Is seems that the unofficial theme of this week’s Halloween post has been that of the power of the human face to frighten. Whether painted or real, covered in makeup or simply contorted in expression, the face, the key to identity, that which can reassure but which so often alienates, can be exploited and manipulated to brilliant effect. My most fearfully recollected nightmare from childhood was a simple one: a demon, hollow and intense, staring at me through my bedroom window during a rainstorm, his face only illuminated with each bolt of lightning. The stranger never entered my room, but the terror of being watched, of feeling his intent, was forever etched on me. Many other childhood nightmares (of the huge parent-eating monster in the forest; of the writhing, squealing worm buried under my delicious pancake) have fallen away, but that face, immovable, betraying nothing, remains.
This week, we’ve had a particularly nasty gallery of grotesques. But in addition to those we’ve cited (Mr. Barlow, American werewolves, the Gentlemen, Pumpkinhead), many others linger in the memory, from the terrible monstrous aged picture of Dorian Gray in Albert Lewin’s 1945 version to Donald Sutherland’s final, eye-bulging screech in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. To finish off this week’s parade of ghouls, I turn to a piece of classic short horror predicated almost entirely on one horrific expression, frozen in time.
During a short-lived Mario Bava binge some years back, I rented the Italian horror master’s trilogy Black Sabbath. Knowing that most horror anthologies tend to save the best for last (from Spirits of the Dead‘s Toby Dammit to this year’s Fear(s) of the Dark, which concludes with a deliriously inventive bit of animated haunted house expressionism), I soldiered through the first two segments, one a proto-giallo bore about a phone stalker and the next a creaky but minorly effective beast-in-the-snow melodrama. When I finally got to the third, innocuously entitled “The Drop of Water,” it was very late at night, perhaps after 2 or even 3 a.m. The hypnotic, purely visual film to follow crept around me like tendrils, and its money shot (of a terrible face, revealed early and often) ground me to a pulp.
Based loosely upon Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” but also tapping into that oft-trotted out campfire tale chestnut in which the dead comes back to reclaim a stolen property or even body part (“Give me back my toe!”), Bava’s short concerns a fortune teller who steals an expensive ring off of a client’s fresh corpse. The old woman had died, her eyes wide open, her skeletal face withered, her lips peeled back over her gnarled teeth. Of course she comes back to reclaim her possession, looking much like she did at the moment of death. And Bava uses no dialogue to greet her reappearance, only the titular sound of water.
Gorgeously composed reds and blues highlight Bava’s unsurprisingly expert mise-en-scène, but this is, in a sense, a one-woman-show. I have chosen not to show the unsettling face in question here, as I have in recent postings, because it would be unfair to inure viewers to it before seeing it. I urge anyone to rent Black Sabbath tonight. Even if you’re busy at parades or parties. It’s a quick half-hour, it can be squeezed in before bedtime. One last Halloween hurrah before it’s back to the same-old same-old in the less dangerous November.
Happy Holidays, and see you next year.
*Apologies for the seemingly late posting. This was ready and go and published well before the witching hour on Friday night, but due to blog malfunctioning with our host, it wasn’t showing up. The problems have been solved. Thanks for your patience.