Review: Black Sabbath

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Of all of Arrow’s spate of Mario Bava movies, Black Sabbath may be the most worthwhile. Featuring both the original Italian and the radically revamped US AIP version (which Arrow claim to be a home video debut, though like with Black Sunday and Baron Blood, I’m sure this is the version widely available on VHS in the 1980s). While most alternate cuts are not all that significantly altered, Black Sabbath is an altogether different film from I tre volti della paura. It’s the Italian version that will form the basis for this review, with comparisons to the US cut as we go along. For the sake of convenience though, I’ll refer to the film as Black Sabbath throughout.

Black Sabbath was Bava’s first colour film, and he certainly takes advantage of the fact, creating a movie that is visually stunning – his use of colour is as inventive and gorgeous as his use of black and white, and the Italian cut especially looks stunning here – better than a lot of new films (the AIP version is a little less pristine). It opens with a bizarre psychedelic shot of Boris Karloff standing against a lurid purple sky, as he introduces the film in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, talking about nightmares, ghosts, vampires and things that go bump in the night. It’s an interesting opening, presumably inspired by Karloff’s popular Thriller TV series of the time and rather misleading, as none of the stories that follow have a particularly light-hearted bent to them. It’s curious to hear the instantly recognisable voice of Karloff replaced by an Italian dubber – the US version replaces the shot with a close-up of Karloff’s head, though the dialogue remains pretty much the same and of course Karloff retains his own voice. Which is the more definitive of the two then? Hard to say.

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The two edits of the film feature the three stories in a different order. The Italian cut opens with The Telephone, and this is also the story most radically altered in the US. In both versions, Rosy (Michele Mercier) returns to her apartment where she starts receiving threatening phone calls from an old boyfriend who had been imprisoned after she shopped him to the police and is now seeking revenge. But within this context, the two versions take the story in radically different directions. There are some scenes in the US version that are missing from the Italian cut (and, to a lesser extent, vice versa) and a couple of shots are replaced – most notably a letter pushed through Rosy’s door that in the Italian cut features a newspaper clipping and in the US version has ghostly writing that appears on a blank sheet. With this, the US edit takes on a supernatural aspect while the Italian version is a psychological thriller with a couple of twists involving Mary (Lydia Alfonsi), Rosy’s lesbian lover in the Italian cut, just a good friend in the US version.

It’s interesting to watch both stories back to back and see how the US version completely changes the story with a couple of inserts and some changes to the dubbed dialogue. And while this might be blasphemy, I’m not sure that it doesn’t actually work better as a ghost story than a tale of spurned lovers taking revenge – the Italian cut depends on some dubious coincidences that the US version avoids and I’m not really concerned about the loss of the lesbian sub-plot. The supernatural element fits more with the other two stories in the film as well. Either way, it’s great to have both versions to compare and enjoy.

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The Wurdalak is next – this story, the longest in the film, is moved to the end in the US version and I think that was a sensible move. Karloff returns here, as the main character Gorcha, who has gone out to battle outlaw vampire (or Wurdalak) Ali Beg in 19th Century Russia. Returning home to his family (and a passing nobleman played by Mark Damon) after five days, it becomes clear that while he may have defeated the outlaw, it was at the cost of his own soul. Soon, he is preying on his family, picking them off one by one.

The moodiest and most impressive story here, The Wurdalak (adapted from a story by Tolstoy) is more a mini feature than a short film, close in feel to the gothic horrors of Black Sunday – itself based on a Russian story. Karloff gives what might well be his final great performance here, oozing menace and power as the vampiric Gorcha, and there are several impressive moments – the vampire child begging for its mother and the gradual decay of the once close family unit still have the ability to send shudders down the spine. The US version doesn’t alter the story much – a little censorship (a severed head is kept off-screen in one shot) and some slight dialogue changes (which are par for the course in both dubbed and subtitled films anyway) being the main differences, alongside the score (of which more anon) and an early scene that takes place at night in the Italian cut and daytime in the US.

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The final story (and the opening tale in the US cut) is A Drop of Water, a psychological ghost story set in Victorian England. When a heartless nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) steals a ring from the hand of a recently deceased old woman, she is haunted by strange noises – the titular water drop (loud and echoing in the Italian cut; quieter in the US version), a buzzing fly, weird sighs and whispers (more upfront in the US version) and other increasingly terrifying apparitions that may or may not be a result of her guilty imagination. The final shot suggests a genuine supernatural involvement (and the US version has a lot more dialogue explaining it) but also hints at a less ghostly chain of events – which might be on the verge of being repeated with another, rather guilty looking character.

A Drop of Water is heavy on atmosphere if slight on story, the moody build-up of tension admirable. This might be the story where the two music scores play their biggest part. Roberto Nicolosi’s original Italian score is sparingly used here, allowing plenty of silence and the tension to rise through the use of the sounds the guilty thief hears, whereas the US version uses a Les Baxter score more continually (as it does through the entire film). Baxter wrote some great film scores and I have no problem with his presence here on the whole, but perhaps less might have been more in this particular tale.

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The other difference between the Italian and US versions are the additional Karloff introductions to each story, oddly missing in Italy (which instead has on-screen titles for each episode), and the final scene with Karloff closing out the film (and revealing the artifice of film making) that is only present in the Italian edit. It’s not a scene that adds anything to the film (and again, adds a misplaced comic element to what is otherwise a completely sombre movie).

While fans might argue over which edit is best (and it’s notable that all the alternate scenes were shot by Bava), there’s no arguing about the fact that this is a great film in either version. Having both here means no longer having to choose between them anyway – now you can enjoy both.

The extras include a detailed 30+ minute scene-by-scene comparison between the two cuts that is fascinating in itself, showing how some differences were so slight – a few seconds more here, a few seconds less there – that they’d be unnoticeable to the average viewer yet still subtly alter the pace of the scene in question.

It’s taken a long time for this movie to arrive Blu-ray, but good things come to those who wait, and this is very good thing. Out of all the recent essential Bavas, this is the most essential release.

DAVID FLINT

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