Friday, March 14, 2008

Drops of Water

Opening night at the American Cinematheque for the Mario Bava festival was well-attended and enjoyable. I even spotted Edgar Wright on the premises at the Egyptian. Joe Dante introduced the double bill of BLACK SUNDAY and BLACK SABBATH, telling a little bit about the background of both films and also specifying which version of each film we were going to see. The prints, both dating from the early part of the decade, were in decent shape and great to view on the huge screen.

Both films played just great to me. BLACK SUNDAY (titled THE MASK OF SATAN on this version) expertly holds its mood and if its English-produced soundtrack isn’t entirely ideal (I’ve never seen the Italian version and the last time I saw the American AIP cut was a long time ago) the many effective passages throughout overwhelm anything else. This tale of a witch (the otherworldly Barbara Steele) who returns several centuries after being put to death to hopefully feed off her ancestors plays like a dark, sinuous adult fairy tale that genuinely feels like it has come to earth from some other realm. The moment of that mist appearing at the bottom of the frame just before Andrea Checci’s Dr. Kruvajan has his first unknowing encounter with the supernatural is the sort of effect that helps make the movie. Not an effect that serves as a loud crash, but an encroaching feeling of dread from a force that is unknown and beyond the comprehension of an intellectual mind. And maybe the effect of Barbara Steele’s performance is hampered by the dubbing, in both roles she manages to sell that feeling of someone so imbued with the feeling of being haunted in ways she doesn’t understand that it truly is a part of her soul. And it’s hard to take your eyes off those eyes.

But as great as it is, it was the triple-pronged horror of 1963’s anthology BLACK SABBATH which had the greater effect on me last night. Shown in the subtitled Italian version under its original title which translates as THE THREE FACES OF FEAR, this print has obviously been shown several times during the past few years. But the way the colors leapt off the screen and the effect this gave off more than made up for any scratches. “The Drop of Water” has imagery that is powerful and haunting in its primal nature, the proto-giallo lounge vibe of “The Telephone” is infectious, but viewing “The Wurdalak” in this context struck me as being a more successful exploration of certain ideas presented in BLACK SUNDAY—though not having Barbara Steele is definitely a drawback—and all of the elements combined here make it a true masterwork of the horror genre. I’m now convinced of that. Even Boris Karloff being dubbed into Italian cannot be considered a real drawback. Again, I haven’t seen the American cut of the film in years (the last time may have been during an all-night marathon at the Nuart back in 1994) but, more than any version of BLACK SABBATH I’ve ever seen, this feels like the true version of this film. Seen together, this double feature of magic, desire and the power of seemingly benign drops of water are films which serve not only as an enjoyable kickoff to the festival, but an ideal entryway into the world of Mario Bava for anyone who is interested.

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