Compendium films generally are very tricky to pull off, & often suffer from a big variation in quality & tone between the different stories. Something of a very pleasing surprise then to be able to report that not only is Mario Bavas’ 1963 classic extremely good, but is also perhaps his finest hour. The film consists of three segments & is introduced by Boris Karloff, who also stars in the second story. AIP originally released the film in drastically altered form (fully detailed in the liner notes), but, thankfully Image here present the film as it should be: Uncut, widescreen (with 16x9 enhancement), & in Italian with subtitles!
The first segment is "The Telephone", & is probably the weakest of the three. That said, it’s still better than the best segment in a lot of anthology films. It stars Michele Mercier (Shoot the Piano Player) as a woman preparing for bed who is plagued by menacing phone calls which may just be from her ex-lover, newly escaped from jail & out for revenge. Although I was at first a little underwhelmed by this segment, subsequent viewings have made me revise my opinion upwards. One of the most impressive things about this section is how Bava creates suspense where retrospectively there shouldn’t be any, by giving the audience more information than the characters – but crucially keeping some back. It’s great to watch the film when you have all the information, & watch Bava play games with the audience, enjoying how & when he chooses to reveal the facts to get the best possible result. It’s also impressive to see how Bava manages to notch the suspense up with just a small cast & staying mostly in the one set, with supremely controlled camera positioning & movement, & subtle variations in the lush photography. Historically, the segment is important since - along with Bavas’ Blood & Black Lace the following year - it set the blueprint for the whole giallo genre.
Fine though the first section is, the film raises up a notch with "The Wurdulak", the longest of the three stories. Mark Damon stars as a man who finds the body of a notorious criminal on the mountains. Stopping at a nearby homestead, he discovers that the criminal was suspected of being a Wurdulak, whom the father (Karloff, in his last great horror performance) of the home had set out five days earlier to kill. It should be mentioned that a Wurdulak is like a vampire, except that it desires most the blood of those they love the most. The adding of the love element to the vampire mythos works really well, & lets Bava explore the twin themes of Love & Death. Karloff is terrific, & the sequence in which he is introduced is one of Bavas' finest. It’s a superb slice of gothic horror, dripping with atmosphere, beautifully shot (as usual by Bava himself) with a daring & hypnotic use of colour, & far too many elegantly eerie moments of gnawing dread & terror to recount here. There’s a tangible sense of inevitability to the story that is surprisingly moving.
The final section, "The Drop of Water", is just as good. Jacqueline Pierreux stars as a nurse called out in the middle of a thunderstorm to attend to the corpse of a medium, but takes an unwise interest in a ring on the dead woman’s’ finger. The use of colour gets more audacious in each section & here it’s at it’s best. The nurses’ apartment is filled by a pulsing green light from outside that constantly threatens to reveal something nasty looming out of the darkness. The medium lives in a huge house where the impossibly high ceilings are gorgeously lit in an array of delicate reds, purples & greens, dwarfing the actresses. Bava particularly impresses in the segment with his use of sound, notably the dripping of the water of the title, & the buzzing of a fly, which carry much more malign dread than seems feasible. Particularly great is the way that Bava leaves it ambiguous how much is actually happening, & how much is all in the mind. The climax is brilliantly nerve jangling.
The stories are capped by a supremely lunatic coda that’s a real love it or hate it addition. Overall, Black Sabbath is a masterful compendium of supremely effective horror that ranks very highly in its directors’ oeuvre. At the very least, upon viewing this film you would have to admit that Bava was one of the very greatest cinematographers of all time. I would go further & suggest that he was one of the best directors as well. The use of sight & sound in Black Sabbath is simply masterful, & there’s an unexpected amount of emotion & intelligence to back it up. It may not have the high gore levels or frenetic pacing of modern horror movies, but Bavas’ sure control has a hypnotic elegance that moves it into a whole different league.
As noted above, Black Sabbath is quite beautifully photographed, so it’s fantastic to note what a great job Image have done on this DVD. The picture is simply amazingly good for a low budget film of this age – I’ve seen new films look worse that this, although there are one or two places where it seems a frame or two have been lost, & there are a couple of minor damages to the print. But overall it’s simply stunning. Sound too is very good too – a little crackly at the beginning, a few pops here & there maybe, but certainly nothing distracting. Much tension comes from the sound – the ticking of a clock or the dripping of water, & here Image deliver the goods. Audio is Italian mono only, with optional English subtitles.
In terms of extras, it’s perhaps a touch light – only a subtitled Italian trailer (which reveals certain plot elements), a Bava bio, filmographies for Bava & Karloff, a large (80+) gallery of stills & various promotional materials, plus informative notes by Tim Lucas. These notes do mention the extra scenes that were shot for the reworked American release, so it’s perhaps a bit of a shame that Image couldn’t track these down & put them on too. But I’m nit-picking. Frankly, with a transfer this good of so great a film (as it was intended to be seen), they could include no extras & put it out in a paper bag at twice the price. And it’d still get an unreserved recommendation from me.