One of the most influential 'genre' directors of all time, Mario Bava was responsible for some of the finest seminal works of horror to come out of the golden age of the Italian film industry. A master of his craft, his influence is still felt today and even years after his death people continue to discover and re-discover his films. Anchor Bay Entertainment has compiled five entries from the man's filmography in its aptly titled The Mario Bava Collection Volume One boxed set release. Image Entertainment previously released four of these films but Kill, Baby... Kill! sees the light of day in its original aspect ratio for the first time on home video in North America (the Dark Sky Films release that was supposed to come out on March 27, 2007 has gone the way of the dinosaur). While this selection doesn't contain the best of the best, it is a fine assortment of films that show's how diverse the director was and old and new fans alike should enjoy sifting through this trove of pure and unadulterated cinema.
Black Sunday (1960):
When this masterpiece of gothic horror begins, a witch named Katia Vajda (Barbara Steele) has the Mark Of Satan pounded on to her face before she's burned at the stake. As she's about to be burnt the skies open up and the rain pours down. Though she is killed, her body does not burn and is instead laid to rest in a coffin with a cross on top to ensure that her evil dies with her corpse. Before she passes, however, she swears she will destroy the Vajda family.
Shortly after, Doctor Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Gorobec (John Richardson) inadvertently spill some blood on Katia's tomb and she's resurrected. Meanwhile, a beautiful girl who turns out to be Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele again) shows up. Kati's ghost, with the help of her trusty man servant (Arturo Dominici), attempts to possess Asa's body so that she can fulfill her promise and kill off Asa's father, Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani).
Widely considered one of Bava's best pictures and a milestone in Italian gothic horror, Black Sunday (also known as The Mask Of Satan) is a fantastic exercise in mood, atmosphere and suspense. A few remarkably sinister set pieces punctuate the film (Katia's initial death scene and her subsequent resurrection) and the creepy black and white cinematography really captures the macabre atmosphere of the many more subtle moments in the film. Small details in the set design, the lighting, the effects and the backgrounds all work together to enrich the tone that Bava has created here and the results are visually stunning.
While the supporting cast is adequate, it's Barbara Steele who really makes this picture. In an interesting double role she's an eerie amalgamation of all things sexy and sinister and the clever cinematography really does an amazing job of accentuating her piercing dark eyes and distinctive features to the point that the audience can completely buy her in the role. There are some quirks in the storyline where it slows down a little more than it has to or where maybe things feel a little forced but the movie just looks so fantastic and makes such excellent use of its leading lady that it's more difficult to concentrate on the film's small flaws then to simply bask in the imagery.
American International Pictures distributed this film in North America and when they did, the film was dubbed and the original Roberto Nicolesi score was replaced with a very different one from Les Baxter. It would have been nice to see the Italian language option presented here along with the original English language dub rather than they hybrid that we get here (which takes the Italian score and puts the English dubbing over top of it), even if that hybrid does more or less constitute the best of both worlds. For completions sake fans certainly would have appreciated having the two original mixes included for the film.
Black Sabbath (1963):
A French-Italian co-production released in North America by American International Pictures (better known as AIP), Black Sabbath is Bava's take on the horror anthology film that would later become very popular thanks to the efforts of Amicus Studios in England. Bava's film takes three very different horror stories and used some segments with Boris Karloff to bookend them. The results are, in short, excellent.
The first story is The Telephone and it follows a lovely woman named Rosy (Michele Mercier) who receives some unusual and frightening late night telephone calls. Since Rosy helped the cops nab Frank (Gustavo De Nardo), her ex-pimp who has recently been let out of jail, she figures it's probably him on the other end of the line. She calls her ex-girlfriend, Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), to come over and comfort her completely unaware that Mary could very well be the one behind the phone calls, setting up an elaborate scheme to win back her lover's heart.
Considered in some circles to be the first color giallo, The Telephone is a nice, tense little film with some stylish direction and a few fun twists. Bava would certainly go on to make better thrillers than this but for an early stab at the genre, this is a pretty solid attempt. The lighting and the direction is solid throughout and the performances are all fine.
The Wurdulak is up next, and when it begins we meet Count Vladimir d'Urfe (Mark Damon) who is riding through the woods with a corpse that has recently been decapitated which he stumbled across in the woods. He arrives at the home of Gorka (Boris Karloff) who, after a few days on the road, has returned to his family. When Vladimir arrives, Gorka produces the missing head and tells him that the body actually belonged to a Wurdulak, or, a vampire. Vladimir and Gorka's family take comfort in the old man's actions but soon realize that he didn't necessarily escape the conflict completely unscathed...
