Hot on the heels of Arrow Films’ release of Mario Bava’s original Italian and A.I.P. versions of I tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath) (1963) on a UK region B combo blu-ray, Kino Lorber now releases the uncut “International” version of the film in the USA (region A), as part of their ongoing Mario Bava Series. Taken on its own terms, the new Kino Lorber release compares favorably to Arrow’s, if without the British company’s extensive extras.
Anthology films were immensely popular in the 1960’s, especially in the horror genre, and other notable examples of this subgenre include Freddie Francis’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Roy Ward Baker’s Asylum (1972), and Spirits of the Dead (1968), which was directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini no less. As disparaging as Bava could be of his own genre work, he apparently regarded Black Sabbath with some respect—an opinion echoed by many fans and critics over the decades. Seeing the film now on these new blu-rays, my own opinion that Black Sabbath is a horror classic is amply confirmed. It certainly stands comfortably with the exalted company listed above.
The film tells three lurid tales of murder, jealousy, revenge and vampirism. Though, all three tales are credited to three notable authors (Aleksey Tolstoy, Maupassant, and Chekhov), only Tolstoy has any direct connection to one of the narratives, the other two were original inventions written for the film. In the first story, a beautiful woman (Michèle Mercier) is tormented by telephone calls from an estranged lesbian lover that end in murder. In the second story, a handsome young traveler (Mark Damon) spends the night with a rural family that has a terrible curse hanging over it. If the family’s patriarch, who has gone off to hunt down a vicious bandit, does not return by a certain hour, he will have become a Wurdalak. This is the most famous of the three stories. Not only is Tolstoy’s folktale narrative quite intriguing, but Boris Karloff delivers one of the creepiest vampire performances in cinema history as the aged Gorca who slowly transforms his own family into a horde of vampires. Surprisingly, the film sticks fairly closely to Tolstoy’s original story, and only the ending is drastically altered—I suspect because to stage what Tolstoy describes would have been expensive and would have required elaborate special effects. In the third story, the ghost of a deceased woman returns to reclaim a stolen ring from her former nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux).
Bava had an unmatched feel for the Gothic, which is immediately apparent in his multicolored lighting and lurid set design. And unlike Hammer’s Terence Fisher, whose stately direction allowed his narratives to unfold at a steady pace, Bava punctuates some of his more dramatic moments with sudden zooms and other visual devices, favoring hard lighting throughout certain scenes.
Mastered from the original 35 mm negative of the uncut International version of the film, Kino Lorber’s new transfer brings impressive results. Given Kino’s non-interventionist policy regarding “restoration” it is remarkable how good this print looks. There are very few specs or scratches, and the image looks nice and sharp throughout. Close-ups look spectacular and long shots have impressive detail as well. If I were to make a direct comparison of Kino’s transfer with Arrow’s, I would say Kino’s is a bit darker and cooler than Arrow’s. Film grain on Kino’s transfer is less pronounced than on Arrow’s, especially in certain scenes. Colors are also a bit more muted, lending more realism to Bava’s expressionistically over-the-top color pallet. Whether that’s a good thing or not will be a matter of personal taste. For this reviewer’s money, both Kino’s and Arrow’s transfers of Black Sabbath are equally excellent in their respective ways. NOTE: click here to see the review of Arrow’s release with screen grabs.
The mono audio track is perfectly acceptable. It is a little treble-heavy at times, and a little bass-heavy at other times. Dialogue and music are clear, and, for the most part, there is a welcome absence of crackling, popping, and hiss.
The absence of any meaningful extra material is the only real weakness of Kino’s release of Black Sabbath. Except for a few trailers from some of Mario Bava’s other films, nothing is offered. At the very least, Tim Lucas’s wonderful commentary, (featured on Arrow’s release), should have been included and would have been most welcome.
Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath stands the test of time as one of the great Gothic horror masterpieces of the 1960’s and should be a staple in any real horror film aficionado’s collection. If your interest is primarily in the original version of the film, rather than the re-edited A.I.P version, and you live in a Region A zone, don’t hesitate in picking up Kino Lorber’s new release. The new transfer is wonderful and makes it very easy to appreciate the film for the visual tour de force that it is.
~ By Dima Ballin