|Starring:||Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, Michèle Mercier, Jacqueline Pierreux|
|Video codec:||MPEG-4 AVC|
|Audio:||Italian: LPCM 2.0
English: LPCM 2.0
|Disks:||3 (1 BD, 2 DVD)|
Never before available on DVD or Blu-ray, the A.I.P. (U.S.) version of Mario Bava’s kaleidoscopic masterpiece Black Sabbath (1963) now arrives on home video from Britain’s Arrow Films in a finely transferred region B Blu-ray, together with the original Italian version of the film, I tre volti della paura. This is the latest release in Arrow’s ongoing Mario Bava series which varies from strength to strength.
An omnibus consisting of three unrelated horror stories, Black Sabbath’s greatest strength—like that of all Bava films—lies not in story structure and character development, but in Bava’s magnificent talent for creating a lurid, almost hallucinatory atmosphere, using impressive camerawork and advantageous colorful lighting. That said, I have always found the plots and character motivations in Black Sabbath among the most convincing of Bava’s oeuvre.
Though the film boasts impressive literary names as the original sources for its three stories, only one of the credited authors is directly linked to the film—Aleksey Tolstoy (credited as Ivan Tolstoy in the film), who wrote the novella, La Famille du Vourdalak, in the film just called, I Wurdulak. The film’s other two stories are original compositions written for the film, and are not based on works by Maupassant and Chekhov as the film claims. Maupassant may have taken horror very seriously, but Chekhov almost certainly did not, as evidenced by his satirical short “horror” story, Nerves.
The three stories in both Black Sabbath and I tre volti della paura are hosted by Boris Karloff, though his introductory footage was re-shot for the American release. He also portrays Gorka the Wurdulak (Gorcha in Tolstoy’s original novella), in what is arguably one of the creepiest vampire performances in cinema, delivered by Karloff with gleeful zeal, as only he could.
The other two stories concern the ghost of a deceased old woman returning to reclaim a stolen ring; and a beautiful call girl who is tormented, via frightening telephone calls, by an estranged lesbian lover. In the US version of the film, the latter story was redubbed and slightly re-edited by A.I.P. to eliminate the lesbian theme in favor of the young woman being haunted by the ghost of her dead boyfriend. Needless to say, A.I.P’s cavalier, era-expectant treatment of Bava’s original intentions does not sit well with many modern fans of the film. There was also some minor but troublesome tinkering done by A.I.P. with I Wurdulak, lest the more sensitive souls among us would be too horrified at seeing Karloff pull out the severed head of Alibek from his bag.
Ultimately, there are pros and cons to both versions. The main advantage of the A.I.P. version is that Karloff’s real voice is used, both in his introductions and in the Wurdulak segment. There are also advantages at certain moments of the A.I.P. version in having Les Baxter’s music substituting Roberto Nicolosi original score. One such moment comes in The Drop of Water story, when the dead woman’s eyes are suddenly seen open after having been closed by her nurse—a chilling moment. Baxter’s music also works particularly well in I Wurdulak, which has some genuine Turkish motifs running through it, lending the story an air of regional authenticity, whereas Nicolosi provides a more generalized, though still effective, horror score. The Telephone story, however, fares much better in the Italian version, both in terms of the plotline, which makes more sense without A.I.P.’s re-editing, and in terms of Nicolosi’s jazzy music score, which allows for more eerie silences than Baxter’s.
Thanks to Arrow Films, we can now enjoy both versions for the first time, with excellent transfers, no less.
Let me say straight off that Arrow’s new blu-ray is a major upgrade to the old DVD release of the Italian version from Image Entertainment. The 1080p transfer, presented in the 1.84:1 aspect ratio makes Bava’s kaleidoscopic color pallet come brilliantly to life. Neither print is pristine, but both are very good, and Arrow wisely chose to not over-restore the results with DNR and edge enhancement filters. Colors look natural, though not always consistent. Film grain is fully present, but seldom distracts. All in all, an excellent transfer, with any limitations being inherent in the source material.
The audio quality in on par with the quality of the video. Dialogue is crisp and easy to follow. Both music scores have a natural depth and presence across all ranges. Tape hiss is minimal. The A.I.P. version is in English, while the Italian version is, of course, spoken in Italian, and Arrow’s subtitles in the Italian version are very accurate.
In keeping with Arrow’s other releases, this one comes packed with goodies, the most interesting of which is an audio commentary by Tim Lucas, one of the most astute film commentators of our time, and a noted Mario Bava specialist. Other extras include an introduction to the film by author and critic Alan Jones; A Life In Film – an Interview with star Mark Damon; Twice the Fear – a comparison of the different versions of the film; as well as 3 trailers; TV and Radio spots.
Whichever version you prefer, Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath remains one of his finest cinematic achievements and a major landmark in Italian horror cinema. Considering that Arrow Films provides us with both versions in excellent transfers, there is no reason not to purchase this set. Along with Hammer’s release of Dracula 1958 on Blu-ray earlier this year, this release of both versions of Black Sabbath from Arrow Films should be a natural purchase.
~ By Dima Ballin