Not surprisingly, Karloff is what makes this second story as effective as it is. With some unusually creepy overtones of child molestation and a few jolting moments, this is a very well thought out and well directed short. It builds up nicely and the ending is a bit of a surprise. Karloff is simply majestic here, bringing his intense and instantly recognizable screen presence to the forefront to excellent effect.
The third and final story is The Drop Of Water. A young nurse named Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) is sent to prepare the body of an elderly woman who worked as a medium and who passed away during a séance. She arrives and sets about her duties, with the corpse seemingly starring at her the entire time. When Helen notices a gorgeous ring on the body's finger she decides no one will miss it and so she takes it off of the corpse to keep as her own and in process of doing so manages to knock a glass of water off of a side table. As the water drips, a fly swarms around the body but Helen pays it no mind and heads home for the night. When she settles in for the evening she soon learns that she's made a very dire mistake indeed and that the dead do not take kindly to thievery.
The best of the three stories in the film is also, not surprisingly, the scariest. The look on the corpse's face is completely horrifying and the ending, while a little predictable, packs quite a punch even now, more than forty years since the film was made.
What will surely be disappointing to fans of this particular film is that the AIP version of the movie that was originally announced as included on this set had to be pulled. That means you won't get Karloff's voice and instead have only the version of the film that was issued on Image's previous DVD. While it's a superior version of the film in this reviewer's opinion, it really is a shame that both versions couldn't have been included as they both definitely have their merits and they are quite different indeed. Not only are the stories told in a different order but also the music has been changed, and the lesbian overtones of the first story have been replaced with a more pedestrian approach. The Italian cut included here is more effective but the AIP version holds a special place in the hearts of many fans.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963):
When the film begins, a mystery novel fanatic named Nora Davis (Leticia Roman) hops on a plane to Rome where the man sitting next to her offers her a cigarette. She accepts, not realizing it's laced with marijuana until the man is arrested. When she gets off of her plane and heads into the city, she witnesses a brutal murder, which she immediately reports to the local police. They look at her like she's off her rocker, as the events she describes to them match perfectly a killing that happened exactly a decade ago. Being a mystery novel buff, she takes it upon herself to solve the mystery seeing as the police don't intend to do much, brushing her off and figuring her for a lunatic.
Eventually Nora falls in with a doctor named Marcello Bassi (John Saxon) and the cops come around but before that happens the poor woman becomes targeted by the murderer only she saw.
Borrowing rather heavily from the Hitchcockian style, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a playful and early giallo (Anchor Bay's packaging claims that this is technically the first one!) that periodically stumbles over some unnecessary sight gags and strangely placed bits of comedy. These aren't so frequent as to ruin the film but they are a little jarring when set opposite darker moments that play out in the hospital or in the morgue. Bava puts his camera in truly strange places here, giving the film a very quirky feel that would be imitated throughout the genre's run but rarely done with such masterful style as we see here and in Bava's other giallos such as Blood And Black Lace. In addition to the insane amount of style that Bava infuses into the film, we're treated to some fun performances from pretty Leticia Roman and particularly from a very young and completely charming John Saxon.
As with the version of Black Sabbath included in this set, the version of The Girl Who Knew Too Much is the Italian cut of the film. Much like with the last film, AIP distributed their own cut of this picture in North America under the alternate title of The Evil Eye. As with many Italian genre films made with the export market in mind, it was dubbed in post production but it's obvious that at least Saxon if not other cast members are speaking English in front of the camera, which leads to some dubbing/synch issues that might not have been as obvious in its English version.
Knives Of The Avenger:
The only film in the boxed set that isn't a horror movie, Knives Of The Avenger follows a warrior named Rurik (Cameron Mitchell) who finds himself protecting a queen named Karen (Elissa Pichelli) and her son Moki (Luciano Pollentin) from the sinister general Hagen (Fausto Tozzi) while her husband, King Harald (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is at sea. What Karen and Moki don't realize is that Rurik was at one time an ally of Hagen but that was a long time ago, before Hagen killed his family. They also don't know that Rurik was at one time one of Harald's sworn enemies for reasons that he would rather forget.
Definitely a lesser entry in Bava's filmography, Knives Of The Avenger is a good looking and well shot film that is ultimately hampered quite severely by what is essentially a rather dull story. Cameron Mitchell is rather uninspired in the lead role and his obviously dyed blonde hair doesn't so much make him look like a Viking as it does simply out of place. The story borrows quite heavily from George Stevens' Shane, in which Alan Ladd plays the lead in a similar story set in the American west.
