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Savant Review:

Black Sabbath
Image Entertainment
1963 / Color / 1:66 / 16:9 dolby digital mono Italian
Starring Boris Karloff, Suzy Andersen, Mark Damon, Glauco Onorato, Rika Dialina, Massimo Righi, Michele Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, Jacqueline Pierreux, Harriet White Medin
Cinematography Enrico Fontana, Mario Mancini, Ubaldo Terzano
Production Designer Riccardo Dominici
Film Editor Mario Serandrei
Original Music Roberto Nicolosi
Writing credits Mario Bava, Marcello Fondato and Alberto Bevilaqua
Produced by Paolo Mercuri
Directed by Mario Bava

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Image's Mario Bava Collection continues to do what once was thought impossible; after decades of scouring French magazines and the domestic Video Watchdog for eurohorror information, previously unseen DVDs of high quality Mario Bava films are being released, one delight after another.

This might not be news to the average video hunter. For horrorphiles, just having access to decent copies of European titles like Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga (Baron Blood) or La rossa segno della follia (Hatchet for a Honeymoon) was unheard of just a year ago. Better yet, Image has brought out a definitive original cut of La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday), and the utterly lost Bava masterpiece, Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil). Now, perhaps capping all the above, has come I tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath), Mario Bava's personal favorite of his films, and the best showcase yet for his uniquely visual cinematic talent.

The 'feeling' of sex
via lush photography ...

Black Sabbath is an omnibus film, two short story-like exercises and another longer essay in screen terror. In The Telephone a woman (Michelle Mercier) becomes unhinged by phone calls from a dangerous ex-lover. The Wurdulak is Boris Karloff, who returns from a ghoul-hunting mission to threaten his entire family with the curse of vampirism. And A Drop of Water is a poetic, creepy essay about a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) who steals a ring from the wrong corpse - a clairvoyant who died in mid-seance.

What's on the Image disk is really a different film from the Black Sabbath with which we in the states are familiar. American International reworked the film, changing the order of the stories, adding more Thriller-style Karloff intros between them, and doing their usual music swap-out. As in Black Sunday, they jettisoned Roberto Nicolosi's varied and understated score for the more emphatic and obvious (but not bad) Les Baxter. Nicolosi's soundtrack is less homogenous. A series of subliminal hisses and tones underscores A Drop of Water, and some of The Telephone is appropriately backed by lounge music.

This version is the original Italian I tre volti della Paura, with Italian dubbing. The English-language voices on the A.I.P. recut had that klunky Sons of Hercules feel, so seeing Sabbath with English subtitles is a real plus when trying to interest non-initiates. The only regret is that Boris Karloff is revoiced in Italian with the rest of the international cast.1 It is possible that the whole show was filmed with the actors phonetically voicing English: Ms. Mercier and Pierreux in particular seem not to be speaking Italian under their dub jobs.

The overall impact of the disc is breathtaking. This is perhaps the first widely-available video copy of a Bava film that fully captures the texture of his color photography. Favoring bright primary hues, sets are bathed in washes of color that can only be called hallucinatory (We can finally see for ourselves what writer Phil Hardy is describing). Electric greens and crimson reds, steely blues and deep purples give the screen depth and character. It is truly amazing to appreciate that Bava could whip up these unique images within tiny budgets and short time schedules. The heroines are bathed in warm golds and lit in non-traditional ways that make them look lusciously alive (Mercier) or nervously cold (Pierreux). Suzy Andersen in The Wurdulak has the icy beauty of a Catherine Deneuve. In shambling silhouette, or choker closeups, Boris Karloff's ragged vampire is not only his best-photographed color role, but one of his finest performances - even when robbed of his voice. Look at the B&W photo of the three faces in the window on the back of the DVD package. The three actors are practically ear-to-ear, but each has their own distinctive lighting. How did that Bava do it? The likes of this kind of dramatic lighting haven't been seen since. Even the sensitive Sleepy Hollow can't hold a candle to it.

Bava's visual style has often been (wrongly) described as his only asset. The fact is that it alone would be more than enough. Little in these stories is conveyed in dialogue; Bava's directing is almost completely visual. The greedy nurse's fixation on the clairvoyant's jeweled ring, for instance, is neatly conveyed in furtive looks and matched compositions. The visual links between the ring and a (ghostly?) insect aid the jump from the natural to the supernatural.

Seen in this flattering DVD, Black Sabbath makes the jump from ghost movie 2nd class, to world-class cinema. Instead of being 'exercises', the triple-threat tale comes off as evocative and masterly, an Italian equal to the Japanese Kwaidan.

Image's DVD of Black Sabbath is mastered in a widescreen-friendly 16:9 that pulls every chromatic nuance from what must have been a truly special film source. For 99% of the time, this scratch-free image looks brand-spanking new.

Scream of fear, or PAURA.

There are some marks around reel changes and a few moments when the image jumps (just a bit) from shrinkage, but these are barely worth mentioning. The DVD has removable subtitles (a must for viewing after the dialog has become familiar) the usual quality menus and extras - a photo gallery, original Italian trailer (full of spoilers, so wait to see it) and filmographies. There's no commentary on this disc but Tim Lucas' liner notes are especially well-chosen and informative.

The visually-oriented horror cinema of Europe, robbed of its photographic dimension in 6th-rate duplicated film copies, is finally being reborn, not in inaccessible museum showings, but on DVD where we all can see it. If this is fallout from the GATT treaty, then Washington be praised! Black Sabbath the movie can once again become better known than the rock group that appropriated its name. Kudos to Image (and Marc Walkow, for whom promoting this concept must have been an uphill battle), and may the future hold an open market for all the esoteric exotica still languishing in continental film vaults. Bravo, plain and simple.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Black Sabbath rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, still file, production notes
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: August 5, 2000


1 A.I.P.'s version of Black Sabbath with Karloff's own voice is controlled by MGM, which shows no sign of being released to DVD. One could imagine a licencing deal by which MGM would 'lend' the specific Karloff tracks to Image, and create a hybrid version (as sometimes wished for, re: Terence Stamp in Spirits of the Dead). Frankly, the Italian dubbing only makes Karloff's facial and physical performance seem all the better.

Like MARIO BAVA? Try the following SAVANT entries!
Review: BLACK SUNDAY, Review: LISA AND THE DEVIL, Review: THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, DANGER: DIABOLIK, the Guiltiest Pleasure of them All.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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