Given the variable and vast back catalogue lurking behind the fog-enshrouded, wrought-iron brand of Italian horror progenitor Mario Bava, it’s a small mercy that the wisdom applying to classic bands applies to to him – just get the definitive release, and then get the best of.
If 1960’s Black Sunday was Bava’s ‘Revolver’, then 1963’s Black Sabbath (in Italian, I Tre volti della paura – The Three Faces Of Death) is his ‘One’ – demonstrating in its intricate triptych everything that made his shadow falls so hard and wide over not just his more immediate followers in the Golden Age of Italian horror, but over Hollywood heavyweights as diverse as Tim Burton, Brian DePalma and Quentin Tarantino.
Collected on Arrow Films’ stunning new reissue, with a gorgeous new HD transfer, are both US and Italian cuts of Black Sabbath (and an illuminating comparison of the two) – and there’s frankly little to recommend the former. At best, the cut distributed by American International Pictures neuters the threat with a squeamish attitude to detail, and buffs the tension to its most basic sheen with intrusive, overbearing music and sound effects, and at worse – as with ‘The Telephone’ – strips the narrative of all meaning to produce a different, and worse, film entirely.
‘The Telephone’, which opens the Italian edit and comes second in the AIP version, represents the more recent of Bava’s disciplines in its original incarnation. A tightly wound and anxiously paranoid thriller that coming so soon after The Girl Who knew Too Much (the last film he shot in black and white, while Black Sabbath is his first in colour), recognised as the birth of the giallo, shows an already deft understanding of its mixture of voyeurism, forbidden sexual thrill, and Ten Little Indians-style creeping countdown that would characterise the subgenre.
The American cut butchers all meaning with baffling determination – clunkily replacing a newspaper clipping with a ghostly letter and through careful omission of key scenes and the addition of new ones tries to turn a bitterly ironic revenge fable into an awkward and meaningless ghost story.
Whether out of terror for the lesbian subtext or more at ease with supernatural violence than the physical, it saturates the US cut with big dumb plot holes and physical reactions out of synch with the lines – especially when one character in Italian has a nefarious goal all of her own, which leaves her just looking and behaving in what seems like an unhelpfully shifty manner (to the point of poising behind someone with her hands outstretched as if to strangle her) in her totally blameless incarnation.
For many, Bava at his best will always be the rich strain of gothic horror that snatched the crown from the prior decade’s English and American masters, and the Poe-style ghost story ‘The Drop Of Water’ is one of the luxuriously lensed shorts in cinema history – full of cats scampering across wide shots, framed through doorways and the eaves of a four poster bed, and a terrifyingly physical ghost with a nightmarishly distorted face looming along the corridor like a ghost train climax.
It’s a perfectly paced bedtime chiller that over its reduced running-time tears bloody great chunks off Roger Corman’s similar features with its deep shadows and lurid pools of light bringing more scale to its handful of extremely artful sets than Amicus and Hammer’s often flatter offerings.
For sheer haunting visuals, nothing comes close to the longest film film in the anthology (second in the Italian, third in the AIP release) – ‘The Wurdalak’, based on ‘The Family Of The Wurdalak’ by 19th Century Russian novelist AK Tolstoy (despite what the ubiquitous Italiophile Alan Jones says in his intro).
Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Bride Of Frankenstein), who introduces each segment in a neat passing of the gothic horror torch from ’30s Universal fairy tales to their more outré ’60s inheritors, here takes on the role of a family patriarch in rural Serbia. Returned from hunting down a Turkish outlaw in the mountains, he has changed, and his children are indecisive over whether or not to obey his strict instructions that if he returns after five days they should kill him with a blow to the heart.
Deathly pale and full of leering menacing – this is Karloff at his best, utterly commanding he dominates every scene – Gorcha invites himself in, and while hapless traveller – the urbane voice of culture and reason in this violence backwater – Vladimir Durfe (The Fall Of The House Of Usher‘s Mark Damon) looks on, the family begins to fall apart under the fangs of a predatory revenant who stalks through not just their creaking family home, but through their dreams, murdering son Pietro (Blood And Black Lace‘s Massimo Righi) and infant grandson Ivan, leading to one of the film’s most cruelly affecting segments.
In a sequence that will fix itself to your memory, the child vampire advances on the house, crooning “I’m colllllld” – a device that Salem’s Lot would later struggle to better – while inside, his distraught, hysterical mother strains against her husband to admit him back inside.
An effective gothic ghost story, an oppressive and alien fog-caked take on the vampire myth, and a taut contemporary sexual thriller – over all 93 minutes you see all of Bava’s tropes and talents laid out before you like selection box that’s all Snickers and no Milky Way.
More than that, Black Sabbath is provocative with its themes and implied threats lurking just out of reach, and genuinely striking in its striking visuals and hedonistic cinematography, so much so that half a century on, Bava’s masterwork twists between your ribs just as sharply as it would have done in the year of its release.