The Film: 4/5
Italian horror legend Mario Bava presents three tales of terror hosted by Boris Karloff. In the first, "Il Telephono" (The Telephone), Parisian prostitute Rosy (Michele Mercier) begins to receive threatening phone calls one evening after arriving home. Eventually she realizes that the caller is her disgruntled ex-pimp Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), recently escaped from prison, and he is watching her every move with the intention of killing her out of revenge by dawn. Rosy quickly phones her former lesbian lover Mary (Lidia Alfonsi) and asks her to come to the apartment for protection. Mary agrees despite the troubled history between the two of them. Before the evening is finished secrets will be revealed and blood will flow.
In the second - and best - of the stories, "I Wurdulak" (The Wurdulak), Russian nobleman Count Vladimir d'Urfe (Mark Damon) is riding on horseback across the mountainous region when he comes across a dead body beheaded with a dagger in its back. He takes the dagger out and continues riding with the decapitated cadaver until he reaches the home of a family headed by Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) and his brother Pietro (Massimo Righi) and sister Sdenka (Susy Andersen). Giorgio reveals to the Count that the dagger belongs to his father Gorca (Boris Karloff) who had rode off five days earlier to hunt a Turkish criminal named Alibeq who had become a mythical creature known as a "wurdulak" - a living corpse that feasts on the blood of their loved ones. The family worries that if their father does not return by the stroke of midnight that night he will have become one too, and sure enough at the clock strikes Gorca returns from his long journey. Looking pale and disheveled with a changed demeanor, Gorca is initially suspected of being a wurdulak by everyone except for the skeptical Vladimir but soon produces the severed head of his quarry as proof that he is still human. But as the family sleeps that night the beloved father reveals his true nature and Vladimir, who has fallen in love with Sdenka, and the others find themselves in mortal danger.
The third and weakest tale of the lot is "La Goccia D'Acqua" (The Drop of Water). In Victorian London, nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) is summoned to the home of a recently deceased countess one night during horrible weather to prepare the corpse for burial. Irritated that the family never pays her for her services. the nurse takes the countess' sapphire ring off of her cold, dead hand as financial compensation. Right away strange occurrences begin. When she returns home later that night Helen finds that her sink faucet will not stop dripping and a buzzing fly from the countess' home has arrived to pester her even more. But the worst is yet to come, because even though the cause of the countess' death had been determined to be a heart attack she had in fact been claimed by the spirits of the dead she frequently communicated with. Anyone who has ever read an E.C. Comics horror title knows intimately well that the dead don't appreciate it much when you rip them off. Now imagine what happens next. Yep.
U.K.-based Arrow Video began releasing some of famed Italian filmmaker Mario Bava's most terrifying horror films to Blu-ray and DVD in recent months and this gave me a golden opportunity to catch up on the filmography of a modern master of cinematic nightmares whose work I have only dabbled in up until this year. The company's restoration jobs and supplements package for each title has been second to none in the industry, and this includes their American counterparts released by Kino in 2013 as well. Though I still believe their release of Bava's breakthrough film Black Sunday to contain the finest bonus features of the bunch the honor of the title with the greatest audio and video quality has to go to the director's 1963 horror anthology feature Black Sabbath, or as it was titled for its original European release, I Tre Volti Della Paura (translated as The Three Faces of Fear). Most importantly, the movie is pretty damn good too.
A brief introduction by Boris Karloff where he promises all manners of horrific fun to come in the following ninety minutes feels at first like he's presenting the American theatrical trailer. It's a cheeky way to catch the audience off guard as we are plunged into the first story, which could almost be a predecessor to movies like When a Stranger Calls and the opening sequence of the Wes Craven's original Scream where a supposedly helpless heroine is trapped inside a house while a mysterious maniac taunts and terrorizes her over the phone. With all of the action confined mostly to the one set that serves as Rosy's comfortable apartment, Bava stages the proceedings efficiently and milks every second for the utmost intensity, and he even manages to throw in a few surprising twists but never at the expense of the emotional impact of the story.
"The Wurdulak" is the true masterpiece of this anthology, a creepy and atmospheric Gothic chiller with roots in Russian folklore as well as Bava's earlier classic Black Sunday. There is nary a wrong step taken by the director in this story; from the eerie opening moments following Count Vladimir's discovery of the headless body (not in a topless bar oddly enough) of Alibeq we are submerged in one of the most visually striking and original works of film Bava has ever called the shots on. Karloff's late entry as the father adds superbly to the overbearing mood of skulking wintry terror with his unnerving visage and repulsion at the sight of meat. Adapted from Aleksey Tolstoy's (second cousin to Leo) 1884 novel The Family of the Vourdalak, "The Wurdulk" is both Bava and Karloff at their absolute best. Mark Damon makes for a very dashing and skeptical hero, the other actors fare well, and the sumptuous Italian locations used for this story are hauntingly exquisite. This story also features a moment sure to unnerve even the most horror-saturated modern moviegoer when the ravenous Gorca takes his sleeping grandson away Ivan to become his next victim as he soothingly tells him, "It's a secret." The hidden implications of those three words continue to stick in my mind.
