Black Sunday aka Mask of Satan
In Mario Bava's full directorial debut, he cast the difficult and delicious Barbara Steele as a witch who is put to death for her incestuous and diabolical deeds with her lover, Javutich, and uses her last breath to curse her descendants. Some years later, two doctors happen upon her crypt and unwittingly bring her back to life with a vengeance to be visited on her surviving descendants. John Richardson plays the younger doctor who falls for the comely throwback of Steele in a second role and who fights the curse before hell is unleashed on earth. Bava had finished other film-maker's films before but this was his first full project, and the accomplishment in the mise-en-scene, cinematography, special effects and the management of the cast are truly prodigious. The film is shot in black and white and almost single handedly stands as the beginning of gothic horror in Italian cinema. Bava's sense of compositions and use of striking images litter the film and cause the project to transcend a contradictory script and some ropey dialogue.
Many of the scenes in the film are far before their time such as the effects deployed in Steele's regeneration, and many more scenes are improvements on the staples of Hammer and Universal such as the carriage that picks up Dr Kruvayan and speeds through the night. Bava creates great painterly frames such as Dr Kruvayan at the lake or the introduction of the later Steele character complete with hounds framed by the ruins of a church. There are endless examples of visual invention such as Javutich appearing from within a painting, and some great set-piece moments such as the original murder of the witch and her lover. And it is these moments and touches which raise Black Sunday above a mere genre piece; as a story it has a confusing contradictory plot which merges witches and vampires and the story has several changes of direction which keep Steele's witch a hidden threat until the very end when more mileage could have been easily found in this character. The acting is consistent, but it is the marshalled forces of the editing, images and music which make the film exceptional. I would be surprised if it scares people now but it is a little gory for its time, and Bava explores his recurring themes of decay and the corruption of beauty through the dual roles of Steele. Despite its limitations, Black Sunday is impressive and a classic of Italian horror.
Black Sabbath aka Three Faces of Fear
Bava's classic portmanteau movie includes three tales which are bookended by narration involving the film's star, Boris Karloff. The first tale, The Telephone, is a twisted tale where a young woman of dubious repute is harassed by phone calls purporting to be from her ex-lover, a criminal named Frank who has escaped from prison and knows it was her who shopped him. She turns for comfort to her obsessed and lovestruck female friend and the tale takes some ironic twists and turns which ends badly for two of this seedy triangle. The Telephone is an early example of how Bava could use beautiful images and create a tension with the far from beautiful actions of those within them, a skill he would perfect in the following year's Blood and Black Lace. Bava keeps the tale taut and focuses on these three characters, creating a desperate atmosphere within the urban luxury of the lead's apartment.
The second tale is The Wurdulak, with Karloff starring as a patriarch who returns to his family after destroying a "creature of the night". His family start to notice his deathly pallor and the decimation of their members over the course of the night, and Sdenka the daughter elopes to be free of this bewitching. The binds of vampirism prove as strong as the ties of family. The Wurdulak is a wonderful literate horror which gave Karloff one of his last great roles and one which takes the idea of vampirism and applies it eerily to the kinship of family. With beautiful compositions and exceptional lighting this is a very unnerving piece with a dark cynical wit that Bava must have enjoyed greatly. It has exceptional moments such as when the dead infant child comes back to life pulling at his mother's heartstrings and banging at the family's closed door.
The final story, A Drop of Water, is one of the best short horror films ever made. It is a constantly dark tale which hides menace in the shadows and worse still makes the menace meaningful as payback for the guilt of crimes against the dead. Jacqueline Pierreux is the nurse called to prepare a wealthy woman's corpse for the undertakers and takes advantage of the jewellery on show. What then follows is one of the best hauntings of conscience in cinema with everything from dripping taps and shadows deployed to bring comeuppance to the covetous nurse. The haunting is even one which may continue for the greedy living, and Bava is exceptional in his use of visual metaphors for guilt such as the bluebottle fly which dogs the nurse. The film ends with Karloff revealing the fact that the stories were simple invention and the mechanics of making a film are laid bare to re-assure the audience as the mechanical horse he rides and the men running around the camera with bits of bush are revealed by the pan out. Black Sabbath, in this its Italian cut, has aged little and stands as one of the finest horror compendium films ever made. Along with Blood and Black Lace and the Whip and the Body, it is as great a film as Bava directed.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Bava's 1962 film is often cited as one of the very first Giallos and it is not hard to see many of the facets of the genre in the film. An American abroad, Nora, is mugged and before passing out sees a murder, but when she is found by police the smell of alcohol leads the coppers to some doubts about her veracity. So she follows the clues herself in order to prove that she is no lush with the help of patient masochistic love interest, Marcello. With witnesses ending up dead and all of Nora's evidence disappearing, she eventually stumbles on to the truth. So we get an amateur sleuth, direct images of Nora reading detective fiction, the misinterpreted clue beloved of Argento, and a host of suspects which dwindle down to the most unlikely murderer - solid Giallo territory.
