Mario Bava's first horror film in colour, I tre volti della paura (The Three Faces of Fear aka Black Sabbath, 1963), followed the making of La ragazza che sappeva troppo (aka The Girl Who Knew Too Much) in 1962 and was shot at Cinecitta and Titanus Studios. An anthology consisting of three tales, Bava's film joined an impressive tradition of earlier films utilising a sequence of stories, written either by a single or multiple authors, which were often individually handled by name directors.

In 1932, Edmund Goulding's Grand Hotel and Paramount's anthology If I Had a Million, a portmanteau film helmed by seven directors, provided early Hollywood examples of this format and it continued into the late 1940s with Tales of Manhattan (1942) and Flesh and Fantasy (1943). European directors popularised it in the 1950s. Roberto Rossellini directed segments in several anthology films, including L'Amore (1948), Les Sept péchés capitaux (1952), Siamo donne (1953), and Amori di mezzo secolo (1954). I tre volti della paura or Black Sabbath emerged just after Boccaccio '70 (1962) the Italian anthology film directed by Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica.

British studios, such as Gainsborough and Ealing, had followed suit. W. Somerset Maugham's short stories provided material for a trilogy of anthologies, Quartet (1948) and the two sequels Trio (1950) and Encore (1951). Ealing's Dead of Night (1945) is also regarded as one of the first significant examples of the horror portmanteau film, although this tradition had a long track record, starting with Richard Oswald's silent Unheimliche Geschichten (1919). It was British company Amicus who really put the horror anthology on the map with a string of successful films in the 1960s and 1970s, including Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1964), Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt (1972), Asylum (1972), Vault of Horror (1973) and From Beyond the Grave (1974).

... a brilliant display of Bava's talents as director and editor
After the huge success of Black Sunday in 1960, Bava's relationship with American International Pictures continued to develop. The company had distributed Black Sunday in the US and were keen to support Bava's next projects, even to the extent of trying to emulate the success of that film by re-titling I tre volti della paura to Black Sabbath for the lucrative US market.

Bava's spoof Hitchcockian thriller La ragazza che sappeva troppo (aka The Girl Who Knew Too Much) may well have paved the way for the full development of the Giallo genre but it also signalled an increasing demand from AIP producers James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff to alter Bava's material and make it more suitable for their profitable juvenile, drive-in audiences. Retitled Evil Eye, the US version of the film removed the original's references to marijuana and included additional material shot by Bava to lighten the film for English territories. It was a portent of things to come.

Bava's spectacular use of Technicolor was evident in Ercole al centro della terra (aka Hercules at the Center of the Earth / Hercules in the Haunted World, 1961) and The Girl Who Knew Too Much would be his last film in black and white before he applied his skills with colour to Black Sabbath, a project AIP were keen for him to do after their success with the Roger Corman Poe film cycle which had started with The Fall of the House of Usher in 1960.

Veteran horror star Boris Karloff, enjoying something of a career revival through Corman's films Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963), was under contract with AIP and, in their deal with Bava, he not only took on a role in the full blown Gothic horror of 'The Wurdulak', one of the three tales in Black Sabbath, but also acted as host for the film. This was something television audiences would have been familiar with after seeing him introduce two weekly anthology series, Thriller (NBC, 1960-62) and Out of This World (ABC, 1962).

The film's screenplay by Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua and Marcello Fondato incorporates three stories, 'The Telephone', allegedly a very loose homage to an 1887 short story by Guy du Maupassant called The Horla, 'The Wurdulak' based mostly on the novella The Family of the Vourdalak by Count Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy but also inspired by another du Maupassant story called Fear, and 'The Drop of Water' attributed to an Ivan, rather than Anton, Chekhov but, as Tim Lucas reveals, is actually based on a story Between Three and Three Thirty by P. Kettridge, the nom de plume of Franco Lucentini. Black Sabbath was shot between February and March 1963, with 'The Wurdulak' the last sequence to be completed at Titanus Studios and joining Karloff in its cast was Mark Damon, the star of AIP's The Fall of the House of Usher and uncredited director of The Pit and the Pendulum.

