Black Sabbath, or I tre volti della paura ("The Three Faces of Fear," its original title) is a "omnibus" film of three horror stories that was released in 1963 and directed by the Italian Mario Bava. It was time when short subject "terror" stories were popular from such television shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Twilight Zone, among others. Other omnibus movies (movies containing three or more storiesusually threeoften linked together by another "story") made an appearance around that time, some in the same genre, some not.
In 1962, Roger Corman, as part of his cycle of films based (with varying degrees of faithfulness) on Edgar Allen Poe works, released Tales Of Terror. It had proved quite popular (and is quite entertaining). American International Pictures (AIP, Corman's distributor) had just recently gotten the contract for Boris Karloff and was eager to put him into a similar project. It was worked out through some other European companies for financing and director Bava, who had done extensive work in genre films, particularly 1961's successful Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio), was brought on board.
The result was I tre volti della paura, with three stories (one starring Karloff in his last real horror role) from uncertain parentage. Both the Italian and US versions claim the stories are from Guy de Maupassant, V.I. Tolstoi, and Anton Chekhov (in order of each story's appearance in the original version; the Italian only gives the last names). The second was actually by Count Alexei Constantinovitch Tolstoi, the other two are simply incorrect.
The year after its initial release, it was taken by AIP, one story was recut and rewritten (notably eliminating some lesbian references), reordered the episodes, rewrote the score, and asked them to add some introduction, linking, and afterward material. The original version only has the opening and closing parts with Karloff hamming it up to the audience telling them to beware of vampires in the theater (since they see movies, too) and an ending where he's in costume from his segment and suddenly the camera pulls back revealing the studio and the fake horse he's riding (and the men running around in circles with tree branches to give the illusion of riding through a forest). Karloff liked the ending, though admitted the lack of humorous material in the rest of the film made it not quite fit. AIP hated it and didn't include it when it was released as Black Sabbath.
Bava, who had worked on many films by then, had done directorial work as well as effects and cinematography. As a director, his eye for visuals (often phantasmagoric) is always apparent, if not his ability to plot well. That is both the problem and the saving grace (depending on one's tolerance for genre film and style over substance) of the movie. The writing isn't that well done, either.
The problem lies in the fact that even when tension builds, the ending is mostly telegraphed in advance or too easy to figure out. The progression of each story is clear to the audience and the suspense is largely nullified. Not to say there is none, each has a certain amount of buildup, in some cases with great promise. But once it becomes clear how it will play out, the promise goes unfulfilled.
Visually, it once again shows his skill with primary palette of Technicolor and lighting. Often crimson or purple lights are usedenough to be noticeable and create mood, but not enough to be overpowering. Sometimes characters are lit unconventionally from sources that couldn't possibly be part of the "natural" scene. This all helps to evoke moments of fear and paranoia (particularly as a means to express the minds of the characters), as well as the unreality (at times, almost surreality) of the moment. That said, it's difficult to recommend for the casual viewer. It is unfortunate that the picture fails to hold up to repeat viewing.
For fans of Bava, it is an important piece in his filmography, coming between Black Sunday and Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l'assassino 1964; "Six Women for the Murderer") his other most celebrated filmthe utilization of color in that film far surpasses Black Sabbath. (Though he directed a few other in between, I'd say this film stands as a good transition point and the latter the culmination of this earlier work.) It also has Karloff in a role that makes him a cruel, heartless monster (not the "creature" type, but as a vampire-like killer).
Il telephono (The Telephone)
Rosy, a beautiful woman is alone in her apartment when she begins getting mysterious, threatening phone calls. The caller can see her and makes note of her actions like putting on a robe or hiding her valuables. Numerous references are made to her body, as wellher "silky arms" and her "perfect legs," "a body like yours could drive a man to madness." But the caller isn't interested in that. The caller intends to kill her.
She's told that she will be killed, even if she locks the door. And turning on the lights is a good thing since the murder will be more easily seen. The caller revels in the plan. But why? Something about revenge. When she hides the stuff, she's told "you still don't get it, do you?" It's not her "splendid body" that the stranger wants to caress, the caller wants to "wring your neck to choke you until you suffocate."
An envelope is slid under the door with a clipping that says someone has escaped the police (either a husband or boyfriend, it turns out she was the one who had turned him in). Convinced it is him, she calls her friend Mary, with whom she has had an affair. Mary is a bit cold, since supposedly Rosy no longer wanted to see or speak to her. She makes Rosy state that she wants her to come over to her house. You then see the caller is really Mary. She then comes over (wearing black gloves which almost foreshadow the dress of the murderers in Bava and other's gialli1).
After a night that may or may not have turned into something physical, and some red herringsputting a tranquilizer in some tea, bringing a large carving knife out and placing it under the pillow ("you never know")Mary writes a note to apologize for what she's done. She had felt that it was the only way to make Rosy see how important and needed she was. Unfortunately for her, the man does show up, strangling her. He goes toward Rosy, who has just awoke and doesn't even know about Mary's scheme to get her back into her life. As expected, the knife is available. And used.
It's been a long time since I saw the US version and really can't recall how the story went. That there was an affair with Mary is necessary to the whole plot. The DVD liner notes say it was made to appear the caller was a ghost. A good potential idea, poorly executed.
