Saturday, 25 April 2015

Black Sabbath (1963)

One of the most praised and appreciated of all anthology horror films, Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH (I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA in its native Italy) came about partly because of the huge success of AIP’s Tales of Terror (1960), which presented three short stories by Edgar Allan Poe directed by Roger Corman. Sidney Salkow’s TWICE TOLD TALES (1963) attempted to repeat that movie’s success by casting its star, Vincent Price, in three tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was AIP again, however who, in the middle of their Poe cycle and with Boris Karloff under contract, saw the lucrative potential in the casting of the then-host of the successful US anthology TV series THRILLER in an anthology picture and have him star in one of the episodes as well.    

        Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY had been a big success all around the world and hence the film was retitled BLACK SABBATH everywhere except Italy. That, however, was not the only change. Apparently the content of the version Bava turned in was deemed too controversial by its US distributors who recut, reordered and rescored the film such that the two different titles ended up referring to quite different movies. These two versions are included in Arrow’s splendid three disc release of the movie so now fans can make up their own minds which they think is the better.

I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA (The Three Faces of Fear) presents three short horror tales allegedly written by authors as diverse as Gogol and Tolstoy but actually all made up by the screenwriters for the purpose of the movie. First off is The Telephone, in which pretty Michele Mercier comes home one evening to her Paris flat to be terrorised by a mysterious caller who claims to be her ex-lover. The only problem is he’s in prison - or is he? It’s the right story to begin the film with, easing the viewer into a scenario that gradually becomes more and more disturbing until the payoff.

The Wurdalak stars Boris Karloff and, for that reason alone, is probably the most famous segment. In the wilds of 19th century Russia Mark Damon comes across a headless corpse with a knife in its heart. Later on he stops at a cottage to ask for shelter for the night. The family within are awaiting the return of their patriarch (Karloff) who has been missing for several days. Apparently he went to do battle with a wurdalak - their term for vampire. At midnight Karloff returns, but it transpires that he is now a wurdalak himself as he proceeds to infect and destroy the entire family.
The Wurdalak is a step up in horror after The Telephone, and a step up in lush visuals as well. In fact this remains one of the most gorgeous and atmospherically shot segments of any horror film. The fact that it’s the middle segment makes one wonder how it can be topped, but Bava does so - superbly.

The Drop of Water is set in Victorian London. Jacqueline Pierreux plays a nurse who is the kind of heartless self-centred schemer that you know is going to meet a sticky end. She is called to a house where its owner, a medium, has just died. She steals the ring on the corpse’s finger, setting in motion a chain of events that allows Bava to bring the film to an end with an horrific tour de force of worrying sounds and creepy visuals. It’s a testament to the episode’s effectiveness that it’s better than The Wurdalak.

I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA ends on a somewhat curious note and those who would rather leave the film with a sense of delicious horror rather than stunned confusion may prefer to switch it off at this point. Apparently there was a demand for Karloff to appear at the end against Bava’s wishes and so he does, riding a prop horse as the camera pulls back to reveal the action is taking place in a studio. It’s the only misplaced note in one of the classic horror films of all time. It was Bava’s own favourite of the many horror pictures he made and it’s not difficult to see why.

The AIP US cut of BLACK SABBATH is also present in Arrow’s set and it’s probably best viewed only after watching the definitive Italian version described above. It would be unfair to those who haven’t seen Bava’s original to describe some of the changes as they involved excising some of the more controversial plot elements. First off the order is changed so that The Drop of Water is first and The Wurdalak comes at the end. The Telephone, now in the middle, was drastically recut to change the plot entirely. Karloff’s opening narration has been shot differently as well, and now he pops up between stories to introduce them whereas in the original there are no linking sequences. The restored BluRay of BLACK SABBATH played at Glasgow FrightFest a couple of years ago and critic Alan Jones commented that there were more people present at that screening than at the UK premiere of the movie back in 1963.

I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA in both its forms finally made its debut on UK DVD and BluRay a little later than originally planned but it was all the more welcome for the top-notch job Arrow Video managed. As well as BluRay transfers of both films, the three disc set includes both movies on DVD as well, and you’ll need to watch all three discs to see the fabulous bounty of extras Arrow has seen fit to provide. First off is a commentary track by Bava expert Tim Lucas for the original Italian print. As one has come to expect from Mr Lucas, it's packed with facts and interesting bits of information and is well worth a listen if you’re interested in aspects of the movie’s production.
Possibly the best extra, and one that will prove fascinating to those interested in the American repackaging of European product, is the thirty minute featurette Twice the Fear. This allows direct comparison between the two versions, and shows that not just picture editing, but music and sound effects were radically changed to create the two versions. This is definitely worth watching, if only to see how Bava creates more tension with dripping water than AIP does with Les Baxter’s blaring horn section and a lot of other noise as well.
With the two versions of the film, the commentary, and Twice the Fear the Blu Ray comes to an end and so one has to turn to the DVDs to see the introduction from Alan Jones, the trailers, the picture gallery, and another goodie - a twenty minute interview with star and future film producer Mark Damon, who talks about his entire career from being discovered by Groucho Marx up to and including producing the Academy Award-winning MONSTER starring Charlize Theron. 
All this, plus the usual excellent Graham Humphreys artwork, a booklet with an essay on the film and an interview with Samuel Z Arkoff, rounds off a package that is one of Arrow’s best contributions to the preservation of cult horror cinema yet. An essential purchase and well worth the wait.

Arrow Films released Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH on 13th May 2013 in a triple disc dual format edition (Blu-ray and DVD) which is still available

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