“BLACK SABBATH” (Blu-ray Review, Arrow Films)


Anthology horror films are a tricky beast to pull off and more often remembered for their inconsistency than anything else. Normally only about half of the shorts in an anthology are strong if you’re lucky, although there are a few exceptions. The big one is Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, a strong contender for the director’s finest outing combining everything the filmmaker did right in his early 60s groundbreaking days and tossing in one of the great late Boris Karloff performances for good measure. Sadly, the movie has never been particularly easy to track down, constantly going in and out of print and available in two distinct cuts that are surprisingly different. Well, the good news is that the good folks at Arrow Films narrowed their laser sights onto BLACK SABBATH as part of their current commitment to bring Bava to HD, and now all may drool over the disc in horror geek delight. Given that the film is not only one of the maestro’s best, but one of his prettiest “horror in Technicolor” achievements, this disc is practically guaranteed to make eyeballs bleed in the best possible sense.

Following an amusing introduction from Boris Karloff in which he guarantees the audience a case of the willies, BLACK SABBATH kicks off with “The Telephone,” a nasty proto-giallo about a prostitute who thinks she is being terrorized on the phone by her recently-released-from-prison pimp, but is actually receiving calls from her lesbian ex-lover disguising her voice for revenge. Inevitably, the tale ends in blood in a precisely designed surprisingly progressive thriller for 1963. Secondly, “The Wurdulak” is a gory n’ gothic tale in the vein of BLACK SUNDAY, starring Boris Karloff as a father who returns to his family with an unfortunate case of vampirism. It’s the longest, bloodiest, and most traditional horror story of the three, carried by the creepy stone castle production design, a nice subtext about vampirism as family decay, and one of Karloff’s last truly great performances. Finally the film closes up shop with one of the highlights of Bava’s entire career, “A Drop of Water.” The story is simple, following a nurse who steals a ring off a rotting corpse only to regret it when the inevitable haunting begins. It’s style that makes the final entry the highlight, with Bava pulling out all the stops to make this a mind-boggling collection of gorgeous visual design and unsettling sound effects that hasn’t lost any of his creep-out power over the last fifty years. Bava is often credited as having inspired Argento’s string of gialli, but it’s also hard to deny after a viewing of “A Drop of Water” that his work also helped pave the way for SUSPIRIA.

That’s the order and plot summary of the Italian version of I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA. BLACK SABBATH didn’t get its Ozzy-inspiring name until AIP picked up and re-edited the movie for international release. Despite the fact that almost all available versions of the film use the title BLACK SABBATH, the US cut has been almost impossible to find for years before Arrow served it up here. In this version “A Drop of Water” comes first, followed by “The Telephone,” and capped by “The Wurdulak.” There are more, different introductions from Boris Karloff with a far more tongue in cheek tone that’s almost inappropriate. The score and sound design have been almost completely remixed, replacing Bava’s subtle chills with loud scare tactics that awkwardly clash with the delicately designed visuals. Other than those stylistic changes and a couple moments of toned down gore, “A Drop of Water” and “The Wurdulak” are pretty well the same. “The Telephone,” on the other hand is dramatically different. Early 60s America was far too repressed to include a lesbian subplot in a horror movie (even murderous lesbians, one of the great pleasures of genre film!) so it’s been re-dubbed and edited to play as a ghost story instead. The results are very awkward and confusing, but it has to be seen for that reason. It’s amazing how a little inappropriate editing can ruin something so carefully constructed. Overall, the AIP cut is definitely the inferior version, but it’s nice to finally own given the accidental hilarity of the alternate cut of “The Telephone” and the chance to actually hear Boris Karloff’s iconic, chilling lisp slip out of his mouth.

Arrow’s restoration is absolutely stunning. The Italian cut has the best transfer, which isn’t too surprising given the rarity of the AIP cut. Colors are gloriously vibrant, while depth and detail and stronger than any previous edition of the film. The movie is pure eye candy and has never looked close to this strong before, revealing details barely visible before. The AIP cut looks quite nice as well, but is slightly grainier and washed out, which again can be attributed to the difficulty associated with tracking down a proper print. The special features are limited, but excellent. First up is an authoritative commentary from Tim Lucas on the Italian cut, detailing everything you need to know about the film. Next up is “Twice the Fear,” a nice split-screen feature highlighting the differences between the two cuts that showcase everything from obvious changes to small shifts in sound design and alternate editing patterns that make a surprising difference. Alan Jones gives one of the informed introductions he provides for almost every Italian horror release from Arrow and then “Wurdulak” co-star Mark Damon provides a rather wonderful career-overview interview discussing everything from his work in BLACK SABBATH to being discovered (and picked up?) by Groucho Marx, his involvement with Corman’s Poe cycle, working in Spaghetti Westerns, producing DAS BOOT and the disastrous production that was 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE.

There are Arrow Blu-rays packed to the gills with more, but few feature movies as strong as BLACK SABBATH. The transfer is astounding, which makes a remarkable difference on the film’s impact, and having both versions of the movie in one place is a long awaited treat. There’s a reason why BLACK SABBATH was Bava’s personal favorite of his films. It’s an exquisitely constructed piece of work and possibly the only anthology movie without a single lull.

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Phil Brown
Phil Brown is a journalist, writer, and wiseacre who rattles his keyboard from somewhere in Toronto. He writes about film and comedy for a variety of websites/publications like Fangoria (duh!), Now Magazine, The Toronto Star, Comics And Gaming Magazine, Toro, Critics Studio, and others. He’s also been known to whip up the occasional comedy sketch or short film. If you feel like being friends, go ahead and find him. He doesn’t bite (much).
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