Family reunions for Judge Paul Corupe are especially fun, since he's wondering if the Corupe patriarch will return as a blood-sucking vampire.
"In my entire career, I made only big bullshits. No doubt about that!"—Mario Bava
Visually, Mario Bava was one of the most prominent directors in the horror world, a master stylist particularly adept at working up impressively chilling atmospheres. A long-overdue showcase of Bava's amazing talent with a camera, Anchor Bay's The Mario Bava Collection, Volume 1 brings together almost all of the noted horror director's most significant films of the 1960s—Black Sunday, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Black Sabbath, Knives of the Avenger, and Kill Baby…Kill! Though each of these films have been released before in various editions, Anchor Bay's tantalizing box set provides a fascinating compendium of the maestro of Italian horror's creepy cinematic visions, making it an essential package for Eurohorror fiends.
Facts of the Case
The Mario Bava Collection, Volume 1 features five of the director's works in as many slimline cases, all housed in a slightly flimsy cardboard box.
Before she is burned at the stake by her brother for being a witch, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele, Nightmare Castle) casts an evil curse on her family name. Centuries later, the bodies of Asa and her evil henchman Javutich (Arturo Dominici, Caltiki) are accidentally revived by Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi, A Bullet for the General) and his assistant Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson, She), allowing the cunning witch to begin plans to possess the body of her lookalike descendant Katia (Steele) and kill the remaining Vajdas.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Nora Davis (Letícia Román, G.I. Blues), a young American tourist in Rome, accidentally witness a cold-blooded murder. Everyone else is convinced it was just a dream, and even Nora isn't sure it was real until she stumbles across newspaper clippings about a series of "alphabet murders" which have all taken place in the same street. Fearing she is next on the killer's list, she tracks down the culprit with the help of Dr. Bassi (John Saxon, Black Christmas).
Bava's horror anthology packs in three tales of terror, narrated by Boris Karloff (Frankenstein). In "The Telephone," Rosy (Michèle Mercier, Iron Hand) is haunted by the incessant late-night calls that threaten to drive her over the edge. "The Wurdulak" stars Mark Damon as Vladimire d'Urfe, a traveler who discovers a headless corpse out in the woods before arriving at a small cabin where a family awaits the return of Gorca (Karloff), the vampire-hunting patriarch who has warned his kin that he may return as a blood-sucking beast. Finally, in "A Drop of Water," nervous nurse Helen (Jacqueline Pierreux, Three Penny Opera) steals a ring from the body of a medium who died during a séance, and pays an evil price.
Knives of the Avenger
With her husband presumed lost at sea, Queen Karen (Elissa Pichelli) and her son Moki (Luciano Pollentin) are protected by blade-wielding Viking warrior Rurik (Cameron Mitchell, Space Mutiny). When the sinister and traitorous Hagen (Fausto Tozzi, A Man Called Sledge) tries to take the absent King's place and plunge his people into a fruitless war, it's up to Rurik to stop him.
Coroner Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Crimes of the Black Cat) arrives in a small village to investigate a series of mysterious deaths. Working with the local police inspector (Piero Lulli, My Name Is Nobody), Eswai learns that the villagers live in mortal fear of the ghost of Melissa Graps (Valeria Valeri, A Gun for a Cop), a young girl who was killed 20 years ago by a drunken mob in the streets.
It should come as little surprise that Mario Bava started off as both a painter and cinematographer before helming brilliantly-lensed gothic shockers like Black Sunday, Twitch of the Death Nerve, and Blood and Black Lace. Although closely aligned with the horror genre and credited with single-handedly kickstarting the giallo boom—those elegantly crafted, sexy Italian thrillers that fetishized the act of murder—Bava cranked out low-budget films in virtually every genre, showing off a trademark flair for composition, melodramatic color lighting, and kinetic, swooping camera movements that established him as one of Italy's best and brightest B-movie maestros, even if his plots were somewhat convoluted and far-fetched.
The monumentally influential Black Sunday was Bava's debut feature and remains one of his most popular works today, making it an absolutely essential cornerstone of any worthwhile horror DVD collection. A densely atmospheric black-and-white fright film that clearly took its inspiration from the classic Universal horrors, Black Sunday is a creepy and moody mix of vampirism and the occult that infuses the standard crumbling castle sets with new levels of special effects gore and a tangible eroticism. Though the actual story is virtually impenetrable, hinging on some vague revenge plot, Bava keeps his audience on edge by continuously pushing his actors and camera through shadowy crypts, hidden passages, and foggy forest settings. But most importantly, Black Sunday also introduced Barbara Steele, who is iconic as the black magic temptress Princess Asa and became one of the '60s most notable scream sirens through her work here. Despite stiff competition, Black Sunday is also one of the director's most imagery-rich films, establishing not only the visual touchstones for Italian gothic horror, but for horror around the world—Bava-esque touches from this film can be seen in both the emerging Mexican B-movie industry of the 1960s, Hammer's ongoing re-invention of the classic Universal monsters, and Roger Corman's Poe series, all underway at virtually the same time.
Though not a certified classic like several of the other films in this collection, Bava's Hitchcock riff, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is actually quite worthwhile and features one of Bava's strongest plots. A clear giallo forerunner, this engaging thriller jettisons the director's usual supernatural overtones for a good dose of humor and some genuine performances—it's a tight little whodunit with a broader appeal than most of his genre efforts. Perhaps because of this, however, it's seen by most Bava fanatics as one of the director's lesser works. Letícia Román is a sympathetic and likable protagonist, and she's well-matched with American import John Saxon here, who combine for quite possibly the most interesting and well-rounded characters Bava ever bothered with. A distinct highlight of the film has Roman setting up a complex web of string throughout her apartment to catch the murderer she is sure is stalking her from the town square below, only to have Saxon accidentally get caught. It's a fun, lightweight film that is dragged down a bit by a trite conclusion, but it's still significant as one of the most underrated entries on Bava's resume.
