Compendium films generally are very tricky to pull off, and often suffer from a big variation in quality and tone between the different stories. Something of a very pleasing surprise then to be able to report that not only is Mario Bava’s 1963 classic extremely good, but is also perhaps his finest hour. The film consists of three segments, and 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), and in Italian with subtitles!
The first segment is "The Telephone", and 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 ,and 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, and watch Bava play games with the audience, enjoying how ,and 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 ,and staying mostly in the one set, with supremely controlled camera positioning ,and movement, ,and subtle variations in the lush photography. Historically, the segment is important since - along with Bava’s Blood and 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, and lets Bava explore the twin themes of Love ,and Death. Karloff is terrific, and the sequence in which he is introduced is one of Bava’s finest. It’s a superb slice of gothic horror, dripping with atmosphere, beautifully shot (as usual by Bava himself) with a daring ,and hypnotic use of colour and far too many elegantly eerie moments of gnawing dread and 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, and, here it’s at its best. The nurse’s apartment is filled by a pulsing green light from outside that constantly threatens to reveal something nasty looming in the darkness. The medium lives in a huge house where the impossibly high ceilings are gorgeously lit in an array of delicate reds, purples, and greens, dwarfing the actresses. Bava particularly impresses in the segment with his use of sound, notably the dripping of the water of the title, and the buzzing of a fly, which carry much more malign dread than seems feasible. Particularly great is the way that Bava leaves it ambiguous as to how much is actually happening, and 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 and suggest that he was one of the best directors as well. The use of sight and sound in Black Sabbath is simply masterful, and there’s an unexpected amount of emotion and intelligence to back it up. It may not have the high gore levels or frenetic pacing of modern horror movies, but Bava’s sure control has a hypnotic elegance that moves it into a whole different league.
Black Sabbath comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber as part of their Mario Bava collection. As with past releases in this collection, Kino has opted to forgo any sort of digital restoration in favor of presenting the film in a “warts and all” manner that best preserves the filmic quality of the transfer, but at the expense of the occasional spot of print damage. Still, the image is quite lovely, vibrant, and teeming with fine detail. It’s complimented by a PCM 2.0 track that suffers a few harsh moments and warbles, but, given the film’s vintage, it’s perfectly suitable.
Sadly, Kino really skimps on extras, here, as we’re only given a selection of trailers for other films in the Bava Collection (HD).