Review

Review

Mario Bava Collection, Volume 1

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This sumptuous box set of five films from the godfather of classic European horror includes three of the maestro?s greatest accomplishments, an important early film from his filmography, and a minor work that nevertheless has its entertaining moments. Subject to much pre-release speculation on various internet message boards ? Bava is always a popular topic there ? and a promise from Anchor Bay that the original U.S. editions of Black Sunday and Black Sabbath would be included, the set wound up streeting without many surprises and still missing those long-sought alternate versions. Nevertheless, the classy handling of the films, a nice price, and a ringer in the form of Bava?s Gothic mystery Kill, Baby?Kill! in an acceptable-looking version (an alternate DVD edition from Dark Sky Films is still held up in litigation, and absent from general release) makes this a must-have for anyone interested in cinema history, the foundations of Euro-horror, or just some great films they can watch again and again.

Excluding the aforementioned Kill, Baby?Kill! (KBK), which had only appeared on disc previously in bargain-basement editions with embarrassing-looking film transfers, all the films in the box were originally released on DVD by Image Entertainment between late 1999 and mid-2001, and the transfers in this new set are the same as those featured on the original Image discs, although they have apparently been subject to a bit of additional digital cleanup and noise reduction. The Girl Who Knew Too Much in particular benefits from this scrubbing, its dirty and scratch-heavy opening credits now remarkably clean. Other than this, however, the films themselves look virtually the same as on the earlier DVDs, which is to say, gorgeous (Black Sabbath being the real standout). Image?s transfers were revelations of their time for the films, which fans had grown accustomed to seeing in dingy, compromised editions. It?s a testament to their pioneering work that the video transfers have stood up long enough to be included in these reissues, seven years down the road.

The audio tracks are also identical to the Image discs, right down to the included languages. Black Sunday is presented in its ?International English-language version,? a dub distinct from the version presented on the A.I.P. domestic release version. Black Sabbath is in Italian with English subtitles, as is Girl, and despite box copy on the Anchor Bay edition that claims this is the first time for it to be presented as such, it was the same on the old Image edition. (In fact, the subtitles appear to be exactly the same as those used on the Image disc, with a couple of minor alternations!) Knives of the Avenger, as on the Image disc, includes both the English and Italian audio tracks, although this time around AB has included English subtitles for the much-preferred Italian track, improving the viewing experience substantially, though not without some problems (more on that later). The KBK disc also has both English and Italian audio tracks, and English subtitles (again, the Italian track makes for a much better film).

The attractive menus on the five discs are of wildly variant designs, and unfortunately include at least a couple of misspellings. Black Sunday gets a very sober and silent look, there?s a baroque and colorful design for Sabbath (mirroring the film?s opening credits), a collage of imagery and music for Knives, a black and white, moody mixture of photos for Girl, and, in the best design of the set, some neat pop art-style cutouts for KBK. Subtitles for the films that have them are yellow and unfortunately, rather extra-large, marring Bava?s gorgeous visuals from time to time with their unavoidable brightness; thankfully one can just turn them off and enjoy the pretty pictures. And in a final gripe, the back-of-box copy is a overly hyperbolic and snicker-worthy when it claims that Bava was ?one of international cinema?s most controversial directors.? Influential and underrated? Certainly, but it?s not Pasolini we?re talking about here. Notwithstanding such over-praise, the box itself is nicely designed, with each separate film appearing on its own DVD housed in one of those ?slimline? plastic cases. Unfortunately, such streamlined presentation means that the original Image liner notes for each film by Bava biographer and Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas have had to be sacrificed. Owners of those original editions would do well to hang onto them for this reason, at least until they receive Lucas?s massive Bava book, finally due in readers? hands this summer.

After all this, the films themselves need very little introduction to true horror fans, especially those born prior to the mid-1960s. Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan) was Bava?s first credited solo directorial effort, and what an effort it was. Starring horror icon Barbara Steele in dual roles as a virginal innocent and a Satanic witch, it spawned countless imitators of its style, plot and even its distinctive leading lady. A horror milestone, as the packaging says, and a movie which can?t be praised enough ? in fact, if the film weren?t in the horror genre, it would be considered one of the key Italian films of the 1960s. The new disc recycles Image?s excellent audio commentary by Lucas, as well as the international trailer and a gallery of stills and posters. New biographies of Bava and Steele appear on the disc, penned this time by Watchdog scribe Richard Harland Smith. New to the Anchor Bay edition are a well-worn U.S. trailer and a 15-second TV spot for the film; also included (as on all the discs in the set) are trailers for the other four movies in the box set collection.

