Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Classic Bava

For fans of old-school horror, Mario Bava is a towering legend, and not without reason. With his brilliant eye for shot compositions and sensuous camera movements, Bava, who handled the camera for many films and even ghost-helmed some of them before he was handed the director's baton, raised many of his films from their low-budget cheesy horror roots to genuinely atmospheric pieces.

Black Sunday
People that have been weaned only on modern day slashers and horror genre parodies may find this 1960 B&W vampire movie creaky and campy (and to be sure it does have amusingly overwrought dialog), but it possesses such a wonderful old-fashioned elegance that even though it doesn't really scare you (Unless you were really young when you saw it), it is undoubtedly charming and gorgeous to look at. The alluring Barbara Steele plays dual role of a princess and her ancestor that was a witch (and now vampiric witch), and after this movie became one of the premier horror film queens.

Arrow's blu-ray presentation is a mixed bag. The film print shows apparent wear and several light damage marks throughout the running time, contrast is variable, detail is modest and scenes are occasionally soft enough to make the term high-definition moot. But on the plus side, it is an un-manipulated transfer and a fair number of iconic shadow-wreathed scenes nicely benefit from the upgrade. The sound is flat and hollow like many of these Italian productions with their dubbed dialog have, but dialog is generally clear and there are no major distortions. Among the extras is the film I Vampiri, a film Bava completed after its original director Riccardo Freda walked out midway. I am looking forward to see this sometime soon.

Lisa and The Devil
Bava essentially made his name in the Gothic horror /slasher bracket but the film for which he was given carte blanche has almost arthouse sensibilities. Most of Lisa and The Devil is like a dream seen from Lisa's POV. In the opening sequence, while sightseeing in Spain Lisa gets separated from her group and runs into a man (Telly Savalas) who bears a striking resemblance to the fresco of the Devil. From that point on, life becomes entirely surreal. She is confronted by strangers who claim to love her and want her "back", she lands up at a castle in the company of a bickering couple, she has visions of making love to the men she has met...and of course a few grisly murders happen. The unique thing about the film is its constantly shifting tone, and I mean this in a good way. Especially in the puppetmaster-like character of Telly Savalas, Bava uses black humor to create a counter-point to the sumptuous surreal visuals and the more grisly elements of the script. The Gothic element finds a strong emotional backbone in the story, which while initially mysterious, comes together beautifully towards the end. Like with his other well-known films, the visuals are strikingly composed, in terms of the lighting and the camera movements. The music is also fantastic with one of the best uses of the memorable second movement from Rodrigo's Concerto Aranjuez.


Arrow's blu-ray of Lisa and The Devil shares the same pros and cons as it's Black Sunday disc. Sometimes the film seems a little too bright and watery, other times its fine. Again the issue seems more related to the quality of available sources for these films than with the digital encode. On the whole it is a significant upgrade from DVD, but not one to show off to those idiots that want everything to look like Avatar. The sound is alright but volume levels fluctuate sometimes and in general, at least in the English version, dialog appears to be recorded at a lower level than the music and sound effects. I preferred to watch this with subs, so as to avoid turning the volume too high. The extras include an alternate cut of the film called House of Exorcism, which is basically the producer fucking around, inserting cheesy sequences that rip off The Exorcist. I'll see that some other time. I'm also eager to hear Tim Lucas' commentary on this masterpiece by his favorite director.

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