Released the same year as The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Black Sabbath saw Bava return to the gothic style of his earlier efforts, but this time, in full Technicolor. Picking up from his last film, the giallo web is weaved once again in "The Telephone," a minimalist shocker that updates and reinvigorates the tired Sorry Wrong Number plot with an expected dose of sex and violence, while "A Drop of Water" gets by on more excessive atmospherics—the undeniably creepy contorted death mask of the spirit medium. However, in comparison to the British horror anthologies which began to appear several years later, Black Sabbath's first and last stories are a little disappointing in their storytelling, each regrettably bumbling their E.C. Comics-style ironic shock endings with questionable logic and drawn-out payoffs, but Bava is once again in his element when he returns to the crumbling 18th Century theatrics in the wonderful chiller, "The Wurdulak." Even though it's strange to hear his voice dubbed over by a gruff Italian voice actor, Boris Karloff has a choice late-career role here as the wild-eyed patriarch and dominates this atmospheric short with his creepy presence. As opposed to the other trifles, it's a surprisingly thoughtful piece, playing heavily on the drama twist of the family that believes the father may be a blood-thirsty monster, but still can't see him as anything but kin. This is, quite simply, another Bava essential.
By far the weakest film in the collection, Knives of the Avenger is a pretty tedious Viking film, short on both action and—again—comprehensible plotting. Since this was a partially completed project that was handed over to Bava, it's difficult to know exactly how much of the work is actually his, particularly since it's all pretty lifeless. Mitchell gives off a smoky charisma and leaves his amateur-hour supporting cast in the dust, but there's virtually nothing for him to do with this role, which often feels like it would work far better in a spaghetti western, especially considering it's similarities to Shane. In the few scattered fight scenes, the conflicted Viking pulls out his title-touted throwing knives, but it's simply never impressive.
Finally, Kill, Baby…Kill! finishes the set off in high gothic style, giving fans another vital entry in the Bava filmography. Boasting some of the director's best visuals since Black Sunday, this fascinating, loosely plotted ghost story saw Bava finally gain mastery over his Technicolor palette, and with this film he unleashes a series of simply awe-inspiring compositions, including several famous shots on a spiral staircase. Moreover, it's entirely creepy, making the most out of the spectral image of the young blonde girl pressed up against a plate glass window, and an ominous bouncing ball. Other than the astonishing imagery of the film and a tendency towards the surreal, Kill, Baby…Kill! really doesn't a lot going for it, as it has to send Dr. Eswai to virutally every corner of the small town to keep the slowly-paced and often confusing story from stalling completely. Regardless, Kill, Baby…Kill! is considered a true masterpiece of gothic horror cinema and is a more than welcome addition to this collection.
While Kill, Baby…Kill! has languished in public domain DVD hell for the last few years, the rest of these films (aside from the insignificant Knives of the Avenger) were issued by Image Entertainment in 1999. In addition to compiling all these films into one affordable package, The Mario Bava Collection, Volume 1 sweetens the pot with slightly upgraded transfers, two featurettes, and a few new desirable commentaries by Video Watchdog editor and Bava expert Tim Lucas.
Generally speaking, the discs all look quite good, especially the crisp and distinctive Black Sunday and the revelatory Kill, Baby…Kill! transfer, which far supersedes earlier full-frame budget DVD transfers. Knives of the Avenger and Black Sabbath are plagued by some minor source artifacts, but they're still vaguely better than the earlier Image discs. As for sound, all the films save Black Sunday are offered in acceptable Italian mono with English subtitles. Sunday offers the original Italian score overlaid by an English dub. Additional English dub tracks are available for Kill and Knives, but not The Girl Who Knew Too Much or Black Sabbath, for apparent rights-related issues. That's somewhat disappointing, though most will probably prefer to watch these films in their original language. All in all, these are a small improvement over the earlier releases, even though slight source artifacts are visible across the board.
Though Tim Lucas's Black Sunday commentary here is actually recycled from the Image edition, his tracks for Black Sabbath and The Girl Who Knew Too Much are brand-new to this release. As Lucas has extensively researched the director, all three are quite excellent, explaining in detail why each film is notable in the Italian horror cycle. Lucas digs deeply into the making of the films, the key players involved, and the discrepancies between various versions of each film, as well as covering some of the symbolism and imagery regularly used by Bava, making them essential listens for fans. Also here is a pair of nice featurettes spotlighting some of the actors who worked on these films. The always interesting John Saxon is on hand to talk about how he found himself in Rome to take a role in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and reveals anecdotes about working with cult directors over his career, while Black Sabbath includes a fascinating interview with Mark Damon, who goes far beyond his involvement with Bava to reminisce about his life as an actor, director, and, more recently, a producer of films including Das Boot and Monster. Several trailers and text bios also appear on each disc.
The Mario Bava Collection, Volume 1 is another outstanding box set from Anchor Bay that will mostly appeal to die-hard Italian horror fans, but it also serves as an excellent (and affordable) entry point for Bava neophytes. Recommended.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Black Sunday
Perp Profile, Black Sunday
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Black Sunday
• Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas
Scales of Justice, Black Sabbath
Perp Profile, Black Sabbath
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Black Sabbath
• Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas
Scales of Justice, The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Perp Profile, The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, The Girl Who Knew Too Much
• Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas
Scales of Justice, Kill Baby... Kill!
Perp Profile, Kill Baby... Kill!
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Kill Baby... Kill!
Scales of Justice, Knives Of The Avenger
Perp Profile, Knives Of The Avenger
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Knives Of The Avenger
Review content copyright © 2007 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.