Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A minimum 50,000 ardent DVD fans now have an opportunity to see Mario Bava's fabulous Danger: Diabolik in an absolutely wonderful presentation. After years of compromised video versions, Paramount held up last Fall's planned release to give the film an A+ special edition treatment through Zoetrope and disc producer Kim Aubry. The extra care has made a whopping difference.
Clearly in response to the Batman TV show - which debuted in January of 1966 - but also perhaps to outdo the recent French theatrical revival of Fantomas, Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis initiated a pair of grandiose comic-book adaptations. The French Barbarella comic became a bloated fallen soufflé of plastic sets and dull dialogue yet attracted a healthy worldwide following for its peek-a-boo nudity with Roger Vadim's latest star conquest, Jane Fonda. At the same time, de Laurentiis launched a home-grown Italian comic epic in Angela & Luciana Giussani's radical-chic comic book hero Diabolik, a surreal combo of Cocteau and Feuillade brought up to date with James Bond gadgetry. For his one (and perhaps only) foray into expensive continental filmmaking, Mario Bava took the job of directing this bizarre cultural melange, one of the first films to achieve the "feel" of a genuine comic book.
Mario Bava fans have been awaiting this one for a long time: It's been ten years since the welcome but flawed laserdisc surfaced and four since the television show MST3K chopped up a dull copy of the movie for a lame lampoon on the Comedy Channel. Although nothing will substitute for the eye-cleansing effect of an original Technicolor print, this DVD will show your monitor a few glowing hues it didn't know existed.
Master thief Diabolik (John Phillip Law) makes off with a huge shipment of cash, prompting the Minister of Finance (Terry-Thomas) to grant the frustrated Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) the special powers he needs to catch him. Ginko puts the squeeze on the underworld, prompting gangster Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) to keep his vice rackets in working order by catching Diabolik himself. Ginko's bait of some priceless emeralds is too enticing for Diabolik to ignore, as he needs a birthday present for his lover-accomplice Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). He eludes the cops once again, but Valmont uses an underworld doctor to get his hands on something Diabolik can't do without: Eva.
Danger: Diabolik was the subject of a Savant article from 1998 that I wrote just to get out all the information I'd gathered on the movie. I first read about the film in John Baxter's The Science Fiction Film and first saw it in 1972 at a midnight show in Santa Monica. I couldn't think of much else afterward -- in contrast to the generally ugly, style-challenged films of the time it was a sensory feast. It wasn't until six years later that I learned about the character's source in print, when effects man Robert Short loaned me a published collection of Italian Diabolik comic books.
Mario Bava combined a unique sense of lighting design with a mastery of in-camera special effects, an excellent combination for success in the bargain end of the Italian film industry. As cameraman on the Francisi Hercules films and part-director of low-budget horror and science fiction films for Riccardo Freda (I Vampiri, Caltiki, il mostro immortale) Bava could do it all. His tiny film for AIP just before Danger: Diabolik was Planet of the Vampires, a dazzling space epic created with a bare minimum of resources. According to the info that has slowly leaked from Bava biographer Tim Lucas (his definitive book is finally coming out this fall), Bava spent only a fraction of the budget fronted by de Laurentiis to make Diabolik. The result still has twice the impact of the pricey Barbarella.
For action-movie fans, Danger: Diabolik may not be that big of a deal. The criminal adventures of the masked villain are geared for visual impact over physical realism - the film is about comic-book action aesthetics. The camera loves to linger on startlingly beautiful scenes. Diabolik's white jaguar creates psychedelic reflections as it traverses a cream-colored underground tunnel; there's a shimmering, sensual visual atmosphere when Eva Kant sits at the poolside in Diabolik's cave grotto, waiting to have a necklace of giant emeralds affixed to her chest.
Some of the cutting hits perfect notes of comic book inspiration. An ineffectual government minister pounds his desk in defiance of the thief, and both his fist and words are cut off by Diabolik's response, a terror explosion that rocks a government building. Diabolik's carefree villainy is expressed when he does a cartwheel into his Jaguar, cutting instantly to the car peeling out before he's even in the driver's seat. When we first meet Diabolik, we see him kiss Eva as he drives away in a dark tunnel, without looking up to see where he's going.
Diabolik's bizarre costume(s) are fascinating leather and rubber concoctions that look terrific but must have been torture to wear for long periods of time. They're similar to the leather space suits of Planet of the Vampires. John Phillip Law's Cocteau-like molded rubber headpiece is so tight it appears to be painted onto his face. The show makes rubber and fine black leather look extremely sexy; Diabolik stalks through scenes like a human spider.
