Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath (1963)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Boris Karloff, Michele Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, Mark Damon
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Liner Notes, Talent Files, Still Gallery

One genre which has definitely flourished on DVD is EuroHorror. Independent companies such as Anchor Bay Entertainment and Image Entertainment have scoured the film vaults of Europe and brought many fascinating gems of European terror to DVD. (Fangoria even devoted a cover story to this phenomenon in issue #193.) With this surge in the availability of European horror films, several directors, such as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Jean Rollin, are seeing many of their films hit DVD. Image Entertainment has devoted an entire line of DVD titles to legendary Italian director Mario Bava. Their latest offering in this collection is "Black Sabbath", which was originally titled "I tre volti della paura" ("The Three Faces of Fear"). The DVD from Image presents the original Italian cut of "Black Sabbath", which has never been available in the U.S. before, an anthology (a sub-genre that deserves to be revived) that proves that genuine scares do not diminish with age.

"Black Sabbath" features a trio of horror stories, based on works by various artists. (The film was made to capitalize on the success of the Roger Corman’s adaptions of Edgar Allan Poe.) Boris Karloff serves as the host for the film. From the opening shot of Karloff entering a set awash in purple and blue lights, we are immediately aware that we are in for a visual feast from Bava. The director who’d made his mark just three years earlier with the black and white classic "Black Sunday", was now ready to shock the world in living color.

The first story in the trilogy is entitled "The Telephone" and is based on a story by Howard Snyder. This tale opens with Rosy (Michele Mercier) returning home to her apartment. The phone immediately starts ringing, but when Rosy answers, no one is there. This happens two more times. On the fourth call, the caller speaks to Rosy. It is a whispering male voice, threatening to kill her. Rosy turns on every light in her apartment (each having what must be a 600 watt bulb, judging by the brightness) and hides her valuables. The phone calls continue, with the killer describing Rosy’s every action, proving that he is close by and can see her. After changing clothes a few times, Rosy realizes that the stalker may be her ex-boyfriend Frank, who recently escaped from prison. Rosy calls Mary (Lidia Alfonsi) and asks her to come over and help. From this point, "The Telephone" becomes a story of double-crosses and surprises that should take the viewer by surprise. However, the story ends very abruptly and feels anticlimatic.

The second (and the longest) story of the trio is called "The Wurdalak". This story is set in (presumably) 18th century Russia and is based on a short story by Alexei Tolstoy. We first meet Count Vladimire d’Urfe (Mark Damon) galloping across the countryside. He comes across a headless body which has a dagger plunged in its back. He takes the body to a nearby farm, where he meets Gregor (Glauco Onorato), Peter (Massimo Righi), and the beautiful Sdenka (Susy Andersen). (Dig Sdenka’s crazy eye-shadow!) They explain that the dead man is a Turk who has been terrorizing the locals and that the man was suspected to be a "Wurdulak," which is an old European term used for those possessed by the Devil. They go on to tell the Count that their father Gorca (Boris Karloff) had ventured out to kill the Turk and should be home at anytime. When Gorca returns home, he’s changed. He refuses to eat and is vague about the stab wound in his chest. Soon, the truth about Gorca’s condition becomes apparent and the Count realizes that he must save Sdenka from her own father. "The Wurdulak" contains a brilliant performance by Karloff as the bizarre old man. The one flaw with this portion of the film is that it runs a little too long, dragging some towards the ending.

The final tale is entitled "A Drop of Water". This is the shortest entry in "Black Sabbath", but to me, it was the most effective. "A Drop of Water" was adapted from a story by Chekhov, and concerns a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) who is summoned to assist with a corpse. The recently deceased is a medium who apparently died while performing a seance. The medium’s maid explains that the medium was considered to be very powerful, so powerful in fact that the maid refuses to enter the bedchamber where the corpse lies. The nurse dresses the body and prepares it for burial, but not before she takes the large ring from the medium’s dead hand. While doing this, she knocks over a glass of water, which begins making a dripping sound. Once the nurse returns to her apartment, she continues to hear this dripping sound. The hallucinations then become visual and Bava brings us some of his most frightening imagery. The story in "A Drop of Water" (Which reminded me of Poe’s "The Tell-tale Heart") isn’t the most important part of this piece, as Bava uses it only as a vehicle to introduce his wicked camera angles and breathtaking lighting. The nurses’ apartment is awash in colored lights from both the interior and exterior (what is presumably a flashing neon sign), giving the piece an other-worldly feel.

The Image Entertainment DVD of "Black Sabbath" brings us a splendid transfer of the film. "Black Sabbath" is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer that is <$PS,letterboxed> at the original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The digital transfer has revealed some flaws in the source print, mostly scratches and spotting (and an occasional missing frame!), but considering that this film is almost forty years old, this transfer looks very good. The most striking thing about this DVD are the colors presented in the film. (I couldn’t find any documentation stating that "Black Sabbath" has been shot using the Technicolor process, but that certainly is what it looks like.) As with the Corman films of this era, Bava has painted a colorful portrait on film with "Black Sabbath". This DVD perfectly reproduces these colors, making the film as beautiful as it is entertaining. The DVD presents no obvious problems with compression, as there is no artifacting evident. However, there is some subtle grain in some of the brighter shots of "The Telephone."

The audio on "Black Sabbath" is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> Mono track, which is adequate, but disappointing. It would have been nice to hear Roberto Nicolosi’s score (not the Les Baxter score that was slapped on the American release) with a better dynamic range. Still, the dialogue is clear and audible and the sound doesn’t dominate the center channel as some other mono soundtracks tend to do. The film is presented with the original Italian soundtrack, and boasts easy-to-read yellow subtitles, which rest at the bottom of the <$PS,letterboxed> frame.

This entry into the Mario Bava Collection contains a few extra features, like the Italian theatrical trailer for "Black Sabbath" that runs for almost 3 1/2 minutes. Unfortunately, the trailer shows much more damage to the source print than the main feature does. The DVD also contains a detailed biography and filmography of Mario Bava as well as a filmography for Boris Karloff. There is a still-gallery, which gives us over eighty photos that are mostly promotional or production stills, but also contains some movie posters and lobby cards, which are very exciting. Probably the single best extra on the disc are the liner notes inside the DVD case. These notes were written by "Video Watchdog" editor and Bava specialist Tim Lucas, and he lovingly reflects on the work of Mario Bava and how "Black Sabbath" came to be made.

The Image Entertainment DVD presentation of Mario Bava’s "Black Sabbath" is quite impressive. I must admit that I’d never seen the film before, but I found it to be very entertaining. The DVD offers a beautiful transfer of the film, with every glorious color intact. The extras help to give novices and fans alike an overview of Mario Bava and his history in the Italian cinema. Anyone with an interest in EuroHorror should check out "Black Sabbath" before the "Wurdulak" snatches up the last copy.