Black Sabbath Blu-ray Review: A Touch of Bava in the Night

Yet another Halloween is upon us, and what better way to prep than listening to old Black Sabbath records and watching moody Italian horror films? (This is my way of getting into the season.) Especially the moody Italian horror anthology directed by Mario Bava, one of the best and most resourceful filmmakers ever to do it.

Hark, then! Herald Black Sabbath (1963), which comprises three-count-‘em-three short films. A natty Boris Karloff introduces each, and Bava and team design them to get under your skin and leave you starved for more… Bava!

Black Sabbath opens with “The Drop of Water,” the scariest segment in the film.

This short, attributed to a story by Anton Chekov (which turned out to be false), might be the most realized example of Bava’s gifts as a horror director. That’s saying a lot, I know; but “The Drop of Water” can stand next to Blood and Black Lace as among his singular achievements in the genre. It’s an E.C.-style screamer about a nurse’s wish to take a ring worn by a corpse with a ghoulish countenance—and the madness that overtakes the nurse, accentuated by a leaky faucet, a flashing neon light, and a dastardly fly that just won’t leave her alone.

“The Drop of Water” is striking, particularly given the tight budget Bava faced. The film uses lighting, décor, and assorted camera tricks (and yes, COLOR) to turn an otherwise hokey tale of guilt and greed into something shiver-inducing. And let me just add that it freaked the fuck out of my boyfriend, no common consumer of older horror films.

This one’s deathless. Grade: A   

Then there’s “The Telephone,” a claustrophobic tale about a girl getting phone calls from a dead associate (friend? lover? It’s never clear) at night.

It’s a chamber piece of sorts, set in the girl’s swanky, chic basement apartment; and it’s an obvious precedent to parts of Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls, and Scream. There’s nothing fancy here. But it’s an odd misfire, just the same.

Bava trades a shadowed, high-contrast look for an overripe brightness. And the vignette becomes more a study in distress—in crazed repetition (e.g., the constant ringing of the phone) and isolation (e.g., we never leave the girl’s pad)—than a slow-cresting wave of fear and suspense. I’m not sure this piece has much to recommend it, sadly. The stalker can see what the girl is wearing, her every move; but outside of this element, we’re given no reason to fear him. There’s nothing perverse or chilling about his voice, or his taunts. And our hero sweats and trembles plenty, but she’s an empty, pretty vase of a character. We don’t care about her.

Perhaps that last jab is invalid—I could fire that same criticism at the other, more successful stories in Black Sabbath. As an idea (a nascent example of giallo—an Alfred Hitchcock-like riff), “The Telephone” intrigues. It had the potential to be more. Few directors pumped as much mood into the barest of material. Yet “The Telephone” (which, for the American cut of the film, American International Pictures butchered and made less provocative) needs more of Bava’s magic, atmospheric touch. Grade: C+   

As the longest entry in Black Sabbath, “The Wurdalak” (a gothic inspired by a story by Aleksey Tolstoy) is the most cinematically wondrous, and the broadest in scope, of the three stories gathered.

And there’s no denying the wonders Bava puts on display. The mood is chilly. The sets—on location in the snowy castle ruins of the Italian wilds or on a richly designed, darkened soundstage a-swirl with fog—are gorgeous and beautifully lit. Bava’s restless camera moves with grace. There’s a fair amount of blood shown (considering it’s a film from the early ’60s).

But I find “The Wurdalak” ill-paced and overlong. Had Bava condensed it—had he jettisoned the altogether silly romance between the dashing Mark Damon (who plays a nobleman who crosses paths with a family of cursed farmers) and Susy Andersen (a hot country gal)—I suspect it’d be worthier of the visual phantasy he creates. As it stands, not even a pallid, toothy Boris Karloff (who leans into his role as a strange vampire hunter [and bears an uncanny resemblance to author Kurt Vonnegut]) can save it from a slight case of the slumps. Grade: B+  

Given the inconsistent quality of the shorts that form it, Black Sabbath is not Bava’s best outing as director. Had the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray included the original Italian version of the film (which I’ve yet to see), I might change my tune. If, however, you’re one to enjoy a stylish horror anthology made with obvious care, Black Sabbath (in any version, I’m sure) has much to recommend it.

Having a piece of Bava on a lustrous Blu-ray is always a gift. Despite being a sight for sore eyes, the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of the American cut of Black Sabbath is unceremonious. Back in 2015, they put out a Blu-ray edition of the American cut, remastered from the original negative, with audio commentary by film critic Tim Lucas. In 2013, they released the Italian version on Blu-ray. As near as I can tell, today’s Blu-ray release from them offers nothing new. The Lucas commentary and the theatrical trailer are both included. The Italian (and some say better) cut of the film is not. Should we cling to positive aspects, though, we can say that at least it’s a treat to hear Karloff’s voice, undubbed by another actor.

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Jack Cormack

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