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Kino has been around the steeplechase a couple of times with this important title. Almost two years ago they prepared a dandy double bill of American-International's U.S. versions of both Black Sunday and Black Sabbath. A legal issue caused the release to be canceled. That would have caused a number of review copies out there to become collector's items, if discs became valuable because of misprints, like coins or postage stamps. 1 Unfortunately, the encoding of Black Sabbath on that double disc had a serious sync problem. The whole point of getting the American cut is to have Boris Karloff's voice intact. Everything he says is two syllables out of whack, a deal killer for obsessive collectors.
Kino has now corrected the goofs, with separate and corrected releases of both of these Bava pictures. Black Sabbath doesn't have Barbara Steele but it does have some of Mario Bava's most impressive horror filmmaking, and in color. And for this new edition, it's been given a new Tim Lucas feature audio commentary.
25 years have passed since Tim Lucas's magazine Video Watchdog began bringing fantastic film fans the hidden stories behind the original European versions of our favorite Italian horror films. This reviewer saw Caltiki, the Immortal Monster on the big screen as a child and had no idea where it came from. Even as an adult I assumed it had been a Mexican production. Unless one had access to trade journals or exotic foreign magazines, the world of Euro-horror was an intriguing blank.
Then came home video. Mario Bava soon became a hot subject for Video Watchdog, and it wasn't long before we got the full stories behind his sensational horror pictures. American-International Pictures imported the genuinely scary La maschera del demonio and made Barbara Steele an immediate cult star; only later did we find out to what degree censorship alterations had been performed on our U.S. version. Bava's I tre volta della paura underwent even more changes for its American release.
These pictures were two of the first horror film surprises of the DVD surge of the late 1990s, when Image released them in their original European versions. Fans that had seen them faded, battered and severely edited on TV could now appreciate Bava's visual artistry. Region A Blu-rays of the Italian cuts followed a couple of years ago from Kino Classics, Sunday in 2012 and Sabbath in 2013.
But fans felt cheated when foreign-region BDs of these titles showed up that also included American-International's altered cuts, the versions we knew and remembered from scary matinees and TV broadcasts. When A.I.P. lost the rights, the English-language tracks disappeared completely. An early laserdisc combo of the two titles remained the only decent way to see them. I've gotten a lot of mail about this. Some readers write in to vent their frustration that, unless they go to the effort to become all-region consumers, the desirable UK discs of these films are out of reach. Others proclaim that the UK encodings are of better quality. I've steered some of these readers to reviews and coverage by Tim Lucas and Nathaniel Thompson, correspondents that watch these genre releases more closely than I do.
For the basic review on Black Sabbath, let me refer readers to my essay on the UK release. I'll stick to a version comparison for this run-down.
The brightly colored Black Sabbath originally had more adult content, and accordingly underwent even more editorial changes. The episode called "The Telephone" was completely reworked to excise a lesbian theme, the story of which I remember making fascinating reading in an early VW. When we saw the Italian original we were excited by the widescreen color images and its alternate set of Boris Karloff host segments. In Italy Karloff appeared only at the beginning and the end. His final appearance was a backstage joke, in character as the vampire Gorca from the "Wurdulak" episode.
Boris Karloff is the main reason fans have been impatient to see the American version revived: he speaks in English, in his own voice. The higher-pitched dubbed voice used for the Italo version had no special qualities. This dub with his irreplaceable, infinitely superior vocal performance kicks Black Sabbath several notches upward in appeal. Karloff's host segments are more varied in the American version, which adds to the fun.
Les Baxter's replacement music for Black Sunday was a big plus, but his work on this show is a mixed bag. Roberto Nicolosi's original cues were lively when they needed to be, and stayed out of the way when a basic, non-amplified suspense feeling was indicated. Baxter's music is not as much of an improvement. It's also a little irritating when the U.S. version slips into an unfunny comic mode at the finish, going goofy with a snippet of a John Phillips Sousa march, etc. The cue title on Baxter's original music cue sheet is "Movie Set," which we interpret as referencing the Italian joke ending. Baxter must have seen a cut with the gag ending intact and written a corresponding "wacky" cue. As AIP dropped the Karloff-on-a-hobby horse finish Baxter's music no longer makes any sense.
Overly obsessed film fans (who, me?) that dabble with editing software sometimes make their own versions of movies -- just the way a few annoying rights holders like to inflict personal revisions on the films they control. Kino and International Media Films stick to the original version here, which is a good thing. But we immediately fantasize a Black Sabbath variant the way we really want to see it, all in original Italian except for Karloff's voice where possible. I wouldn't at all mind if the Polish Wurdulak answered in English, when his Polish family spoke in Italian -- that sounds fine to me. 2
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of the U.S. Release Version of Black Sabbath was taken from A.I.P.'s original printing elements, which are a number of film generations away from the source used for the European versions. Therefore the image doesn't look quite as good. Contrast is up, sharpness is down and there's much more grain. The movie still plays well. To really tell, one needs to see the versions side-by-side.
Happily, the audio sync is now perfect throughout. Karloff's rich, modulated voice adds so much to his performance that we wish he and Bava could have collaborated on more movies. Alas, with the exception of Vincent Price, A.I.P. seems to have seen their horror stars as cash cows, to be used for their marquee names and not their great talent. Have an extra day on Karloff's contract? Stick him in a Beach Party movie!
There are plenty of fans out there that will want to see for themselves how A.I.P.'s editors bowdlerized the "Telephone" and still came up with a moderately scary episode. Some viewers prefer this version. And who doesn't want to see and hear Boris Karloff?
A trailer is included. Kino hasn't been going all out with extras for their Bava releases, so the inclusion of a new Tim Lucas commentary seems almost an effort to compensate. Tim rolls off the facts, the stories, the backstories and his learned opinions with great ease. Tim can tell us where footage is missing, what's been rearranged and even reminds us of footage present that doesn't appear in the Italian cut. We learn that the actress playing the thieving blonde woman in A Drop of Water is actually the mother of actor Jean-Paul Leaud. At the entrance of Gorka in the final episode, (remember, they're in a different order here) we get a very fine appreciation of Boris Karloff. Tim is right when he calls Karloff's work here, his last great horror role.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Eight years ago Dark Sky put out a handsome disc of Bava's Kill Baby... Kill, with terrific Tim Lucas commentary that made me (finally) appreciate the movie. When Dark Sky had to withdraw the title, it did indeed become highly coveted. I gave mine to collector-advisor Gary Teetzel, as a token gesture for all he's done to help edit DVD Savant articles (mostly correcting my silly mistakes). I wonder how much that disc would fetch now: a lot more, or a lot less?
The Telephone IT = 22.04
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T'was Ever Thus.