Made during a period when episodic horror films were coming into their own, Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH features the theme of evil triumphant vanquishing the forces of good in each tale, and the outcome was both revolutionary and subversive for its time. With Bava being constantly reappraised and lionized (as he richly deserves) this is one of his most accomplished films and has the distinction of being one of Boris Karloff's most memorable roles at the end of his life (and a personal favorite of the director). Kino Lorber now presents American International Pictures’ (AIP’s) 1964 theatrical version of the film, now in English for the first time on Blu-ray in the United States.
Boris Karloff is the on-screen narrator first shown in extreme close-up (as if his head was floating, in an opening not shot by Bava) and then to introduce the first story (“...we prove that a ghost doesn’t have to be seen to be believed”). “A Drop of Water” is based on a story by Ivan Chekhov. A thunderstorm is in full fury as nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) returns to her apartment. She sighs and is tired. She pours herself a brandy while the dark apartment is lit in the blue flashes of a neon light from a tavern or business below. Aside from the sound of the elements her apartment is quiet and warm. She places a record album on her Victrola for a bit of amusement and begins to relax with her drink. The phone rings and a pleading, near-hysterical voice on the other end begs Miss Chester to come to a residence on the other side of town to dress the corpse of a medium who has just expired in bed.
Bava creates an atmosphere of menace from beyond the grave by cleverly utilizing the audience's fear and revulsion at the staring eyes of the dead medium already slightly mummified on her bed. The skull-like face of the medium is reminiscent of Mother Bates in Hitchcock's PSYCHO. The medium's servant (Milly Monti), having laid out a dress for burial, leaves Miss Chester alone along with the body long enough to purloin an expensive ring from the dead medium's hand whereupon a fly immediately takes its place beginning the cycle of supernatural events to come. The remainder of the episode is a tour-de-force of Bava's mastery of light and shadow, and of color and sound. He orchestrates a symphony of terror from the buzzing of a fly, the creaking of a door, and especially an incessant drop of water. Once Miss Chester returns to her seedy lodgings it becomes obvious that she has opened a door not only to the supernatural but her impending doom. A memorable macabre image is the grinning, resurrected ghost of the medium as she torments and then literally frightens to death the hapless woman. Veteran American actress Harriet White Medin (THE WHIP AND THE BODY) gives a Grand Guignol turn as the greedy landlady who continues the cycle of death by taking the medium's ring and damning herself in the process.
“The Telephone” is based on a story by F.G. Snyder. Coming in from the street, call girl Rosy (Michèle Mercier, CASANOVA 70) enters her apartment, a milieu filled with lavish furnishings, antiques and a baroque mirror above her bed. She has already started to undress and prepares to lie down. The shrill sound of her telephone startles her. In her negligee she answers it. Rosy asks who is on the line yet nobody answers. Assuming it is a prank phone call, she dismisses it and its importance. The caller calls again, and begins to describe her and everything she is doing. The voice then describes her physique and what he would like to be doing to her. The male voice is menacing and indeed threatening and the calls continue. Unseen to her, someone is observing her actions, and a threatening letter arrives from her ex-lover Frank (Milo Quesada, who later starred with Karloff in CAULDRON OF BLOOD) who is supposedly dead. Rosy calls her friend Mary (Lidia Alfonsi, THE LOVES OF HERCULES) who comes over to calm her down, believing she’s hallucinating about Frank being alive. For this segment, the American version is different than the Italian version in that some of the dialogue varies and is more “adult” and the plotline also varies (In the Italian version, the relationship between Mary and Rosy has lesbian overtones, and Mary is the one making the obscene phone calls), making it more like a ghost story.
“The Wurdalak” is based on a novelette by Aleksei Tolstoy. The most anticipated of the episodes in this trilogy is without a doubt this one. Karloff plays one of his last truly horrific characters. This is his only cinematic turn as a vampire and he makes the most of it. Much has been written about Bava's admiration and respect for the horror star and it is obvious that Karloff felt the same about The Maestro. The episode begins with Vladimir D'Urfe (Mark Damon, HOUSE OF USHER) discovering the headless cadaver of a man in a river somewhere in Eastern Europe. He journeys on horseback to a lonely, fog-enshrouded farmhouse only to find its inhabitants living in fear of the patriarch's return. The vampire legend is given a new twist in this novel retelling of Tolstoy’s tale, as the bloodsucker can only drink the blood of ones they love most. The patriarch, Gorka (Karloff), has gone off to slay Alibeq, a Turkish bandit who has terrified the countryside. Indeed he has done exactly that. And in fact, the body found by Vladimir with a dagger in his back is that of Alibeq.