For audiences of the time, 'The Telephone' is quite bold in placing the lesbian relationship between Rosy (Michele Mercier) and Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) centre stage. There is a tension between the two which underlines the subterfuge Mary uses in order to gain access to Rosy's bed. Rosy's profession is not entirely clear in the film, although her suggested role as call-girl is highly appropriate in how the central symbol of the film, the red and black telephone, pulls together the various competing figures for Rosy's attentions. While Mary is pretending to be Rosy's pimp Frank by disguising her voice over the phone, Frank (Milo Quesada) has already started to stalk Rosy since his release from prison.

The tale is a chamber piece, accentuated by a detailed and modishly ornate setting, heightening the claustrophobic atmosphere, exploring Rosy's self doubt and fear and the deceptions unleashed by Mary. The phone, a recurring Bava symbol, is also part of the sequence's aural power, opening the story with its incessant ringing as Bava's camera prowls around the apartment and eventually comes to rest on Rosy's bed. The bed is where Rosy will eventually be seduced by Mary, who accomplishes this after drugging her, and where Frank will attempt to murder her. Sexual desire and its consequences, its terrors, is at the heart of the film.

Also note how characters affect the atmosphere in the film, shifting in and out of lightness and darkness. Rosy arrives and turns all the lights on in the apartment. She receives the threatening phone calls, seemingly from Frank, and immediately rushes round the apartment and turns all the lights off. Mary arrives and completes this process as she re-establishes her relationship with Rosy in an apartment they used to share. Female power is also divided between the two and is often represented in symmetrical shots.

The salacious phone calls and a brief shot of eyes peering through blinds at the window suggest a voyeurism which is exaggerated by Bava's high angles, sensuously circling camera and shifting points of view. The aural nagging of the phone is joined by ticking clocks and departing footsteps outside the apartment. Sound in I tre volti della paura becomes a vital component in the film as an adjunct to unseen terrors.

The cleverest element of the film is the puzzle about who is calling Rosy. Which of the calls are Frank and which are from his impostor Mary? Frank is clearly observing her (the eyes at the window must be him) because he calls her and berates her for hiding her jewels and money under the sofa. Mary's calls are simply a form of extreme blackmail to get herself invited over to spend the night with Rosy. Revenge takes two forms: Frank seeking his after Rosy handed him over to the police and Mary wanting hers because Rosy has rejected her sexual advances. Neither succeeds. The AIP version removes the lesbian subplot and changes Frank's escape from prison into a supernatural haunting, robbing the original of its quiet subversion.

Trademark elements of the Giallo abound. Frank's voyeurism, captured in those eyes peering through the blinds, and Mary's gloved hand holding a knife in close up would become abiding symbols of Dario Argento's thrillers and the Giallo's combination of violence and eroticism is imbued in the male-female power exchanges worked through both the lesbian subtext of Mary as strong dominatrix and Rosy as her submissive, weak counterpart and where Frank later mistakes Mary for Rosy before he strangles her with a stocking. These are also Hitchcockian elements too and the segments reflects the director's work in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and anticipates the full-blooded Giallo films to come from Bava and his successor Argento.

At the centre of this tightly paced claustrophobia, luridly highlighted by golds, reds and purples, is a twitchy, trembling and effective central performance from Michele Mercier as Rosy, whose fear escalates throughout the twenty five minute duration. It culminates in her tearful shock as, from her point of view, the camera trails across the dead bodies of her two 'romantic' attachments, with the red and black phone in the foreground off the hook, disconnected, and only the ticking of the clock to accompany her. Wedded to this is an appropriately sultry, jazzy score from Roberto Nicolosi.
... a searing examination of patriarchal power and deep rooted familial bonds
In direct contrast 'The Wurdulak' transports us back to the non-specific Eastern European setting of Black Sunday but this time restages its vampire tale in lush Technicolour. A wandering nobleman Count Vladimir d’Urfe (the handsome Mark Damon) stumbles across a headless corpse on his journey and he takes it and the ornate knife sticking in its back to a nearby house. There he discovers the knife's origins, belonging to the missing father of a family cowering in dread and fear in the misty forests.

Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) recognises his father Gorca’s knife and relates to Vladimir the terrible curse they fear has befallen him since he left home to seek revenge on a local clansman turned vampire Alibeq. Before leaving he warned them if he had not returned by the stroke of midnight after a period of five days then he would be a vampire, or wurdulak, too. As Vladimir acquaints himself with Gorca's sons Giorgio and Pietro (Massimo Righi), beautiful daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen), Giorgio's wife Maria (Rika Dialina) and his baby son Ivan, Gorca (Boris Karloff) returns home.

'The Wurdulak' is a searing examination of patriarchal power and deep rooted familial bonds, bonds extending beyond life and into death as Gorca patiently claims the members of his family anew through a very different set of blood ties, the blood line of the undead. Resisting this subjugation is Vladimir who desperately attempts to rescue Sdenka from the clutches of the wurdulak and its plague but because of his own promise of undying love to Sdenka is recruited to their ranks.

Bava's mise-en-scene is fullsome and rich, a brooding Gothic tale viewed though skeletal trees, banks of mist and crumbling ruins, immediately recalling the ancestral resting place of Asa in Black Sunday. Painted in vibrant shades of pale green and lavender, perhaps indicating the sickness and corruption threatening to swamp Gorca's family, Bava's control of the imagery is superlative. It underscores some specifically unsavoury elements nestling in the bosom of a superstitious, fearful clan too.

When Gorca returns home after the stroke of midnight and brandishes the head of the dead villain Alibeq, his sons and daughter encounter a supernatural incarnation of their father, the ultimate patriarch who will completely deny them free will. Maternal longing and female desire will be manipulated by Gorca, to conquer and subjugate any attempt by Maria and Sdenka to defy male dominance.

At the centre is the chilling undercurrent of incest and paedophilia as Gorca overtly covets his little grandson Ivan, then kidnaps him and transforms him into a keening undead spirit able to drive his mother to despair and murder, injuring her husband as he prevents her from opening the door. The scenes of the boy begging to be allowed into the house after rising from his grave are disturbing, his wailing another use of sound to render the uncanny on a soundtrack already smothered in howling wind.

Karloff is quite exceptional here, a looming, gimlet eyed monster pinching the cheek of his innocent grandson one minute and then draining his son Pietro of life the next. This is Bava's signature theme of the dysfunctional family locked into its ancestral urges writ large, quite unsentimentally so, and comes complete with familiar visual decoration. The face at the window, a key Bava motif, is repeated when first Gorca glares through frosted up glass at his anxious family and then, at the conclusion of the film, as the vampire clan close in on Sdenka and Vladimir.

In the end sentimentality and desire are eradicated in favour of ancient family repressions and 'The Wurdulak' is striking as one of the first cinematic vampire tales in which the Van Helsing savant does not appear in the midst of these superstitions to rid the land of vampires and rather shows, in a bleak ending, their infestation as a triumph over reason and logic. Memorable images abound: the bobbing decapitated head of Alibeq hanging from the trees; Ivan begging to be allowed in; Sdenka cornered by her own vampirised family in the ruins, floating towards the camera and bathed in a greenish hue.

Bava saves the best until last. 'The Drop of Water' returns us to a similar psychological frontier described in 'The Telephone' and examines another lone female protagonist driven mad by supernatural revenge. It's also one of Bava's most baroque cinematic exercises, with the down at heel setting of the crumbling house of a dead medium populated by mewling cats and dolls, its chipped rococo and mirrored hallways dripping in purple and green light. Bava fans will find its gaudy surrealism a prefiguring of the house in Kill Baby, Kill (1966).