Knives of the Avenger
Bava's viking revenge flick is a tale of three kings all seeking vengeance. Rurik has lost his wife and child to Argan and has claimed his vengeance on the innocent Harald and his family, Harald wants to defeat Argan for his crimes and Rurik for his misplaced wrath, and Aghan wants power and the throne that he thinks Harald kept from him. The film is very like a western, complete with inn fights, horseback riding and appropriate score from Marcello Giombini. It makes great use of the coast and some location shooting as a backdrop for the various bouts of fisticuffs and butt kicking delivered by Bava regular Cameron Mitchell. Some of the fight scenes are shot in incredibly long takes which makes the choreography look a little rudimentary, but the knife throwing is inventive in the regular fights we get to see.
Kill Baby Kill
In another film taking its lead from the gothic horrors of Hammer, a young doctor is called to do an autopsy in a rural town where all the inhabitants are unwilling to talk to the local inspector or any stranger. People are routinely going missing, superstition abounds and soon the inspector has disappeared whilst visiting the Villa Graps. Joined by a student returning to the town, the Doctor visits the Villa himself and tries to take on the fears and witchcraft that hold all in their sway. Bava enjoys himself with mysterious scenes set in ruins, cemeteries and the villa and a world where the inhabitants have lost their belief in anything other than evil. Making best use of limited resources and script Bava creates a truly memorable and eerie piece. The same apparent virtues of visual storytelling are present in this film as the ones above with superb framing, elegant composition and ingenious effects.
Kill Baby Kill and its unusual spectral presence of a young girl in white bouncing a ball has had many admirers over the years with Fellini and Scorsese to name but two. The film has some great sequences of unreal terror and overall it generates a more successful feeling of unease than Black Sunday. One sequence where the doctor runs through a room which seems to repeat itself in a loop until he is chasing himself is truly seminal stuff even if some may try to say Antonio Margheriti got their first with Castle of Blood in 1964. Interestingly the film seems much more cine-literate than Bava's debut with a spiral stairway setting and zoom effect like Vertigo and a method of suicide possibly borrowed from Peeping Tom. The film re-uses some horror staples and borrows from the first two Hammer Dracula films in its opening, but the atmosphere created and the sheer fear is truly original to Bava. The young girl who literally and metaphorically haunts the villagers who left her to die, the mixing of vampirism and witchcraft, and a sense of moral decay which has begot the evil of the film, these are the hallmarks of Bava's movies - a mixture of superstitious cynicism and corrupted beauty.
The tantalisingly titled Mario Bava Collection Volume 1 - fans will wait with baited breath for Volume 2 - comes in a large slipcase with an internal archive style case holding the five discs within. These slipcases are decorated with poster art and pictures of Bava, the style of which is replicated on the individual disc art and covers. The five discs come in slim slipcases with no enclosed articles or essays. Each film seems to have been taken from the same materials as the original Image discs and some of the extras are the same as well. All of the films have been presented anamorphically with all in 1.78:1 with the exception of Knives of the Avenger. Taking the transfers in turn, Black Sunday has been cleaned up a little from the Image release and there has been some improvement in picture quality with this process. This is also the case for Black Sabbath, and The Girl Who Knew Too Much as well where the prints are marginally sharper because of edge enhancement and contrast boosting. I am less convinced that great strides have been made with Knives of the Avenger which had been presented well by Image previously, but a lot of cleaning up has gone on with Kill Baby Kill where the previous discolouration and battered print have been improved well, although the transfer here is not outstanding with inconsistent colours and flesh tones and this is still the weakest transfer here. Kill Baby Kill is also presented anamorphically and the image seems to be in the same proportions to the Laser Paradise DVD with no obvious cropping compared to that. In simple R1 terms, this set represents a minor improvement on the visual quality of the previous R1 releases. In terms of the prints used here, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Black Sabbath seem to be from French origins as they have inserts in that language and all of the versions of the films are the European ones, rather than the AIP cuts. The cleaning up which has occurred visually is replicated in the audio but there are occasions of distortion in the dialogue during Knives of the Avenger and Kill Baby Kill, I also believe there are small pops during the funeral in The Girl Who Knew Too Much as well. The English subtitles available are legible and always grammatical.
The special features on these dual layer discs include three commentaries from Tim Lucas including seemingly new ones on The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Black Sabbath, and the old Image commentary on Black Sunday. His style is pretty much as a sensitive gatekeeper to all things Bava with immense amounts of information about actors filmographies, great insight into Bava's intentions and state of mind (especially on The Girl Who Knew Too Much), and gentle suggestions about added meaning or the impact of the films. Lucas is a role model for others in his commentaries and if he has too much information for some, he tends to satisfy the fanboy in most. Most of the discs in the set carry trailers, and occasionally TV and radio spots from the previous Image releases. Two other additions to this set's extras are new interviews with John Saxon and Mark Damon. Saxon's memory seems a little unreliable at times - "Luciano Fulci"- but he is very interesting on not getting on with Bava and not appreciating the maestro's talents at the time, and he even talks indirectly about his problems on Margheriti's Cannibal Apocalypse. Mark Damon is far more switched on and keen to blow his own trumpet for his role in Corman's Poe trilogy and getting Clint Eastwood the job with Leone.
The chief selling point about this set is the price and the inclusion of an improved release of Kill Baby Kill. The transfers and sound are minor improvements on the previous R1 discs, and the inclusion of the new extras will draw in double dippers. If you have never experienced Bava before, then this is the place to start.