Having been well acquainted with the poetic justice endings of many a reprinted issue of Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, the final story "The Drop of Water" held few amazements for me. Despite being the narrative squab of this strong anthology this tale still has many moments of edge-of-your-seat suspense and skillfully demonstrates how scary some well-employed sound effects and disquieting atmosphere can be, though the sight of the countess' face contorted into a nightmarish death mask is the stuff of a demented imagination. "The Drop of Water" may be the weakest link of Black Sabbath, but that doesn't make any less fun or terrifying. Just extraordinarily predictable.
Note: Arrow's Blu-ray release of Black Sabbath contains both Mario Bava's 92-minute director's cut released throughout Europe under the title I Tre Volti Della Paura and the 96-minute U.S. edit released by American-International Pictures as Black Sabbath with additional footage directed by Salvatore Billitteri. The U.S. cut features a different score composed by Les Baxter, who performed similar duties on A.I.P.'s releases of Bava's Black Sunday and Baron Blood.
Arrow's release of Black Sabbath was delayed for two weeks so that they could fine tune their restoration work on the film. The extra time they put in was well worth it because both cuts of Bava's classic look and sound positively remarkable. It's quite possibly that these are the best Blu-ray transfers ever done for a Bava film.
Both the Italian and U.S. versions are presented in fresh new 1080p high-definition transfers in the 1.84:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and I have to say that the picture quality has to be of original theatrical exhibition quality because I just can't imagine Black Sabbath looking better than this on home video. The transfers for both films feature a few minor noticeable differences but for the most part are very much alike. A great deal of grain has been removed, details sharpened, and Bava's lurid lighting schemes have been bolstered to eye-popping perfection. His sets and locations - the best of which is an oppressively snowy forest which figures into the second story - explode with beautiful texture and presence now.
Bava's preferred cut gets an Italian LPCM 2.0 audio track while the U.S. Black Sabbath edit comes equipped with an English LPCM 2.0 track. Like the comparison in picture quality there are no real clear differences to be found in these audio tracks. Music and dialogue are strong for both with the different orchestral scores pitched at the proper volume and the mix for the dialogue sounding very clear and highly listenable. Outstanding work all the way. English subtitles are also included for both versions.
In addition to the two different cuts of the film Arrow Video has also provided this release with a slate of impressive bonus features spread across one Blu-ray and two DVDs. On the Blu-ray we get an audio commentary with Video Watchdog editor/publisher and Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas on the director's cut. Being an expert on all things pertaining to the legendary director's body of work it's not surprising that Lucas' commentary is highly informative and analytical. As always, the man clearly does his homework. Well worth a listen or two.
Also on the Blu-ray is "Twice the Fear" (32 minutes), an all-new documentary that compares the Italian and U.S. cuts of Black Sabbath and breaks down the differences in each version, from the order of the stories to the inclusion of additional scenes to altering the character dynamic in one of the stories to some much different wraparound segments with Karloff. It's all very fascinating and detailed.
Move on to the first DVD - containing only the Italian cut in standard definition - and in addition to the Lucas commentary you'll also find a new introduction by British film journalist Alan Jones (3 minutes) where he shares his own thoughts and interpretations of the film, an international trailer (3 minutes), a U.S. trailer (2 minutes), an Italian trailer (3 minutes), a U.S. television spot (1 minute), and a U.S. spot that promises Black Sabbath alongside a showing of four other Karloff features (1 minute).
The best extra on this disc is a new interview with star Mark Damon, "A Life in Film" (21 minutes). Though his work on Black Sabbath does come up at some point this is, as the title indicates, more of a career retrospective chat as Damon takes us on a condensed journey through his career in cinema as both actor, director, and producer. He discusses his early days as a young actor, ghost directing films for Roger Corman, and relocating to Italy where he continued to prosper in film and even helped Clint Eastwood get the starring role in the first of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, A Fistful of Dollars - the movie that would launch his career as an international superstar. Damon finishes the interview with a discussion of his work in foreign sales and distribution where he was instrumental in securing a U.S. release for Wolfgang Petersen's classic war drama Das Boot and working with Hal Ashby on the director's final film 8 Million Ways to Die. It's wonderful to see an overlooked legend of filmmaking finally get his due and Arrow deserves a lot of praise for letting Damon tell a little bit of his own life story.
The third and final disc is also a DVD that only contains the U.S. cut of Black Sabbath in standard definition and the "Twice the Fear" documentary.
Arrow has also included its customary reversible cover sleeve featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys and a collector's booklet featuring an essay on Black Sabbath written by David Cairns, a comparison of the two cuts by Tim Lucas, an interview with AIP producer Samuel Z. Arkoff on his experiences of working with Mario Bava, and archival stills and posters.
Black Sabbath is one of the better horror anthology films I have ever seen, but like most of them it tends to lose its way towards the end after an exceptional first two acts. Still though, with this movie Mario Bava continued to prove why he was one of the genre's finest storytellers and his notable accomplishment in fright film history has been restored to astounding perfection by Arrow Video and backed up by enough supplements to load a cobweb-covered crypt of the damned. Recommended for the movie and extras, but highly recommended for the restored picture and sound.