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Black Sabbath Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 August 2000

Black Sabbath

Image Entertainment
MPAA rating: Unrated
starring: Boris Karloff, Lidia Alfonsi, Michèle Mercier, Mark Damon, Susy Andersen, Glauco Oronato, Jacqueline Pierreux
release year: 1963
film rating: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Image's latest release in their Mario Bava collection is the original Italian cut of Bava's 'I Tre volti della paura,' released in the United States as 'Black Sabbath.' Overall, using the Italian cut rather than the rearranged, cut and rescored American International release is a good idea, but there is a significant loss: the voice of Boris Karloff.

In his brief opening and closing scenes as host, and in the "Wurdulak" sequences, the only one of the three stories he appears in, he's been dubbed by an Italian actor. Since Karloff was speaking English on the set, his voice was probably recorded; it's too bad those tracks weren't found. Granted, this would have meant that he alone (and possibly Mark Damon) would have been the only actors in the movie speaking English, with the rest being subtitled, even in scenes with Karloff, but that would have been an infinitesimally small price to pay to gain Karloff's beautiful, distinctive voice.

That cavil to one side, this is an excellent disc. Unlike Image's release of 'Black Sunday,' this doesn't have a voice track by Tim Lucas, but his perceptive notes are printed on the packaging. The extras include a trailer (save it until after you've watched the movie), an extensive collection of stills, biographies and scene selections. Perhaps more text material could have been included, or a comparison between sequences from the American release and this Italian original, but as with any DVD, what really counts is the movie, and this is a good one.

The screenplay was co-written by Mario Bava with Marcello Fondato and Alberto Bevilacqua; they're supposedly based on classic stories, but as Lucas' liner notes point out, were primarily original stories -- particularly the third -- by Bava himself.

The first story, "The Telephone" (Chapter 2), was probably watched by Kevin Williamson, since the opening scene in 'Scream' is almost a paraphrase of this tense little thriller. A woman (Michèle Mercier) alone in her basement apartment receives a series of threatening phone calls from a menace who seems to be able to see her.

There's not much new here, but Bava generates a great deal of suspense, partly by a kind of narrative trick regarding the identity of the caller. The only fumble in the plot: why doesn't the imperiled heroine call the police?

"The Wurdulak" (Chapter 6) is the best and most elaborate story of the three. Set in the Balkans, perhaps Russia, in the mid-19th century, it tells of a traveler (Mark Damon) who is given shelter by a family terrified of the return of the patriarch, Gorca (Boris Karloff). They fear that if he returns after five days have passed, he will be a wurdulak, a kind of vampire driven to attack those he loves the most.

Karloff is excellent in this, giving one of the best performances of his career; it's one of the very few times that he played a figure of evil, and the only time he was a vampire. With his gray curly hair and walrus mustache, a slow, menace smile and a shamble instead of a walk, he seems both extremely powerful and extremely dangerous.

The photography in this sequence is especially good, strongly resembling Bava's own 'Black Sunday,' but this time in color. There's a shot of ruined buildings at sunset that's haunting and beautiful, like a postcard from Transylvania. But the best thing about this segment is Karloff; it's too bad that he and Bava never worked together again.

The third story, "The Drop of Water" (Chapter 11), is a suspenseful if conventional story in which a woman (Jacqueline Pierreux) who apparently dresses dead bodies for a living steals a valuable ring from the corpse of a freshly-dead medium. Returning home, she's haunted by the sounds of dripping water and a fly, and finally by the medium herself.

Some consider this one of the greatest short horror stories ever filmed, but others may find it too predictable to have the impact Bava intended. Also, the dummy of the dead medium is rather too obviously a prop, draining some of the impact.

This and 'Black Sunday' are probably Bava's two best films, the two best horror movies ever made in Italy. Unlike some of his later films, the plots here are clear and uncomplicated, and he doesn't over-use the zoom lens as he sometimes did later on. He always had a brilliant eye for composition and visual style, never better than in 'Black Sabbath.' It's a beautiful film, eerie when it needs to be, straightforward (as in "The Telephone") when that's required.

In the last two years or so, "Eurohorror" has taken off in American home video, but there are really two schools. Directors like Bava, Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti were of a classic school, wedding elements of the old Universal films and the later Hammer movies to an Italian sensibility; their movies were sensual, darkly romantic and beautiful. Later directors, including Ruggero Deodato, Lucio Fulci and Bava's son Lamberto, emphasized extremely graphic gore and mordant, downbeat stories. Only the often excellent Dario Argento successfully bridged the gap between these styles of Italian Eurohorror, although it is true that at least one of Mario Bava's films, released in the United States under the charming title, 'Twitch of the Death Nerve,' is pretty damned gory.

It's easy to understand why these films, both old and new school, have caught on with American home video customers. The films play very well in the intimate environment of home theater: they're colorful and exciting, but the stories are not very demanding. They're great for casual watching, and that is praise, not an insult.

But Mario Bava's films still stand out above all the rest; the best have both an underlying tone of melancholy and regret, and a sense of just how much fun it is to make movies. (This is cheerfully underscored in the very last scene of 'Black Sabbath,' never before shown in the United States.) Despite overtones in the films of many other directors, there was only one Mario Bava, and Image is to be congratulated for their care in this series of his films.

If you liked this DVD, you may also like...
Black Sunday, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Tales of Terror, Dead of Night (1945)

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital mono
aspect ratio(s):
letterboxed, enhanced for 16X9 TVs
special features: notes; cast & crew filmographies; photo gallery; trailers
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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