This is why you need to invest in a region-free Blu-ray player.
Kino's Region "A" Blu-ray of Mario Bava's classic horror film Black Sabbath (1963) and Arrow Video's Region "B" Blu-ray of the same film, sold in Great Britain, are worlds apart. The Arrow version offers both Bava's original Italian cut, I tre volti della paura ("The Three Faces of Fear") and AIP's significantly altered English-language American version. AIP's Black Sunday reorders and cuts some footage, adds alternate material along with an entirely different musical score, but is still as essential as Bava's Italian version for various reasons. Arrow's release also includes an audio commentary by Bava authority Tim Lucas, terrific new featurettes, interviews, trailers and TV spots, plus a fat, nearly 40-page full-color booklet.
Kino's Blu-ray has none of these things (though it does include a few other Bava trailers), nor does it include the much sought-after AIP cut. The original Italian version is there, but while impressively sharp in 1080p high-def, the color-timing is so perversely, utterly wrong it all but destroys Bava's original color design, the visually dazzling film's best asset and the main reason to see it in the first place.
Many genre scholars and ordinary fans condemned a recent British Blu-ray of Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, 1958) for similar reasons, of its draining of color (retaining only a bluish tint), apparently an effort to make the 55-year-old film look contemporary, along the lines of a Twilight film or some such silliness. The outcry over this release was overstated; only a couple of scenes were adversely affected, for most of the film the color looked about right.
Not so here. In this case, Kino's Black Sabbath merely looks like a colossal screw-up. Ten minutes of research on the Web would have found numerous articles detailing Bava's cinematographic intentions. Further, instead of emulating a modern style of horror cinematography, this Black Sabbath is dominated by a sickly green throughout, and the image is way, WAY too dark.
Those who've never seen the film, or not in a while, or for those who don't have the Arrow Video Blu-ray to compare it with, may not complain as loudly as this reviewer. But I took the time to compare the two excellent transfers on the Arrow Blu (the Italian and AIP cuts) to Kino's release of the Italian version and, side-by-side, the difference is striking. As I write this they are being sold at about the same price and yet Arrow's is crammed with extras while Kino's is all but bare bones. Need I continue?
As Kino's Black Sabbath consists only of the Italian version, even English-speaking actors like Boris Karloff have been dubbed into Italian. An amusing Karloff introduces three stories and stars in the third. In the first, "The Telephone," a voluptuous woman (Michèle Mercier) is terrorized by a late-night series of telephone calls by a voice that might be Frank, her escaped-from-prison ex-pimp she helped send to the slammer, and who appears able to see her every move. Increasingly terrified, she turns for help to an estranged lesbian lover, Mary (Lydia Alfonsi), who has a secret of her own.
In "The Wurdalak," Russian nobleman Vladimir (Mark Damon), on horseback, discovers a beheaded corpse with a dagger in its back. He then arrives at a rural, mountain home where the adult children of patriarch Gorcha (Karloff), the owner of the dagger, nervously await his return. They inform Vladimir that their father had gone after an infamous Turkish bandit, Ali Beg, whom they also believe to be a wurdalak, a vampire ravenously craving the blood of those he loves the most. Fearing Gorcha might become a wurdalak himself, he left strict instructions not to admit him back into the house should he not return within five days. Just as the deadline passes Gorcha appears, pretending to be normal but obviously changed.
In "The Drop of Water," a harried nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) receives a late-night call to prepare the corpse of an elderly medium, who died in the bed (with her eyes wide open) of her cavernous if dilapidated apartment. The nurse, alone in the room, steals a sapphire ring from the dead woman's finger, dresses her for burial and departs. But, once home, she is haunted by visions of the surprisingly mobile and unbearably creepy dead woman's spirit.
Mario Bava's first official solo credit as a director was the incredibly moody and imaginative Black Sunday (1960), filmed in black and white. That film was a huge international success and Black Sabbath, an Italian-French-British co-production (with some moneys apparently coming from AIP's British arm) was the obvious follow-up. Bava had been shooting in color on and off for a while, with Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) and The Whip and the Body (also known as What), the latter released in Italy within days of Black Sabbath, being two particularly phantasmagorical examples.
"The Telephone," at least in its Italian version, is pure thriller with no fantasy elements, but it's impressively adult, sexy and intelligent without ever being exploitative, and it's genuinely suspenseful. "The Wurdalak's" time and place set it apart from other vampire stories, as does the familial, psychological aspects of the story, that the man who is both father and grandfather is probably a blood-drinking vampire but everyone is too terrified to confront the intimidating, sly patriarch (and themselves) with the terrible if obvious truth. It's like a vampire Caine Mutiny and Karloff, even dubbed by somebody else into Italian, is an imposing presence, unlike any other screen vampire ever.
"The Drop of Water" is Bava's masterpiece, however, so beautiful and horrifying at once, impressively acted by Pierreux as the nurse, and featuring as it does the creepiest carved corpse in the history of cinema.
The AIP version is an essential companion sorely missed here. Though it shuffles the order of the stories, replaces Roberto Nicolosi's score with Les Baxter's occasionally distracting cues, it's not a bad adaptation, its worst offense being the altering of "The Telephone" to hide the lesbian angle while adding a supernatural sting at its tail the segment could have survived without. But AIP's Black Sabbath also offers viewers Karloff's real voice throughout (his introductions are completely different from the Italian version) and even the rest of the cast spoke English on the set so the dubbing appears more natural.
Video & Audio
None of this really matters, however, as Kino's video transfer, while at least as sharp, possibly even a faint more detailed than Arrow's, is all but ruined by inexplicable color timing that turns everything green, rendering the brilliant, Technicolor-printed hues the look of a fish tank overrun with algae. Further, the image is substantially darker than the Arrow Video version. If Kino's intention was to recreate seeing Black Sabbath at the drive-in before the sun has fully set, they succeeded beautifully. The LPCM audio, in Italian only with optional English subtitles, is strong. No Extra Features, unless one counts Kino's trailers for other Bava titles in their catalog.
I can only recommend Kino's Black Sabbath to those adamantly determined not to buy a region-free Blu-ray player at some point (I got mine for less than $100), and even with the increased sharpness I'm tempted to recommend Image's older standard-def DVD for its more accurate colors and extra features. No, the Arrow Video, Region "B" Blu-ray is head and shoulders above its American counterpart. This, at best, is a Rent It for those with no other options.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.