REVIEW BY GARY JOHNSON
When picked up for distribution in the U.S.A, American International Pictures (AIP) rearranged the three main episodes of Black Sabbath, saving the most substantial episode (which stars Boris Karloff) for the conclusion. In addition, because AIP targeted the release of Black Sabbath for teenagers and children, they excised a substantial portion of a subplot from "The Telephone" episode, eliminating any reference to lesbianism and further distorting the story by altering the dialogue. In the original Italian version of "The Telephone," the killer has escaped from prison. He seeks revenge on his old girlfriend, who helped put him behind bars. However, in the American release, redubbing and re-editing suggests that the killer has returned from the grave. (The American release also contains a nonsensical "stinger" ending courtesy of an opportunistic overdub.)
It's exciting to see Black Sabbath restored to its original Italian version, but with the restoration also comes a major setback: the loss of Boris Karloff's voice. His voice was dubbed by an Italian actor for the Italian release, so on Image Entertainment's DVD, you won't hear Karloff himself speak. Considering his voice is one of the most distinctive voices in the history of cinema, this comes as a major disappointment.
Karloff serves as the narrator in the introduction. While the American theatrical release of Black Sabbath contained introductions before each of the three episodes, the Italian version only contains one introductory sequence. However, the Italian version also contains a humorous peek behind the scenes during the final credits: we see a close-up of Karloff riding a horse (as he appears during a scene from "The Wurdulak" episode), but as the camera pulls back, we see the artifice. Karloff isn't moving. No horse exists. The illusion of movement is created by tree branches that stagehands carry past the camera.
The Italian version of Black Sabbath begins with "The Telephone," an elegant, tension-filled thriller. It's the tale of a glamorous party girl named Rosy (played by the gorgeous Michele Mercier) who, late one evening, receives a telephone call. The caller claims to be her old boyfriend Frank, who has recently escaped from prison. He swears vengeance on her. But everything isn't what it seems. Bava's camera soon reveals the deception. Rosy's lesbian ex-lover Mary is making the calls in hopes that Rosy will come to her for protection from Frank. The ruse works and Rosy makes the call to Mary, but Frank is indeed on the lam, as a newspaper story tells us. Will he come after Rosy?
The American release completely obscured the lesbian content--making both women past lovers of Frank. He gave up one for the other. However, in the Italian release, the women openly talk about their past relationship as Rosy resists the gentle strokes of her ex-lover. (In the American release, these strokes--thanks to judicious editing--become reassuring pats instead of a come-on.)
The movie's second episode features some of Bava's finest filmmaking. Filmed in gothic excess, it shows us what Black Sunday might have looked like if Bava had used color film. This episode, called "The Wurdulak," gives us a hero (Mark Damon) who wanders into a countryside beset by "wurdulaks" (undead creatures very similar to vampires). He stumbles upon a family awaiting the return of their patriarch (Boris Karloff) who has ventured outside to kill a wurdulak. He has given explicit instructions that if he fails to return within five days he should not be allowed inside. When he arrives home only a few minutes after midnight, the family members share terrified looks but they allow him into their home--a decision they soon learn to regret.
This episode of Black Sabbath survived relatively intact in the American version; however, AIP chose to remove a shot of Karloff holding aloft the severed head of a wurdulak. This deletion is rather baffling because when AIP promoted Black Sabbath their movie posters prominently featured a headless man holding a severed head.
"The Wurdulak" contains several astonishing sequences, such as the return of a kidnapped child who pleas to be let back inside the family's home: "Mama. Let me in. I'm cold. I'm cold." The family realizes the child is very likely now a wurdulak. However, the mother shrieks for the child to be let inside and eventually she gets her way.
In "The Wurdulak," Mario Bava's love of colored gels is given free reign. He fills the frame with deep blues, purples, and reds. The film glows with color. For my taste, Bava overdoes the gels. They attract far too much attention and look artificial. However, "The Wurdulak" remains a stunning achievement. From the very first moments, the tension builds as an overpowering sense of death and destruction hangs over the proceedings.
Black Sabbath ends with a sequence called "A Drop of Water." In his DVD liner notes, Tim Lucas suggests this episode "may well be the most chilling short film ever made." This claim strikes me as pure hyperbole. The story itself is familiar stuff. It features a woman who prepares the body of a recently deceased old woman for burial. She decides to pocket one of the woman's rings--leading to an intense climax where she has visions of the dead woman returning for her property. This type of crime-and-retribution horror was a staple of '50s comic books such as EC's Tales From the Crypt. In "A Drop of Water," the story never rises far above the level of cliché.
Part of the problem with this episode is the horrific model created for the old woman. It's grotesque but rigid. With little flexibility, the model must be pushed like a mannequin on wheels. Without any intimations of life, the old woman and her ghost never become a real threat.
"A Drop of Water" served as the opening chapter for the American release of Black Sabbath, followed by "The Telephone," and finally "The Wurdulak." This order makes some sense, saving as it does the best episode for last and therefore leaving filmgoers with the strongest buzz once the house lights were turned back on.
Image Entertainment's DVD is the first U.S.A. release of the original, uncut Italian version of Black Sabbath. The soundtrack is only available in Italian; however, you can turn on optional English subtitles. The print has been letterboxed at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
Black Sabbath is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment in a widescreen presentation (1.78:1 aspect ratio) that has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Special features: Mario Bava biography by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog; director and cast filmographies; theatrical trailer; and a photo and poster gallery. Suggested retail price: $24.99. For additional information, we suggest you check out the Image Entertainment Web site.