Bava?s final black-and-white film, but first effort shot in a contemporary setting, is the delightful The Girl Who Knew Too Much, released in the U.S. as The Evil Eye, and starring Leticia Roman as a young American tourist who believes she witnesses a murder in Rome. Enlisting the help of a handsome doctor (John Saxon, in his first collaboration of many with an Italian master of horror), she tries on her own to solve the ?Alphabet Murders? before the killer comes looking for her. A new commentary by Lucas includes much of the information and background from the original liner notes, and again makes the influential argument that Girl is the film that created the popular giallo template which went on to such (over-)use in later Italian thrillers. A solitary protagonist out of his or her element who teams up with a local to solve a crime they think they might have witnessed; an anonymous, black-gloved killer with a fondness for cutlery who stalks the hero(ine) through the dark streets of an Italian city; touches of character humor and even a bickering romance between the two protagonists ? it?s all there, and all done so well that one wonders why Argento even bothered with Bird With the Crystal Plumage six years later! Besides the new commentary, the Girl disc also includes a nine-minute video interview with American star John Saxon, who talks about his early career and his relationship with Bava and with costar Roman, the Bava biography, plus an American trailer for The Evil Eye. Recycled from the Image edition are a great international trailer that?s virtually a music video for the catchy title song, and a gallery of stills and posters.

One of the most fondly-remembered of Bava?s films for American fans is Black Sabbath (aka The Three Faces of Fear), due both to the presence of popular horror star Boris Karloff and to its fortuitous release by A.I.P. for general audiences in the spring of 1964 ? young Baby Boomers went wild over this one. A triptych of stories with wildly divergent plots depending upon which version you?re watching, the film was Bava?s first color feature and the former cameraman makes the most of it ? each shot is a painting on film, filled with either swirling colors or all-consuming shadows. Freeze frame any image on the disc and you?ve got an instant background for your computer or television screen ? it?s nearly 3D in how eye-popping and tactile its use of color is. Featuring a giallo, a vampire tale, and one of the most terrifying ghost stories ever committed to celluloid, Black Sabbath is one of the major standouts of the collection and, once again, a true horror classic. As with Girl, Sabbath also features a new commentary by Tim Lucas, and it?s one of his best, running nearly the entire length of the film and packed with information about Bava, the various stars of the episodes, the source of the original stories, and more. Also entertaining, though not having all that much to do with Bava, is a genial, 21-minute interview with ?The Wurdulak? episode co-star Mark Damon, who also appeared in multiple domestic and international genre productions and went on to become a highly successful film producer. He doesn?t talk a lot about Black Sabbath, but it?s an interesting discussion nonetheless (he also claims he directed Roger Corman?s Pit and the Pendulum, which is a curious assertion). The U.S. trailer, a b&w TV spot, and a 60-second radio commerical are new additions to the DVD, with the international trailer and a large stills and poster gallery held over from the Image disc. A Karloff biography gets added to the standard Bava one, as well.

The weak point of the set, at least in terms of the actual movie, is Knifes of the Avenger, a Viking riff on Shane that features American star Cameron Mitchell, some awkwardly-staged swordfighting, and not much else. Even the trademark Bava special effects and interesting camerawork are absent, clearly indicating that this was a project that held little interest for the director. This also seems to be the one disc that Anchor Bay has bungled slightly, since they?ve neglected to hold over a stills and poster gallery that was present on the Image disc. English subtitles for the Italian-language audio track are, at first glance, a welcome addition, but after watching them for a couple of minutes, one can?t help but notice that you?re probably better off with the English dub. For even if they?re accurately translated, the English is stilted and far too literal, making them cumbersome and extremely awkward to read. It?s almost as if they were translated by a non-English speaker who used a dictionary far too often to find the best word; a more colloquial translation, and one with fewer words, would be less strain on the eyes. That good old Bava biography and a black-and-white English trailer are the only supplements on the disc.

Finally comes the one film that many fans who already own the Image editions will be buying the box set in order to get ? Kill, Baby?Kill! Definitely in the top five of Bava?s best films, this Gothic horror, like Sabbath and Sunday, features an overwhelming number of images and genre tropes that would become standard operating procedure for later generations; I can?t even count how many times I?ve seen Bava?s archetypal little blonde girl playing with a white ball in subsequent horror movies. Truly scary and featuring as many fog-bound, yet color-suffused sequences as the middle episode of Sabbath, KBK is another treat for the eyes, especially now that it?s finally available in a watchable edition. Sparse on extras ? only an international trailer, the Bava biography, and three short TV spots for the ?Orgy of the Living Dead? triple feature ? the disc nevertheless makes the entire box an essential purchase and a DVD set to treasure for many years.

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