Into this haunted palace comes Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux), an irritated nurse called out late at night to administer to the deceased body of a medium. Temptation gets the better of her and she steals a ring from the corpse's finger. The corpse is, however, rather unwilling to part with it and rises from the dead to claim her belongings. Bava luxuriates in the details, giving objects an unnatural charge with his sickly lighting schemes and not shying away from the bulging eyed, grimacing visage of he corpse who, by the end of the film, has transfered her state to Helen.

'The Drop of Water' conjures up a terrifying, naggingly claustrophobic atmosphere and uses sound to turn up the tension and symbolise the presence of supernatural revenge in the buzzing of flies and the constant, echoing drip of water. Helen's greed and class snobbery underscore her unhealthy nonchalance for the dead until she transgresses and is haunted by the medium, her tatty rooms seemingly rotting on the inside as she descends into paranoia. Pierreux is superb, with Helen at first bored and distracted and by the end terrified out of her wits and condemned to strangle herself.

When the repossession occurs, the corpse glides out of the dark, caught between pink and green highlights, its doll-like state mechanically reaching out for Helen, condemning her for her questionable morals and meting out an apt punishment. 'The Drop of Water' gets under your skin and briefly allows you entrance into a twilight world of decay and retribution, lashed by storms, populated by a corpse that won't lie down and where one woman's conscience is the soundtrack of a dripping tap. Roberto Nicolosi's score is also perfect, a high pitched organ and rumbling drum complimenting the phantasmagoria. 

Bava's black sense of humour also pervades the film and with great charm he closes the three tales with a coda featuring Karloff again, in his Gorca costume and make-up, pulling the camera back to reveal the tricks of the trade, the magician showing up his sleight of hand as we see Karloff astride a dummy horse and technicians running around with branches to simulate the forest through which he was riding. AIP hated this ending, didn't use it in their re-cut of Black Sabbath and toned down the ending of 'The Drop of Water' and the gorier elements of 'The Wurdulak.' Bava might pull the rug from under your feet with his tongue in cheek coda, a clever admission of cinema's ability to create illusions, but it never diminishes the power of the three tales in I tre volti della paura, a film which offers a brilliant display of his talents as director and editor.

About the transfers
The Italian version I tre volti della paura is a very strong presentation and cinematographer Ubaldo Terzano's lush colour palette is well produced from the original 35mm internegative. 'The Drop of Water', in which he floods the image with bold red, pink and green lighting, is particularly opulent, and the 'The Wurdulak' features some gorgeous looking exteriors staged in typically ornate style by Bava in the studio, with ruins plunged into deep blues and greens contrasted with the warm yellows, reds and browns of the cottage interiors. The domestic details of 'The Telephone' are also a visual delight with purples, greens (Mary's outfit is a highlight) and reds standing out. Overall, Bava's and Terzano's mastery of Technicolour really shines. Detail is often very good, particularly in faces, clothes and objects and good contrast, which can often be variable throughout the film, also manages to add depth to the image. The transfer does not appear to have been meddled with as far as grain is concerned, is very clean and the viewing experience is fluid and film-like.

AIP's re-cut and re-scored Black Sabbath, here reproduced from a 35mm interpositive, is inconsistent in the reproduction of such lurid colour and contrast levels are boosted, with the black levels looking deeper. Certainly in 'The Telephone' Rosy's apartment doesn't feel as as warm and the colour density of Mary's green outfit isn't as eye popping. The interiors of 'The Wurdalak' have better shadow definition and again move to a colder colour palette. It's a darker, grainier image overall but detail reproduction is still good. Occasionally, there is softening, blurring, picture instability and some evident damage in the form of scratches and blobs.

Although the packaging declares this to be 1.66:1 it seems more fitting to describe it as a 1.86:1 image and on Black Sabbath it looks as if this has either been slightly stretched horizontally or slightly zoomed in. The LCPM mono audio on both transfers is pretty solid but there is some very occasional hiss and distortion on I tre volti della paura.