From this point on, Bava relies on his well-honed palette of blues and greens with billowing clouds of dense fog to create an atmosphere of dread and fear. Karloff's entrance is an impressive, especially considering he was past age 70 at the time. Decades of horror roles behind him, every nuance and grimace are perfectly realized in his great face. He dominates the film from this point on and in a moment most macabre he produces Alibeq's severed head to be mounted outside the estate for all to see that the tyrant is vanquished. Gorka's post midnight return assures us the nightmare is about to unfold, and when Gorka expresses his hunger it is obvious what he is hungry for. The obscene manner in which he cuddles his own grandchild is blood chilling as is the little boy's resurrection as a wurdalak crying to his mother, he being cold and pleading to be allowed back in the family's massive wooden homestead after his death. Out of fear, the family reluctantly embraces their vampiric father's return and one by one the loved ones turn on each other, while young Vladimir attempts to run off with Gorka’s beautiful daughter Sdenka (Suzy Anderson, WAR OF THE ZOMBIES), who he falls deeply in love with.
Released in Italy as “Three Faces of Fear” (I tre volti della paura), BLACK SABBATH is no doubt a masterpiece in Italian horror, and it’s notable that one of the giants of the genre, Karloff, contributed largely to that claim, as it was a sizable hit upon its U.S. release. It is Bava's use of color and the zoom lens that are his stylistic trademarks and propel the “Wurdalak” episode briskly along without lagging behind. Karloff has innumerable powerful moments and Bava lets him shine through at every opportunity. The bravura Technicolor cinematography by ace assistant Ubaldo Terzano in unison with Giorgio Giovannini's gothic aesthetic is in total force here. The masterful lensing under Bava's total orchestration proves a compelling counterpoint to his brilliant utilization of black and white chiaroscuro in previous efforts, most notably in BLACK SUNDAY and I VAMPIRI.
And now for some more of the main differences between the Italian version and the American version, which is what is presented here. First off, the order of the stories is different (in the Italian version it’s “The Telephone”, “The Wurdalak” and “The Drop of Water”) and the rather unforgettable melodies of Italian composer Roberto Nicolosi have been replaced in the AIP version with the more driving score by Les Baxter. In the AIP version, “The Telephone” also differs in that it adds scenes of a dog-walking neighbor yet subtracts scenes which allude to Mary being an over-the-phone harasser. “The Wurdalak” also has some extra gore in the Italian version removed from the AIP version, namely quick shots of Gorka holding Alibeq's severed head before flinging it across the floor. Never seen in the American prints, Bava shot a scene of Karloff on a wooden horse as extras ran around with tree branches giving the appearance of movement, and that was used as humorous closing narration in the Italian version only (without the benefit of Karloff’s voice). But the major variation that gives this AIP version an edge is that Karloff’s own voice is present and he gets more generous screen time in his priceless hosting duties. The Italian version runs 92 minutes, while this AIP version runs 96 minutes.
In 2013, Arrow Video released both the Italian and American versions of BLACK SABBATH as a UK Region B Blu-ray/DVD combo. Kino Lorber, who had released the Italian version only on Blu-ray in 2013 as a barebones edition, were supposed to release a BLACK SUNDAY/BLACK SABBATH combo Blu-ray in 2014, but after a few copies leaked out, it was quickly pulled from circulation (Kino ended up releasing the AIP version of BLACK SUNDAY as a single release in early 2015). Now Kino delivers the AIP version of BLACK SABBATH as a single Region A Blu-ray presenting the film in 1080p HD in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Kino have licensed the film from MGM and, like the Arrow UK release, have used their HD master, which nicely preserves the film’s American theatrical presentation (due to the difference in lab processing, the Italian and American prints of the film have always looked different in appearance, with the Italian version looking a bit more vibrant and somewhat varied in color timing). Colors here look richly saturated, with the picture having a nice bright appearance and excellent detail, with only occasional softness. As the transfer well replicates the glorious look of the original theatrical prints, the organic look maintains some filmic grain which is never too excessive. The DTS-HD Master Audio track has Baxter’s music amplified well, while the (mostly) post-synced English dialogue is always clear. No subtitle options are offered.
Tim Lucas (who first recorded a commentary for the Italian version of the film, originally found on Image Entertainment’s 2000 DVD) is on hand for an eloquent new commentary for this release, specifying the differences between the AIP and the Italian versions, and he gives some scene-specific information and comments and facts related to the cast, technicians and of course Bava and his distinct style and visual techniques. As he’s done in print in the past, Lucas gives a precise account of the differences between the American and Italian variants of “The Telephone” segment (and what bits are exclusive to each version) as well as the origins of the story. The original AIP BLACK SABBATH trailer, as well as the AIP trailer for THE CRIMSON CULT (also available in Blu-ray through Kino Lorber Studio Classics) round out the extras. (George R. Reis with Christopher Dietrich)
BACK TO REVIEWS