In his horror films Bava would occasionally use a wide-angle lens to distort the image, or to make a short drop seem like a high fall (John Richardson in Black Sunday). In this movie a near-fisheye lens is frequently employed to make ordinary settings look deeper and more dynamic. Gangster Ralph Valmont's power is enhanced when he crosses what looks like thirty feet of boat deck in just a few steps; A gigantic telephone and foreground heads blot out half of the screen when Valmont waits for an important call. Along with a glass painting of a gothic castle, a wide-angle view of a section of a tower set at a shallow angle makes it look as if Diabolik were performing a daredevil human fly stunt. When Diabolik interrupts his own autopsy to reach up at the lens and take the scalpel from a startled surgeon, his hand becomes a giant black claw. 1
Terry-Thomas is hilarious in a couple of bits that could have been shot in a single day; they were possibly done in tandem with another de Laurentiis assignment, the now-obscure Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die with Mike Connors. Michel Piccoli adds class and a keen sense of cop-thief rivalry and Adolfo Celi does an acceptable re-tread of his James Bond villainy from Thunderball.
Marisa Mell is one of the more interesting exotic Eurostars of the period and makes a wonderfully sexy and stylish moll for John Phillip Law's appropriately one-note antihero. She looks as if she were painted by Frank Frazetta. On Mell the mod fashions still look fashionable: Short-shorts, miniskirts and bizarre sunglasses. I've seen her "hooker guise" aped more then once, most memorably by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
Holding Danger: Diabolik together like audio glue is one of Ennio Morricone's quirkiest scores. Both Christy and Edda Dell'Orso add their vocal magic singing the phonetic lyrics of the hallucinatory title theme and providing the wailing solo voice for the underwater sequence. An all-purpose guitar riff gets a steady workout in any scene involving vehicles, and a psychedelic number for the marijuana nightclub is too good to be a silly parody. Morricone + the art direction of Flavio Mogherini = sensory nirvana.
Paramount's dazzling DVD of Danger: Diabolik corrects the odd decisions and unfortunate compromises of earlier video versions. A 1993 pan-scanned VHS was released only in six-hour mode. 2
Both the VHS and the handsomely letterboxed 1995 laser disc had a compromised remixed soundtrack that could only have been the result of lost elements. The English-speaking actors (Law, Terry-Thomas and Mell) were sourced from original tracks. Everyone else was given terrible re-dubbed voices. Even worse, the relative levels of music to effects were remixed, ruining some moments in the Morricone score.
Disc producer Kim Aubry went to the trouble of tracking down the missing English original audio master, which restores the original (and far better) array of vocal talent. Adolfo Celi once again sounds like Emilio Largo and Diabolik is back to DY-abolik instead of the Italian-inflected DEE-abolik.
The new DVD also retains the slightly longer Italian cut -- including an overhead shot of Eva and Diabolik making love on their revolving circular bed, covered in stolen 50-dollar bills. When that angle was trimmed for the American release we lost a couple of the best bars of Ennio Morricone's main theme. It was restored for the earlier versions, and this new DVD retains it.
The extras begin with a hotly-awaited commentary track with star John Phillip Law and Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas. They dispense a constant flow of desirable trivia - how nice to have a commentary that gets into detail on a movie we really want to know more about. Law's comments tend to be a little off the wall, but Lucas keeps the discussion on target.
A nicely paced featurette From Fumetti to Film covers all things Diabolik from the original Italian comics to a Beastie Boys music video and Roman Coppola's derivative movie CQ. Main host Stephen R. Bissette explains why Bava's film interpreted the comic Gestalt so much better than other 'camp' attempts; I remember the Monthly Film Bulletin's review applauding Bava for returning the quality of panache to filmic adventure. There are also good comments from producer Dino de Laurentiis and composer Ennio Morricone.
The Beastie Boys music video Body Movin' is also on hand to show us what a Diabolik costume might have looked like in an ordinary film adaptation. Adam Yauch provides a commentary for the six-minute uncredited homage to Bava. The extras are rounded out by an original American Teaser and Trailer that don't quite capture the film's true spirit.
Savant has seen a lot of his favorite movies turned into DVDs but this release of Danger: Diabolik is the first studio disc to take a complicated problem picture and fix all the problems to the satisfaction of picky DVD genre fans. It's 2005's outstanding disc of the year. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Danger: Diabolik rates:
Sound: Excellent (English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Supplements: Commentary with John Phillip Law and Tim Lucas; featurette
Danger: Diabolik: From Fumetti to Film; Teaser Trailer; Theatrical Trailer; Music
Video Body Movin' by The Beastie Boys, with optional commentary by Adam "MCA" Yauch
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 13, 2005
1. In one beach angle on the St. Just Castle (a Gothic structure with a modern steel and glass wing!) we can see a tiny figure where the castle tower meets the rocks. Is it just a guard, or is it meant to be Diabolik, preparing to begin his climb? It's really tiny.
2. ... along with another Paramount wanna-have, a Pan-Scanned Blood and Roses that used tape stock so cheap, it disintegrated in my player.
3. Paramount has released a movie that celebrates a 100% unequivocal Terrorist, the anarchist-nihilist kind that doesn't exist in real life -- even John Phillip Law calls the character a Terrorist in his interview. Besides looting at will, the maniacal Diabolik laughs wickedly at any attempt by the government to exercise control. He kills policemen left and right without regret. One sequence shows him dynamiting scores of government buildings because he 'doesn't approve' of how tax money is spent. Along with the upcoming Duck You Sucker Danger: Diabolik could easily have been denied a release because of its 'dangerous ideas.'
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson