Black Sabbath on DVD

Karloff and Bava’s trilogy of terror

The liner notes for this DVD presentation of Mario Bava’s contribution to the anthology film flap of the early ’60s are provided by Tim Lucas. This is so fitting it’s almost ironic. If not for Lucas, it’s doubtful this DVD would exist at all.

Since the late ’80s, Lucas has been the foremost voice of conscience for the video industry, genre video in particular. His magazine Video Watchdog has been instrumental in raising the consciousness of movie fans when it comes to how films are continuously fiddled with by studios and distributors, and has led them to seek out the best and most complete presentations possible, while putting pressure on video labels to do the same. He has been particularly effective in his coverage of European horror films, and his upcoming book on Mario Bava (from which the liner text is taken) is one of the most eagerly awaited books among film fans.

A few years ago, Lucas became involved in the preparation of Bava’s films for release on laserdisc. The rise of DVD has made the entire specialty video industry more financially viable, both for the video labels and the consumer, and many projects once under consideration have come to fruition much more easily.

One can’t consider the production of Image’s Mario Bava Collection without the influence of Lucas. That the release of Bava’s Black Sabbath on DVD marks the first time the original Italian version of the film has been available in America can be directly traced to his work.

American International Pictures were delighted to continue the success of their Roger Corman directed Poe series with the anthology film Tales of Terror in 1962. They’d also had a big hit with the US release of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Boris Karloff had taken roles in some of Corman’s pictures, and had been hosting horror anthology series on TV for the past few years. Why not continue the roll by having Bava make a horror anthology with Karloff acting as host? Bava was delighted with the proposal and set to work searching for “classic” (i.e.: public domain) material for his trilogy, being careful to avoid Poe so as not to intrude on Corman’s territory.

Three scripts were produced crediting distinguished literary sources — though in truth, Bava and his writers came up with it all on their own. “The Telephone” stars gorgeous French starlet Michele Mercier as a woman harassed by frightening phone calls from an imprisoned ex-boyfriend who has just escaped jail. However, the calls are really coming from her jealous ex-girlfriend Lidia Alfonsi (star of many a Hercules picture).

The tension builds further in the period piece “The Wurdulak”. Mark Damon stars as a count traveling through the mountains of Eastern Europe who finds a headless corpse by the roadside. Taking the body to the nearest farm, he’s taken in by the Gorca family. They tell him that the body is that of the murderous bandit — and suspected wurdulak (a kind of vampire) — who had been terrorizing the countryside. Their father had left five days previously to hunt down the monster. The family fears that, even in slaying the monster, their father (Karloff) has become a wurdulak, too.

The settings, lighting and photography in this segment are breathtaking — very similar to those in Black Sunday, only in rich color.

The final tale, “A Drop of Water”, is a simple tour de force of terror. Nurse Jacqueline Pierreux is summoned from her apartment during a fearsome storm to the cavernous, cat-filled manor of an ailing patient. The old woman has died while engaging in a little private seance, and the maid is too frightened to dress the body. Though frightened by dripping water and other spooky sounds, the nurse gives in to temptation and swipes a ring off the twisted corpse’s finger.

Later, when she’s returned to her empty apartment, Bava takes us down a shivery path which owes much to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Pierreux is steadily driven out of her wits by one dripping faucet after another, until the gruesome corpse itself comes calling.

Bava follows this heart-stopper with Karloff’s sign-off. In a wonderfully comical piece, he bids the viewer adieu from atop his mount in wurdulak costume. Then the camera dollies back to reveal him aboard a mechanical horse with grips running past bearing foliage.

This bit was the first thing to go when American International got their hands on Three Faces of Fear (as Bava called his film). They felt that, with no other comedy in the picture, that the ending was too jarring. Then they rewrote the dialogue for the English dub to remove “The Telephone”‘s lesbian element, rendering the entire episode senseless. Then they put “A Drop of Water” at the beginning of the picture and replaced Robert Nicolosi’s score with music by house composer Les Baxter. About the only thing they did right was to film new bridging sequences to put more of Karloff in the movie. Finally, they changed the title to Black Sabbath, if for no other reason than it sounded like Black Sunday. This is the only version of the film we’ve had available all these years — until now.

I only wish they’d have put both versions on the disc, so we could check out the differences for ourselves. Good thing I held on to my laserdisc of the film.

The disc also contains the original Italian trailer, which plays up the sexy European stars and hardly mentions Karloff. A Bava biography and filmography by Lucas is also included. There’s a filmography for Karloff, too, which is far from complete, along with a generous photo and poster gallery.

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