Tuesday, August 16, 2005

DANGER: DIABOLIK

Looking over the last few months' box office, it's clear that comic book movies haven't really lost their luster, what with SIN CITY, BATMAN BEGINS and FANTASTIC FOUR all among the few legitimate successes of the season. Comic books have been source material for Hollywood since the Thirties, even though for decades considered fit only for kiddie matinee serials and cartoons. Come the Sixties, however, some of Europe's new wave filmmakers became interested in the pop art sensibility present in comics, leading to psychedelic romps such as BARBARELLA and DANGER: DIABOLIK.

Mario Bava, the accomplished cinematographer, special effects artist and director best known for such Euro-horror classics as BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was hand-chosen by legendary movie mogul Dino DeLaurentis to direct this adaptation of the popular Italian fumetti (comic book), Diabolik. Budgeted at a generous three million dollars, the frugal maestro Bava – using economical camera tricks and his legendary ingenuity – ended up spending only $400,000 of his budget (much to DeLaurentis' delight). Still, he created one of the most visually stunning films in the entire genre.

The film follows the escapades of master thief and super villain Diabolik (John Phillip Law, BARBARELLA, GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD) as he carries out a series of audacious heists, constantly making the police and civil authorities look like incompetent buffoons. At one point, the law even covertly recruits a ruthless gangster (Adolfo Celi, THUNDERBALL) to kidnap Diabolik's girlfriend, Eva Kant (the gorgeous Marisa Mell), figuring to pit the two criminals against each other. But Diabolik – clad in a striking all-black costume – is more than a match for the mafioso.

Diabolik isn't a super hero by any definition, nor is he a Robin Hood-styled "thief with a heart of gold." In the commentary, star Law admits bluntly that his character's "basically a terrorist." He's a refreshingly genuine antihero, out for all he can get, and innocent bystanders be damned. Look for role models elsewhere.

Beautifully shot, and awash in bright primary colors, DANGER: DIABOLIK is among one of the "truest" comic book adaptations ever filmed. Not only does Bava nail the tone and character of the original comics, but he successfully translates comic book storyelling from one medium to another, with brilliant results.

Paramount Pictures announced the DANGER: DIABOLIK disc late last year, but then delayed its release for some months. As it turned out, they were using that time to assemble a nice batch of extra features. Among the features is a nice documentary "From Fumetti to Film," which details the origins of the movie and examines it from the perspective of Sixties psychedelic filmmaking and as a comic book adaptation. The documentary includes interviews with star Law, comic book creator Stephen Bissette, filmmaker Roman Coppola, and DIABOLIK fan Adam Yauch of The Beastie Boys. The disc also includes The Beastie Boys music video, "Body Movin'," which incorporates footage from the movie, two trailers and a commentary track by Law and Bava expert Tim Lucas, editor of the excellent Video Watchdog magazine.

The commentary is one of the best I've heard in a long while, with Law obviously very fond of the movie and the character and full of reminisces. Lucas is a fount of knowledge on Bava and the production of the film, and prompts Law whenever necessary to keep the trivia and gossip (Law cops to a having a hot and steamy affair with his co-star Mell during filming) flowing. The track is never boring, and is fascinating to listen to.

Paramount presents the film it its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with a fine, startlingly sharp anamorphic transfer. The Dolby Digital mono sound is clear and free of hiss, but one wishes they'd been able to do a new sound mix, as the mono doesn't do justice to Ennio Morricone's wonderful, lounge-y score.

Overall, a great disc of a great movie, and probably my favorite DVD so far this year.

BUY: Danger: Diabolik