Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Blu-ray Review: BLACK SABBATH (1963)

Dual Format Blu-ray + DVD
Label: Arrow Video
Region Code: 2/B
Rating: 18 Certificate 
Duration: 132 Minutes / 135 Minutes 
Audio: LPCM Audio Italian and English with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Cast: Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, Jacqueline Pierreux, Michele Mercier, Lydia Alfonsi
Director: Mario Bava

The Maestro of the Macabre rarely did it better than BLACK SABBATH (1963), a pulse-pounding trio of suspenseful vignettes drenched in the macabre and dripping with fright, it all adds up to one fantastic horror-themed anthology and the UK's Arrow Video have a new 3-disc Blu-ray/DVD that's sure to please fans.

After a camped-up and creepy introduction from fright icon Boris Karloff we get the the lesbian-tinged thriller "The Telephone", an early Giallo entry and also Italy's first color horror film. Rosy (Michele Mercier) is a young Parisian woman,  a call girl, plagued by a series of menacing phone calls from her former pimp who's either just recently escaped from prison or reaching out to her from beyond the grave, it depends on which version of the film you watch. Fearful for her safety she reaches out to a former lady lover Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) who arrives shortly after to soothe Rosy's nerves. This is a fun one, confined to the basement apartment Rosy is a bundle of shattered nerves and just maybe Mary's not the great friend she's made herself out to be...

A great start to the film, watch both the Euro-cut and the AIP version of the film for some subtle differences, one offering something a bit more supernatural than the other. Loved the performances from the actresses, it doesn't hurt that they're both stunning Italian women either, Mario didn't just have an eye for the macabre he also had a keen sixth sense for unearthly attractive ladies, too. 

Fright icon Boris Karloff returns in a starring role with "The Wurdulak", a Gothic horror that takes us from the swinging 60's to 19th Century Russia where a young nobleman named Vladimir Durfe (Mark Damone) whom whilst travelling through the countryside happens upon the headless corpse with a peculiar dagger plunged through it's heart. Keeping the dagger he continues on until he stumbles across a small cottage seeking shelter for the night, by chance the dagger belongs to the patriarch of the family. Vlad is told that the patriarch Gorcha (Karloff) has been gone for the past five days having left in pursuit of a wurdalak, a corpses whom feeds exclusively on blood of loved ones. The concern is that he might return as one of the undead, the family members are distraught though the non-superstitious Vlad is skeptical. When Gorcha shows up on the doorstep just after midnight his creepy cold and appearance would seem to indicate he's not the same loving father who left five days earlier. This is a pretty fantastic short that plays out wonderfully, drenched in atmosphere and fog, a great exploration of the vampire mythos and quite creepy. Karloff is fantastic as Gorcha, a terrifying and creepy figure bathed in moody swaths of colored light, this film really uses the colored lighting and shadow play to the hilt, thick blankets of wafting fog, creepy Gothic ruins, and another one of Bava's trademarks, a real spine-tingler of a face peering through a window! This is definitely a top five vampire story though not the best of the bunch, that's up next. 

The final chapter of the trilogy "The Drop of Water" riffs heavily on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell Tale Heart" as a Victorian era nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called to the home of a deceased medium to prepare her corpse for burial, the medium apparently having died from a heart attack following a seance while conversing with spirits from the Beyond. Whilst preparing her corpse the nurse notices the attractive sapphire ring and pries it off her rigor mortised finger. Returning home the nurse is plagued by the sounds of dripping water and the buzzing of flies, and eventually the corpse of the medium appears to further terrorize her. The image of the dead medium is truly the stuff of nightmares, her contorted and waxy death face scared the bejeezus outta me as a kid and still sends a shiver down my spine to this day. "The Drop of Water" is fantastic, even Bava himself remembered the film as his greatest cinematic achievement and I would be hard pressed to argue, great stuff! 

The feature is concluded with more of the Boris Karloff wrap-a-round that takes the piss outta the film a bit. It's a nice bit of fun that pokes a finger in the eye of the serious chills we've just sat through featuring Karloff on a prop horse surrounded by men with branches of trees running around him to create the illusion of riding a horse, the artifice is revealed, it's a fun finale. It should be noted that the two version have a different running order, for the purpose of this review I watched the Euro version with the more impressive video quality. 

