Judge Gordon Sullivan considers writing about Mario Bava, a form of giallo journalism.
The most gruesome day in the calendar!
The world would be a different place without Mario Bava. He essentially kick-started Italian horror films, gave birth to the giallo genre of filmmaking, and by extension birthed the slasher film. As with many of his era, Bava started out as a cinematographer, and thanks to Black Sunday, he had a huge international hit on his hands in 1960. Bava didn't really know yet that he was going to be one of the more important horror directors of the century, so his follow-ups to the gruesomely gothic Black Sunday included a sword-and-sandal picture (Hercules in the Haunted World) and the first true giallo film (The Girl Who Knew Too Much). By 1963 the world was ready for Bava to return to his brand of gothic horror, and he gave us Black Sabbath, an anthology horror film. Its Italian title doesn't try to cash in on the success of Black Sunday but instead offers a nice description of the contents, literally translated as The Three Faces of Fear. Though the film deserves a tricked-out special edition that Black Sabbath (Blu-ray) doesn't offer, Bava's picture is essential horror viewing.
Black Sabbath consists of three short stories. "The Telephone" follows a call girl (Michele Mercier, Shoot the Piano Player) whose former pimp has just escaped from prison as she deals with threatening phone calls claiming to be him. "The Wurdalak" is a vampire story about a travelling nobleman who runs into a peasant whose father (Boris Karloff, Frankenstein) may have been infected by the thirst for blood. Finally, "The Drop of Water" gives us a nurse who steals a ring from a recently deceased medium as her life unravels due to her greed.
Black Sabbath is famous as Bava's favorite film of his own (which is especially significant since he was pretty hard on himself as a director). Though personal preference might dictate a different choice of "favorite" for the director's films, Black Sabbath is a perfect example of Bava playing to his strengths—or, perhaps more significantly, avoiding his weaknesses.
Bava's greatest strength is in creating atmosphere. Every one of his horror films has an evocative atmosphere. Sometimes it's a period setting, like the Victorian England of "The Drop of Water," which takes the lamplight-and-fog theme to gothic extreme. Even when he presents a contemporary story (like "The Telephone"), Bava endows the modern world with a nervous menace that few directors can match. Black Sabbath gives us two period pieces and a contemporary story, which should satisfy fans of both extremes of the director's work.
The major weakness in Bava's work (at least for some) is that he's not always concerned with moving the narrative along. It's a trait he shares with many Italian horror directors, who go for atmosphere and creeping dread over narrative fireworks. However, Black Sabbath works in Bava's favor. With only roughly a third of a 92-minute film in which to make the individual stories work, Bava has to pare things down to their essential. Surprisingly, he does so without sacrificing his penchant for atmosphere (or gore for that matter). Those exposed to Bava via some of his more atmospheric works might appreciate the directness here.
Black Sabbath (Blu-ray) is a decent, though perfunctory, release. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer comes from a decent print of the film (which is fifty years old as of this release). There's some minor print damage (mostly in the form of speckling), but grain is natural and well-handled. There's a filmlike appearance to the whole production, indicating that digital manipulation has been kept to a minimum. Black levels are deep and consistent, and detail is impressive. The LPCM 2.0 mono track hasn't age quite as well. There's some hiss and a bit of crackle 'n' pop, but it's faithful to the era. The score sounds especially impressive on this track, but dialogue is always clear and easy to hear. For extras we get five trailers for other Bava films.
This would be a pretty great release of Black Sabbath were it not for one important fact: the UK has it better than us. The overseas release includes both a more cleaned-up version of the original Italian cut of the film (included here, minus the extra cleaning) along with the US release by American International Pictures. Though the Italian cut is superior, having the American cut would be nice. The UK release also gets a commentary, a set of featurettes, and a substantial booklet. I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but Black Sabbath deserves that kind of attention.
The UK Blu-ray release of Black Sabbath is superior to this version but is sadly region locked. So, U.S. fans of Bava's anthology-horror classic will have to make do with this essentially barebones version of the film. Despite the lack of extras the film is worth a look for fans of Italian horror, and worth a revisit to fans of Bava's work.
Fans would prefer a tricked-out special edition, but Black Sabbath is not guilty.
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