The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Finding horror classics
easier for today's fans

May 3, 2001
By Franklin Harris

Young horror fans these days are spoiled. I remember when watching a good horror flick meant going to a drive-in, where you endured the summer heat while trying to ignore the couple making out in the next car.

You're a mean one, Mr. Karloff.
Images from The Mario Bava Web Page
You're a mean one, Mr. Karloff.
Or, if you were lucky, maybe a movie was on television. But if there was, you didn't have a VCR, so you had to sneak downstairs and watch it while your parents thought you were asleep.

Nowadays, all those classic, drive-in horror movies are available on DVD — uncut, remastered and letterboxed.

And to think that some of you youngsters just getting into horror will never know the joys of scavenging flea markets for worn-out rental tapes and fifth-generation bootlegs.

Consider the films of Italian director Mario Bava.

No one makes better horror films than the Italians do, and Bava, who died in 1980, was the father of the modern Italian horror movie. He inspired other Italian filmmakers like Dario Argento, director of the horror masterpiece "Suspiria," and Lucio Fulci, whose gorefest, "The Beyond," is available as a special-edition DVD.

The distribution companies that first brought Bava's movies to America butchered most of them. (As much nostalgic fondness as I have for American International Pictures, AIP always did a real number on its European imports.) So, only now can we see Bava's works as he intended.

Michele Mercier is smokin' in ''Black Sabbath.'' (Get it?)
Michele Mercier is smokin' in ''Black Sabbath.'' (Get it?)
Although he anonymously directed a couple of films before it, "Black Sunday" was Bava's official directorial debut.

This 1960 film, about a condemned witch who returns from the dead seeking vengeance, was also a star-making vehicle for its lead, Barbara Steele, who went on to appear in movies like Roger Corman's "The Pit and the Pendulum" and Federico Fellini's "8."

The new DVD, released by Image Entertainment, is the uncut Italian version, called "The Mask of Satan" in Italy, and features a commentary track by B-movie expert Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog magazine.

Three years after "Black Sunday," Bava directed two established horror stars.

In "Black Sabbath," also known as "The Three Faces of Fear," he worked with Boris Karloff, better known for playing the monster in "Frankenstein" (1931) and the title role in "The Mummy" (1932).

Christopher Lee wonders why he has an American accent in ''The Whip and the Body.''
Christopher Lee wonders why he has an American accent in ''The Whip and the Body.''
Bava said "Black Sabbath" was his favorite of his films, and it's easy to see why. It's a gorgeously photographed feast smothered in warm Technicolor hues.

"Black Sabbath" was among the flood of anthology films, like Corman's Poe-inspired "Tales of Terror," to hit American theaters in the early '60s.

Karloff introduces the film's three tales and stars in the second of them, "The Wurdulak."

The film also stars Michele Mercier and Jacqueline Pierreux, two of the most, shall we say, memorable leading ladies in the history horror movies.

"Black Sabbath" is available on DVD from Image Entertainment, and its only real drawback is that it is dubbed in Italian with English subtitles, which means you don't get to hear Karloff's rich, baritone voice.

Christopher Lee, best known for playing Count Dracula in films during the '50s and '60s, is similarly speechless in Bava's "The Whip and the Body," also from 1963.

I'm not just Asia Argento's mom, you know.
I'm not just Asia Argento's mom, you know.
Another actor dubbed Lee's part for the English-language version, which is included on the DVD from VCI Home Video.

Lee plays the aristocratic Kurt, who, returning home from exile, seeks to reclaim his former lover, Nevenka, played by Daliah Lavi. Nevenka is married to Kurt's younger brother, but the two nevertheless resume their sadomasochistic affair — until, that is, Kurt turns up dead, and his ghost begins haunting the family estate.

If all this sounds a little racy, it was racy for 1963. But it's all quite tame by today's standards.

Lucas again provides an informative commentary track for this nearly forgotten masterpiece.

"Shock," released on DVD by Anchor Bay, was Bava's last theatrical effort.

''I wonder if the 'Planet of the Vampires' has an Old Navy.''
''I wonder if the 'Planet of the Vampires' has an Old Navy.''
It's a good film, if not quite up to the standard of Bava's earlier works, but it is memorable mainly for its leading lady, Daria Nicolodi, better known as the mother of Asia Argento, a rather good horror actress in her own right and daughter of filmmaker Dario.

Of course, a few Bava films still await re-release.

If anyone knows where I can find a fifth-generation bootleg of "Planet of the Vampires," you know where to find me.

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The day after this column was published, MGM announced that it will be releasing "Planet of the Vampires" on DVD in August. — FH]

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