Blu-ray: Arrow's Blu-ray offers the outstanding anthology in 1080p with a MPEG-4 AVC encode, the Blu-ray features both the Italian Les Trois Visages de la Peur version and the English language American International Pictures (AIP) version which is about three minutes longer in length. The European version boasts the more robust and pleasing image of the two, Bava's colors pops, fantastic shades of lavender, blue, green and red bathe the film, it's rich visual tapestry, one of Bava's best looking titles still to this day and the new transfer, particularly the European version, is fantastic. 

The European version features the Italian language  LPCM Audio with newly translated English subtitles and a Roberto Nicolosi score. AIP's version comes with English LPCM audio and optional English subtitles. Aside from the AIP version having been re-edited it also features a re-score from Les Baxter, of the two I prefer Baxter's more aggressive score with it's accentuating stingers, the Euro version is a bit more subdued but both are very nice, it's just a matter of preference. It should also be noted that the two version have a different running order, for the purpose of this review I watched the Euro version

The three disc set has some great special features beginning with an introduction for the Euro-version from UK film critic and Alan Jones (2:53). Also exclusive to the Euro-version is a great commentary with Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas, whom typically offers a wealth of Bava-centic knowledge, his commentaries are reliably intriguing and this is no exception. A Life In Film – An Interview with star Mark Damon (21:01) features the one time 20th Century Fox contract player discussing his life in film and later career as a producer and distributor of film, some great stuff including his role in casting Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE which he passed on it, apparently the idea of an Italian Western was quite an odd idea at the time and his agent warned him against it.  My favorite feature on the set is Twice the Fear – A comparison of the different versions of the film (32:12) with a captioned, split screen comparison of the Euro and AIP versions of the films, showcasing the many variances ranging from subtle dialogue alterations to score and effects differences. For instance,  AIP version trims out the more direct references to lesbianism in "The Telephone", it's a great piece, and I would love to see a feature like this for the multiple versions of Ridley Scott's BLADERUNNER (1982).

Rounding out the features are  the International Trailer, US Trailer (2:23), Italian Trailer (3:18), black and white TV Spot (0:54) and a  Radio Spots (1:06). BLACK SABBATH gets a great set of features and a very fine AV presentation from Arrow Video, this 3-disc set is essential. Not included with the "check disc" sent to us  for review are the reversible artwork and collector's booklet featuring new writings from David Cairns, Tim Lucas and an interview Samuel Z. Arkoff. 

A flawless film in my opinion and a flawless edition, too. As of late the only detraction I can level against Arrows titles is that I am not a fan of the recent slipcase-style menu screens, I think they're rather ugly. Compare Bava's A BAY OF BLOOD with the menu screen from BLACK SABBATH and decide for yourself...

A BAY OF BLOOD Blu-ray menu with fantastic artwork. 
BLACK SABBATH Blu-ray menu screen with Arrow's slipcase-styled menu.
Special Features:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of two versions of the film; ‘I tre volti della paura’ – the European version with score by Roberto Nicolosi and ‘Black Sabbath’ – the re-edited and re-dubbed AIP version with Les Baxter score, on home video for the first time
- English SDH subtitles for English Audio and a new English subtitle translation of the Italian audio
- Audio Commentary with Bava biographer and expert Tim Lucas
- Introduction to the film by author and critic Alan Jones (2:53)
- A Life In Film – An Interview with star Mark Damon (21:01)
- Twice the Fear – A comparison of the different versions of the film (32:12)
- International Trailer (3:26)
- US Trailer (2:23)
- Italian Trailer (3:18)
- TV Spot (0:54)
- Radio Spots (1:06)
- Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic David Cairns, a comparison of the versions of the film by Tim Lucas and a substantial interview with AIP Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff on his experiences of working with Bava, illustrated with original stills and posters

Verdict: A fantastic horror-themed anthology from the maestro of the macabre Mario Bava, it's still one of the most consistent and enjoyable anthologies in all of cinema, a timeless nuggets of classic fright and suspense. After the proto-slasher A BAY OF BLOOD (1971) this is my favorite Bava film, Arrow's definitive 3-disc edition deserves some serious praise. 4.5 Outta 5