Special features:
Audio Commentary with Bava biographer and expert Tim Lucas
Another very welcome chat track from Lucas who provides masses of information about the film, its production, its cast and Bava's own consideration of its themes. He also discusses the changes made by AIP, Karloff's role in the film and his relationship with Bava and the literary inspirations for each of the stories.
Introduction to Black Sabbath (2:53)
Author and critic Alan Jones briefly sets the scene for these three tales of terror. Bava's favourite film apparently and Karloff's last great performance in 'one of the screen's best realised Gothic epics'. It was allegedly so disturbing that AIP cut the film and reordered the tales for its US distribution.
A Life In Film - An Interview with star Mark Damon (21:01)
A lovely retrospective interview, made by Anchor Bay in 2007, wherein Damon takes us from his early days running amusement parks and being approached by Groucho Marx, who thought he had potential to be an actor, to his hugely successful international production career. Groomed by Fox he spent a number of years starring as a juvenile in teenage pictures but after the arrival of James Dean and Marlon Brando that changed. He approached Roger Corman about adapting the Poe books and not only starred in The Fall of the House of Usher but also directed The Pit and the Pendulum. He sought the freedom of working in Italy after being invited to Rome by Visconti and made westerns, sword and sandal and spy films. He allegedly introduced Clint Eastwood to Sergio Leone and, of course, worked with Bava on Black Sabbath.
Twice the Fear (32:13)
A great featurette looking at the differences between the Italian and American International Pictures versions, including the use of alternate takes, different and additional audio tracks, scoring and sound effects and changes in dialogue and editing. This is comprehensively illustrated via split screen and by placing both versions side by side. The Les Baxter music on the first story 'The Telephone' is more prominent, additional shots are featured and an entirely new character is added to the AIP version as is a supernatural element. Mary, the lesbian lover of the Italian version, is retained but all references to her affair with Rosy are excised from the AIP version. In 'The Wurdulak' there are extended scenes, alternate takes, changed lines and boosted audio in the AIP version but the Karloff coda is only present in the Italian version. It's also here that you clearly notice the stretching/zooming on the AIP print too.
International Trailer (3:26)
US Trailer (2:23)
Italian Trailer (3:18)
TV Spot (0:54) and Radio Spot (1:06)
Reversible sleeve
Featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.
Collector's booklet
Featuring new writing on the film by critic David Cairns, a comparison of the versions of the film by Tim Lucas, and a substantial and fascinating interview with AIP Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff on his experiences of working with Bava, illustrated with original stills and posters.

I tre volti della paura / Black Sabbath
Emmepi Cinematografica / Galatea Film / Alta Vista Film Production / Societé Cinématographique Lyre / Alta Vista Film Production / American International Pictures

Arrow Video Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD Edition / FCD778 / Released 13 May 2013 / Cert: 15 / 1.86:1 / Colour / High Definition Blu-ray (AVC 1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of two versions of the film: I tre volti della paura (92mins): the European version with score by Roberto Nicolosi and Black Sabbath (96mins): the re-edited and re-dubbed AIP version with Les Baxter score, on home video for the first time / Audio: Optional Italian, European English and AIP English re-dub and re-score LPCM 2.0 / English SDH subtitles for both English versions and a new English subtitle translation of the Italian audio / Region B/2

2 Responses to “WORLD CINEMA CLASSICS: Black Sabbath - Mario Bava Deluxe Blu-Ray Edition / Review”
  1. Pearce says:

    This is a fantastic review. However, I feel compelled to point out that in his featurette, Mark Damon is guilty of telling some a very tall tale, namely that he directed The Pit and the Pendulum.

    After this claim was made, stars John Kerr and Barbara Steele were both asked if it was true, and both said that they couldn't remember even seeing Damon on the set. Tom Weaver claims to have also asked Roger Corman, who also denied it.

  2. Thanks Pearce. Much appreciated.

    I too thought Damon's claims were a bit spurious but there they are on the documentary. Perhaps the makers of the documentary should have checked that story out and countered it with comments from other participants!

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