In Bava's defense, it isn't all his fault. The movie was shot on a very low budget and supposedly only had a week for principal photography. Adding to that, the rumor is that Bava was brought on board to replace the original director and that he had to re-shoot the vast majority of the picture. As such, the film lacks many of the details that make a lot of his other films so enjoyable and it doesn't feel like a Bava film, rather, it feels like a work for hire project, which it probably was. Bava proved with Hercules In The Haunted World that he could make a great sword and sandal epic when he was allowed to, it's just that here we're left with a picture that is made up of clichés. Some of the scenes in which Mitchell's Rurik gets into his knife throwing are interesting and a few of the action scenes are fun but for the most part the film suffers from bad pacing, unnecessary padding by way of too many location and beach shots, and a truly uninspired story.
Kill, Baby... Kill!:
Widely recognized as one of the finest Italian gothic horror films ever made, the late, great Mario Bava's Kill, Baby... Kill! is a testament to the director's skill at combining painterly and atmospheric visuals with unusual and otherworldly storytelling. A ghost story at it's core, on the surface the film might seem to be little more than a well made exercise in style over substance but a bit of digging and it's obvious that there's a lot more going on in the movie than simply a little blonde ghost making trouble for a small town.
Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (of The Crimes Of The Black Cat) plays Doctor Paul Eswai is a coroner who has been sent to a small, run down village where he is to investigate a bizarre series of deaths which he suspects could be murder. With the help of Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli of Sergio Leone's My Name Is Nobody), it isn't long before the good doctor meets up with the lovely Monica (Erika Blanc of The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave) who has just returned to her hometown with some medical training. Eswai, in order to carry out his investigation, decides he'll have to perform an autopsy on one of the victims, a maid who was impaled on a sharp fence when she feel from above, but the villager's protest. He carries on, thinking them to be primitive, and soon finds that the corpse has had a golden coin pushed into its heart.
Eswai soon hears of a young girl named Melissa Graps (Valeria Valeri) who, years earlier, was killed in the streets of the town by a gang of drunks and, as legend tells, she has returned to exact her revenge. The townsfolk, including the Burgomeister (Luciano Catenacci of Crime Busters, credited here as Max Lawrence), all believe that if her ghost appears and looks at you, then you are not long for this world. Unfortunately, a young woman named Nadine (Micaela Esdra) saw the ghost recently and both she and her parents are convinced that soon she's going to die. Eswai meets up with Ruth (Fabienne Dali of Lenzi's Desert Commandos), a witch, and then later a strange older woman named Baroness Graps (Gianna Vivaldi) who ties into the strange happenings, and slowly but surely starts trying to put the pieces of this macabre puzzle together – but is the ghost real or simply local superstition?
Proof positive that creative filmmaking is far more important than a big budget, Bava (whose budget was so low for this picture that it forced him to pillage soundtrack bits from his own earlier films) keeps things looking spooky right from the start and never lets up. Decrepit old buildings, strange colored lighting, plenty of smoke and fog and some genuinely macabre looking interiors give Kill, Baby... Kill! more atmosphere than a movie made on the cheap over a couple of weeks has any right to have. The film is a non-stop visual feast for the eyes and perhaps it was because he was working without the aid of big financial backing that Bava here makes every shot count for all its worth. In addition to the lighting and the art direction the cinematography is also fantastic and quite creative. The camera follows Melissa as she plays on her swing set and periodically zooms in, Leone style, right into the character's eyes to emphasize certain key moments in the movie.
As beautiful looking as the film is, however, Kill, Baby... Kill! isn't perfect. The story isn't particularly original (though oddly enough one could reasonably argue that it's had a big impact on a lot of recent Japanese horror films which play with many of the same ideas and there are similarities here to Stuart Gordon's Dagon as well – this has become a film of some influence!) in that it simply places a more sophisticated and educated man in amongst some superstitious rural types only to have him find the error of his ways. Like in The Wicker Man, we have a central character attempting to convince a secluded group of people with beliefs different from his own that their ways are wrong. It works and it's certainly sufficient but Dr. Eswai just sort of wandering around the town makes up a large portion of the story. Adding to that is the fact that Rossi-Stuart doesn't exactly set the screen ablaze with his charisma (though in his defense part of this could be the English dubbing more than his actual performance).
