are particularly reminiscent of the work of Tod Browning, especially during the latter two segments where the giallo lighting paints a terrifying depth among the shadows and lights. In fact, one might wager that BLACK SABBATH is a definitively scarier experience in black and white, with the suspense ramped up to a nearly suffocating extreme, especially in the climactic haunting of “The Drop of Water.”

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The relationship to black and white, while consistently strong, is also dependent on the anthology nature of BLACK SABBATH. For instance, “The Telephone” is the most tame of the bunch despite it’s then-risque plot devices, but more-or-less plays like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode in black and white. The dialogue, camera movement and production design are so appropriate to the time period that the translation to monochrome is not jarring whatsoever. In fact, the narrative bait-and-switches throughout almost feel like Bava is emulating Hitchcock, or the perceived cinematic voice of Hitchcock, in “The Telephone,” which feels all the more apparent when one sees Bava’s unveiling of the kitchen knife or Frank’s manic temperament.

The Tod Browning influence, one that is apparent even in Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY, truly comes in during the opening crawl of “The Wurdulak.” Between the acting, the incredible sets and the vampire plotting of this segment, the black and white translation really shines, allowing the lighting of the more colorful giallo sequences to now play as incredibly powerful back or underlighting. To this effect, the vampiric characters appear much more ghoulish, and Karloff looks absolutely terrifying with his pale skin and crazed eyes. In fact, certain elements even establish a more comfortable atmosphere in black and white, between the crackling lightning, the “eye” lighting during Sdenka’s hypnotism, and the palpable tension (such as the door-knocking bait-and-switch).

But perhaps the best sequence in black and white would be “The Drop of Water,” which contains a dreamlike aura in color that translates into an engulfing, goosebump-inspiring nightmare in black and white. Between the glowing urban framework to the brilliant art direction, everything feels so off-putting in black and white, with the early horror moments resonating much creepier without the gorgeous color on display. To that effect, when the horror does ramp up and the action returns to the apartment, every dark corner is much more terrifying, and moments that are now-familiar to the modern horror audience strike fear just as powerfully, if not more so, than it’s intended color counterpart.

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Of course, with any giallo film (or most films, for that matter), there cannot be such polarizing gains without some crucial losses. Of course, one of the most memorable aspects of BLACK SABBATH is its ingeniously vibrant lighting, imposing color to create a fantastical sense of dread and imagination that’s effectively lost in black and white. By doing so, the entire atmosphere of the film becomes shocking dissimilar to the intended color-bound presentation, and you’re essentially rewriting the cinematic language in which the film was formed. In that sense, everything from the music to the performances to the sound design to the sets themselves all take on a new meaning, for better or for worse.

In fact, in color, Bava’s film feel like they begin with a sense of normality that descend into suspense and madness, whereas with black and white, the feeling of horror is immediate, which almost lessens that incredible build-up. In color, “The Telephone” has a playful approach to the sensuality (maybe to not necessarily provoke the then-strict censors) which allows the paranoia to come-and-go and makes the finale much more intense; in black and white, the paranoia rises above the sensuality and takes a firm grasp on the narrative. “The Wurdulak” almost feels like a fairy tale terror in color, which becomes even more fantastic when the giallo lighting prominently takes the frame in its ending; in black and white, it feels merely closer to that of a golden age monster movie. And “The Drop of Water,” while definitively scarier in black and white, loses the sense of grandeur in color, which is the same sense that allows the audience to see through our leading lady’s eyes in the first place.

Overall, while the film does have some major losses in black and white, there’s few films in this column that have played as absolutely terrifying in monochrome as BLACK SABBATH. The Shadowvision experience highlights Bava’s work as a timeless filmmaker and storyteller, and adds a vintage creep streak that will definitely elicit fear from the audience. In fact, BLACK SABBATH was such an impressive translation into black and white that this writer’s attitude towards approaching giallo for this column has grown from very-cautious optimism to flat-out excitement.

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Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: Yes.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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