Blu-ray Review: Black Sabbath (1963)

Black Sabbath BR CoverDistributor: Arrow Video

BBFC Classification: 18

Director: Mario Bava

Starring: Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, Michèle Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, Susy Andersen

A title that is probably more familiar to many because of the band than the film that inspired their name, Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath is a horror anthology that is over 50 years old and is still held in high regard due to its masterful storytelling and creepy atmosphere.

Hosted by horror legend Boris Karloff (Frankenstein/The Black Cat), Black Sabbath comprises of three macabre tales that play out like ‘The Best of Mario Bava’ in one film. The Telephone sees a woman stalked by her former pimp whom she had a hand in sending to jail, whilst The Drop of Water is a darker tale about a nurse who steals a sapphire ring from a recently deceased corpse, only to find that said corpse wants it back. The Wurdalak is set in 19th century Russia, with Boris Karloff playing the paterfamilias of a close family who goes off to do battle with the vampiric wurdalak and returns five days later not quite the same as when he left.

Although depending on which version of the film you watch there will be some notable differences but luckily the disc contains both the American International Pictures version and the original Italian version, entitled I tre volti della paura (The Three Faces of Fear), and also a handy feature called Twice the Fear that explains the differences between the two. The majority of the differences are in the score, sound effects and dialogue, although the biggest change is in the running order of the stories; in Black Sabbath they are ordered as The Drop of Water, The Telephone and The Wurdalak but in I tre volti della paura they are ordered as The Telephone, The Wurdalak and then The Drop of Water. With that in mind, the AIP version is probably the more effective as The Wurdalak is the longest and most iconic, best suited to work as a grand finale, but I tre volti della paura has two major improvements over its US counterpart; The Telephone has an added lesbian sub-plot that fills out the main plot a little more and makes it a very different style of story, and whereas the AIP version simply goes to credits at the end of The Wurdalak, the Italian version has an extra scene of Boris Karloff letting us know that the frights we’ve just seen are down to the magic of moviemaking and not meant to be taken seriously. It’s not essential but it is an effective little coda that shows Mario Bava had a sense of humour when it came to horror.

So that goes some way to explaining the differences between the two versions but what of the film itself? Coming at a time when the gothic camp of Hammer ruled the roost, Black Sabbath stands out thanks to Mario Bava’s use of lighting, colours and his ability to create a gloomy atmosphere without the bleakness that can come with such subject matter. The casting of Boris Karloff – then a sprightly 75 years old – was a masterstroke, the twinkle in his eye as he introduces each section adding to the sense of fun and his more intense role in The Wurdalak giving us a glimpse of what made his performances in the Universal films of the 1930’s and 1940’s so endearing. The only other major actor of note to appear is Mark Damon (The Fall of the House of Usher), who also shows up in The Wurdalak as Count Vladimire d’Urfe, a traveller who stops for shelter at the troubled family’s cottage, and although his role is relatively minimal his presence is a welcome one.

The transfer to Blu-ray is excellent, with the pinks and greens that Bava lights most of the scenes with being really striking and the overall picture quality being excellent. As well as both versions of the film and the Twice the Fear featurette the disc also contains an introduction courtesy of Italian horror expert Alan Jones, an interview with actor Mark Damon, a commentary from Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas, trailers, reversible sleeve and an expanded collector’s booklet with posters, stills and interviews with Bava alumni, so yet again Arrow Video have made sure that this is as extensive a package as you could really want.

Overall, Black Sabbath is a fun ride through gothic horror that touches on most of Mario Bava’s different styles in one film. The Telephone is the weakest section, especially in the neutered AIP version, although Bava’s influential giallo stylings are all there in glorious colour for the first time. The Drop of Water is a lot more atmospheric, building the tension before going for the well-earned jump scares with some truly creepy visuals but The Wurdalak is the story that probably gives Black Sabbath its reputation. Harking back to Bava’s own Black Sunday from 1960, The Wurdalak has blood, romance, some very strong visuals and a sense of 1960’s abandonment from Bava that brings to mind the psychedelic dream sequences that Roger Corman used to insert into his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (adaptations that were instigated by Mark Damon, as explained by the actor in the special features), and thanks to Boris Karloff has a little more weight to it. It isn’t perfect – in typical Italian style certain scenes are needlessly dragged out to ‘create atmosphere and tension’ but ultimately don’t – but it is very enjoyable and it’s easy to see why Black Sabbath is highly regarded by horror aficionados, and thanks to the wizards at Arrow Video and the wonders of Blu-ray it can be enjoyed on a whole new level.

Black Sabbath

Special Features: High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and standard definition DVD presentation of two versions of the film; I tre volti della paura – the European version with score by Roberto Nicolosi & Black Sabbath – the re-edited and re-dubbed AIP version with Les Baxter score, English SDH subtitles for English audio and a new English subtitle translation of the Italian audio, audio commentary with Bava biographer and expert Tim Lucas, collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic David Cairns, a comparison of the versions of the film by Tim Lucas and a substantial interview with AIP Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff on his experiences of working with Bava, illustrated with original stills and posters, introduction to the film by author and critic Alan Jones (DVD only), A Life In Film interview with star Mark Damon (DVD only), Twice the Fear – a comparison of the different versions of the film (DVD only), international trailer, US trailer, Italian trailer, TV and radio spots.

UK Release Date: 13th May 2013

Arrow Films – Website

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One thought on “Blu-ray Review: Black Sabbath (1963)

  1. Pingback: Blu-ray Review: Baron Blood (1972) | Ancient Slumber

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