With that said, Kill, Baby... Kill! still gets a lot more right than wrong. There is some truly chilling imagery here, particularly when the Melissa character presses her small hands and face against the dirty glass and curses those she looks upon. Bava foreshadows much of her diabolic activity by cleverly using a white ball that bounces around the town. It's interesting to see how the director uses an innocent child's toy to foreshadow the sinister acts to come. The story builds nicely to a satisfactory if somewhat predictable conclusion and the last twenty-minutes or so of the film really go get quite tense. Dr. Eswai's reality collides with that of the townspeople and he's forced to confront a reality which he doesn't truly understand and which the rational part of his brain tries hard to reject. It's this ending that ties the film up so well and which adds a certain level of surrealism to the picture, giving it considerably more depth than you might have expected it to have based on the first two thirds of its running time.
As far as the video presentation goes, let's talk about the four titles that were previously released by Image Entertainment years back: Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Knives Of The Avenger. Anchor Bay looks to have used the same elements that Image did for their transfers but they've obviously done some digital clean up on what they had to work with. The result is a much cleaner looking picture than we've seen previously and contrast on the two black and white films looks a little better here than on the older discs. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is the weakest of the five transfers in this set, it's a little on the soft side and there are some detail issues here. That being said, it's still very watchable and the black and white cinematography looks quite good. Expect to see a fair bit of grain on Black Sabbath, but aside from that the movie looks good here. Not quite as good as it does on the Italian R2 two disc release, but still very nice. Black Sabbath is in fine shape and while there is some minor print damage if you want to look for it, overall it's a very solid transfer of a colorful and unusual looking film. Knives Of The Avenger also has a bit of grain and some mild print damage but the colors look quite nice and there aren't any major source material defects here to complain about.
In regards to Kill, Baby... Kill! the only reasonable point of comparison is to the VCI disc and the various public domain releases, as the Dark Sky release has been pulled and sadly may never see the light of day. Compared to the fullframe releases from VCI and the rest, this transfer is astounding. If you want to hold it against the Dark Sky release, know that the Anchor Bay disc looks slightly more colorful and just a little bit cleaner. In short, the film looks great as presented here in this set. The film still shows some print damage and some grain but obviously that has to be expected. Even if it isn't quite as clean or as nice looking as the other movies in this set, those who weren't lucky enough to get one of the Dark Sky releases and who have only seen the film by way of the crappy previous DVD releases should be more than pleased with the results of Anchor Bay's efforts here in regards to this particular film in the set.
Overall, while the transfers aren't perfect, they are pretty darn good. Some mpeg compression is evident in darker spots here and there as well as some edge enhancement but it didn't prove to be too detrimental to the viewing experience. The films certainly look cleaner and clearer than they have in the past and fans should be happy with the results.
Here's the run down on the audio for this set, each film is presented in Dolby Digital Mono with optional English subtitles and the mixes on the four discs that were previously issued by Image are pretty much identical to what appeared on those older discs.
Black Sunday: This is the same mix that graced the Image release in that it's the Italian musical score with the English language track on top of it. The plus side is that Steele does her own dubbing on this version.
Black Sabbath: As mentioned earlier, the film appears here only in its Italian cut and so it is presented in Italian language only. We lose Karloff's voice for his scenes, which is a shame.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much: Again, this film appears here in Italian only, which means Saxon appears dubbed in Italian which can be a little strange for those used to his fairly distinctive voice.
Knives Of The Avenger:Thankfully, this film appears with both Italian and English language options.
Kill, Baby... Kill!: Again, this film also appears here with Italian and English language options (though the packaging lists only the Italian track, the English one is definitely included on the disc). The Dark Sky disc as well as all of the prior region one releases have been English language only so it's nice to see both audio options finally included for this film.
You'll probably note a bit of hiss here and there in addition to some really mild distortion throughout the set but for the most part, things are fine in the audio department. The noticeable defects are quite minor and they don't really hurt anything.
Anchor Bay has sensibly opted to include extra features relative to each of the five discs in this collection on their respective DVDs as follows:
The main supplement for this release is the audio commentary from Tim Lucas, which has been carried over from the previous region one release from Image Entertainment. Lucas points out the differences between this uncut version and the AIP version, he covers the differences in the musical scores as well. He also covers the symbolism of how much of the film takes place in ruins, a state that Rome found itself in after the Second World War. He explains the film's popularity, talks about how Barbara Steele came onboard for the film, and other casting choices. He covers the importance of Barbara Steele's eyes as well as what was shot where, pointing significant little background details and explaining things that you might not catch the first time around. It's a well thought out and detailed commentary track that covers all of the bases you'd expect it to.