I wurdulak (The Wurdulak)
What is a "wurdulak?" asks the traveler who has found himself a guest in a remote Russian farmhouse. He is told they are "bloodthirsty corpses. They yearn for the blood of those they loved most when they were alive." He had found a body with a knife in the back on his travels. He brought both with him and when he stopped for the night, he found a family that was living in fear.
The knife was their father's (Karloff), who had gone to dispatch a murderous Turk who many suspected was a wurdulak (basically, a vampire). They had been told that if he did not return in five days, they must not let him in because it would mean he had become one. Father arrivesshortly after the last chimes of midnight have rung out. He's all grizzled with cold, deep eyes, and a wound on his chest near the heart. He convinces them to let him in, though they are frightened of him.
He claims to be hungry but shoves away the plate of lamb he is offered, saying he no longer had an appetite. He orders his son to go kill his favorite dog because he won't stop howling. Then he shows everyone the head of the Turk, ordering them to place it up outside the house "for all to see" (at that point they conclude the dog was howling because he smelled a corpse). They all go to bed but leave one to watch, just in case.
That night he takes his grandson awaywhen he awakens, he is told he is being taken outside for a "surprise." The next morning they find them both missing and the brother on watch dead of bites on the throat. The boy's father find the body and brings it back (the mother refuses to allow him to stab the dead child which would keep him from returning). The following night, the grandson returns, calling out "mama, I'm cold." The grief-stricken mother stabs her husband who is trying to restrain her and rushes out to the child. Her father is waiting for her.
The traveler and the unattached daughter (who are falling in love), decide it's best to leave. The ride out to a ruined convent where they plan to spend the night. Father arrives, calling to her, telling her that "no one can love you like I love you." Then the rest of the family appears. She screams and the traveler finds her gone.
He searches for her, coming to the house where he finds her in her bed (conspicuously covering the side of her neck). She professes her love and asks him to leave (she can no longer leave, herself). He refuses and she knows now just how much he loves her, "more than life itself." Saying that "my lips are dead without your kisses," they go to kiss. And the inevitable happens.
The scenes at the convent are good. The sets are nice and Bava makes good use of the varied color of lights and "unnatural" light sources. You can hear the cold wind blowing throughout most of the episode.
La goccia d'acqua (The Drop of Water)
The final piece is often considered the best. A woman is called to the house of a Countess who has died of a heart attack (late at night during a thunderstorm). The catch is, it happened in a trance during a seance (the set decorated lovingly with a table and Tarot cards). She had been obsessed with them. According to the housekeeper, "the spirits of the dead killed her. Ghosts." The body is found with wide gaping eyes and a disturbing death grimace.
The woman (it's never quite clear what her occupation is, some sort of funeral director or something, though she almost seems freelance) sets to dressing the corpse. While doing that, she eyes a large ring that she apparently covets. She pockets the ring and goes on about her business. A fly appears on the spot where the ring once was. It's shooed away. She closes the eyes of the deceased. The sound of water dripping distracts her and when she turns back from attending to it, the eyes are wide open and the fly has returned.
She goes home and has a drink to calm her nerves. A fly appears and various faucets begin dripping, each in turn after the first is turned off. There's the creaking of the doors and the lights go out. Lighting a candle she hears a sound almost like a wounded dog. On her bed she discovers the corpsewhich then rises. The woman runs to the other room, only to find the corpse rocking in her chair, holding a cat (the house she'd lived was full of them).
Then suddenly, she is gone, the chair continuing to rock. Backing away, she feels the hand of the deceased placed on her shoulder. She runs again, this time the corpse gliding across the floor toward her. As she approaches, as if by command, the woman puts her arms around her own throat and begins to strangle herself.
The police find her the next day (a neighbor had heard the screams), dead of self-strangulation (we'll forget that you can't throttle yourselfsuspension of belief, though it's hard). The door had been locked and the neighbors had to force it open. They see her nightgown on the bed (actually the funeral dress of the corpse) and what appears to be the marks of a ring that had been wrenched off her finger. her eyes are open in a wide familiar stare and the sound of a fly buzzes on the soundtrack.
Probably the best of the three, but seriously marred by the bad horror makeup on the corpse. The pacing moves too quickly to really develop the suspense it requires.
I don't dislike the movie, but I do have many reservations. I'll give a genre film a bit more leeway than a major studio release. Partly personal bias, partly because it's often apples and oranges. Should Suspiria be compared directly to Citizen Kane? Rock 'n' Roll High School to Yojimbo?2 For what it intends to do, Black Sabbath is relatively passable, though less than impressive. I like much of Bava's horror and giallo work, though even that can be uneven. It's definitely an acquired taste.
1Italian for "yellow," it is a reference to the yellow covers that mystery-detective-crime novels once had in Italy. It has come to mean similar films, usually featuring black-gloved killers, wild plots, and brutal killingsthe killings and the murderer as important (or more) as the solving of the crimes.
2Dates and directors, respectively: 1977 Dario Argento, 1941 Orson Welles, 1979 Allan Arkush, 1961 Akira Kurosawa.
(Sources: personal copy of the DVD, some help from the liner notes to the disk, references checked with the IMDB)