Aside from that, other extras on the Black Sunday DVD include the U.S. theatrical trailer, the international theatrical trailer, a television promo spot, a text biography of Barbara Steele, a text biography and filmography for Mario Bava courtesy of Richard Harland Smith, and a still gallery.
New to this set is another Tim Lucas audio commentary for Black Sabbath. Once again, Lucas really knows his subject well and it shows here. We learn about what AIP did to change the film around for American audiences and explains how Bava came to work on the anthology film and how various bits and pieces were carried over from The Girl Who Knew Too Much. He talks about the significance of betrayal in the first story and how much of the second story was based on a French story called The Family Of The Wurdulak and he even manages to tie this story in with 1980's Burial Ground! He gives some interesting biographical information about most of the key players and again points out little subtle details that are peppered throughout the picture. It's another solid track, and one well worth listening too.
Also new to this set is a twenty-minute featurette entitled A Life In Film – An Interview With Mark Damon. Covering many of the various projects that he's worked on since starting in the film industry in the late fifties, Damon talks about his roles as an actor, specifically on Black Sabbath, but also goes into detail about some of the films he worked on as a producer, his time with Roger Corman, and some of the strange things he's accomplished throughout his life. He talks about using sex to sell Monster and how he tried to get his hands on Corman's Poe films as a director and he talks about various people, famous and not so famous, that he's worked with and interacted with over the years. It's all quite interesting and amusing, as he has a sense of humor about him and isn't afraid to tell a good story.
Rounding out the extra features on the Black Sabbath disc are the U.S. and international theatrical trailers, a radio promo spot, text biographies for Bava and for Boris Karloff, and a nice poster and still gallery.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much:
The second new Tim Lucas commentary track in this set can be found on The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Lucas details the film's build up nicely and also explains the importance of the film in the giallo cycle. He points out certain location shots that capture the Rome of the sixties and covers the casting details, even pointing out bit players like who played one of the vice cops. He covers some of the differences between the Italian version and the AIP version, which is quite helpful, and talks about the goofier comedic aspects of Saxon's role in the movie. Lucas also talks about how some of the actresses described the director as grumpy and he details the unusual relationship that existed between Bava and Saxon. There's a little more dead air here than in the other two discussions but this is still a wealth of information and an interesting dissection of an important film in Bava's career.
Also found on this disc is a featurette with John Saxon entitled Remembering The Girl. At roughly ten minutes in length, this is a really enjoyable discussion with the actor who candidly covers his time and the projects he worked on in the Italian film industry. He not only covers his work with Bava on this film but also tells some amusing stories about his work on Antonio Margheriti's Cannibal Apocalypse and he's quite amicable and honest throughout which always makes for a more enjoyable interview. He talks rather fondly about Bava but doesn't skirt around the fact that he thought he was going to be working on a considerably more formal and dramatic film than this early giallo turned out to be.
Once again, U.S. and international trailers are included here alongside a nice poster and still gallery as well as the now familiar Mario Bava text biography.
Knives Of The Avenger:
The weakest film in the set contains the least amount of extra features. The only supplements adorning the Knives Of The Avenger DVD are the film's original international trailer and the Bava text biography.
Kill, Baby... Kill!:
Supplements are slim on the Kill, Baby... Kill! DVD, as the disc contains only the international theatrical trailer, a trio of similar but amusing television spots used to advertise the film as part of a triple feature, and that same old Mario Bava biography and filmography.
NOTE: The audio commentary from Tim Lucas, the still gallery, and the Kill, Bava... Kill! featurette that were included on the Dark Sky disc are NOT included on this Anchor Bay disc.
Each of the discs in this set contain animated menus and chapter stops for the features. The discs are housed inside individual thin-pack cases, which in turn fit inside a case that fits inside a slipcase. While the cardboard packaging isn't as sturdy as it probably should have been, it does look nice and that issue aside, this is a well packaged and attractive boxed set.
While the regrettable omission of the alternate cuts of Black Sabbath and The Girl Who Knew Too Much keep this set from standing as definitive; it is otherwise a good presentation in every other regard. The extra features are plentiful and informative and the audio and particularly and video presentations for each of the five films in the set are strong, even if things probably could have looked a little better than they do. Consider The Mario Bava Collection Volume One highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.