Black Sabbath (I Tre volti della paura) (The Three Faces of Fear) (The Three Faces of Terror) Reviews
Terrifying, stylish, and in one segment disappointing, this horror anthology from the great Mario Bava is mostly great, with the exception of the catastrophically bad ending to The Telephone, which was heavily re edited and watered down for American audiences at the time, Black Sabbath suffers by some minor and major tweaks to the original film, but still offers a ghoulishly dark and scary ride.
So with the resurgence in popularity toward Italian horror (the giallo subgenre is a particular favorite of mine), I'm glad that Bava is finally getting the small-time recognition he so heartily deserved during his lifetime. Sure, his clunkers clunked, and he was more talented of a visual storyteller than he was an actual storyteller. But one can wonder what might have happened to several of his finest works had cinephiles not unearthed them from their dusty graves - would they have forever been passed along as B-movies with an eye for style?
Perhaps not; his best films are too optically striking to be forgotten. One of them, 1963's "Black Sabbath," is an anthology of phantasmagoric horror stories uneven in stature but notwithstanding visually flavorsome. With three short stories defining its running time, campy Boris Karloff introductions commencing the beginning and end of each piece, "Black Sabbath" is a work of unsettling macabre combined with ghost story playfulness. Though it never quite meshes together as well as we'd like it to - such is a problem with movies made of vignettes - the film has long stretches and flashes of horrific brilliance that only Bava could have helmed.
Versions of the film differ. I presume that I viewed the American release, which changes the original order of the stories and censors some sexual undertones. But these minor tweaks hardly deter Bava's vision; his trademark, grisly spookiness is at its very best.
The first tale of terror in "Black Sabbath" is 'A Drop of Water,' the most original of the three and certainly the most terrifying. It stars Jacqueline Pierreux as Helen Chester, an English nurse called to the home of an elderly clairvoyant who has recently died. Needed for casket preparation, Helen is tasked with gussying up the body before burial. As it's late at night and the body itself looks like something straight out of a - gasp - horror movie, Helen gets the job done as quickly as she can, uncomfortable being in the presence of such an unnerving corpse. But a sapphire ring adorning the finger of her dead client captures her eye. She steals it, figuring the medium won't miss it. Turns out, the latter might.
The next story, 'The Telephone,' is the weakest of the trio, a seen-it-all-before spin on "When a Stranger Calls" territory as stale as it must have been in 1963. The beautiful Michèle Mercier portrays Rosy, a (never explicitly stated) call girl being terrorized by phone calls from her pimp, whom she thought to be dead. But most of our being isn't so concerned with such matters; most of the vignette is too cutout to draw out any sympathy, though the claustrophobia is palpable, and I like the twist ending.
"Black Sabbath" closes with the atmospheric 'The Wurdalak,' a tale of vampirism that benefits from a surprise appearance by Karloff, who we had originally believed to simply be the anthology's host. It concerns a family tormented by the titular beast, which is a living cadaver only able to feed on the blood of loved ones. Things are complicated by Vladimir (Mark Damon), an outsider who stumbles upon the family home at their most vulnerable time.
If anything, "Black Sabbath" is more style than substance, but as long as Bava's the man in charge of the patina, I'm perfectly fine with such setbacks. All that matters is that a ghostly ambience is kept intact and believable, and "Black Sabbath" is more than successful in conjuring up frights. Bava's ocular richness is enough to hypnotize us, so it's a good thing that the film matches his wondrous artistry - one isn't a director, writer, and cinematographer for nothing.
Try as one may might, you cannot view a movie over 50 years old with the same eyes as they were viewed when first released. It's impossible...we are all a product of our times and you can't expect someone to view a film as old as this with the same sensibilities as they had in the 60s in 2014. With that said, I think some films definitely stand the test of time better than others. 2001: A Space Odyssey is still an incredible film. As is Taxi Driver, the first two Godfather films. There's many examples of this throughout the history of film. But, and this isn't meant as an insult to this film, this hasn't aged as well as it could've. And another problem is the fact that the print that Netflix has available is the American version of the film and not Mario Bava's original cut it. The American version is pretty much nerfed from everything that I've read. Entire subplots were removed, the order of the shorts, the musical score, and the film is shorter. Apparently the Italian cut of the film more violent than it was in the American version and that really disappoints me. If you've followed Mario Bava's trajectory, and this is my first review of one of his films on here, but I obviously know about the man, then you know he's one of the grandfather of what is known today as the slasher genre. This genre really came into prominence in the late 70s and early 80s with movies like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th. Not to say Bava was the only Italian doing these types of films, Dario Argento, for one, has probably achieved more fame than Bava himself, but Bava is pretty instrumental in the whole genre existing in its current form. So to see such an influential filmmaker's cut being done away with because of American conservatism at the time is just really disappointing. I can understand why they did it, but if the original cut is available then why not go with that instead. As much as I thought the first short, Drop of Water was actually the 'worst' one, I'd still want to see the film how it was meant to be seen by Mario Bava. Maybe one day. That's part of the reason the film gets the rating it did, because I wouldn't ever sacrifice want the quality of the film and that's what this cut did. With that said, I thought that the film ended up at its high note, with the Wurdulak short. The problem with this, as I mentioned, is the fact that several subplots are removed...mostly from The Telephone. The original short had a lesbian subplot, Rosy was a prostitute, and Frank was actually her pimp. The American version turns this segment into a nonsensical ghost story. While A Drop of Water was my least favorite short of the film, The Telephone actually has it worst. It's changed entirely. Unacceptable. The Wurdulaks was also a pretty good segment. Some funny moments in Sdenka leaving her entire family behind to be consumed by the Wurdulak to escape with a man she just met the day prior. Her family haunts her and they then turn her into a Wurdulak. Wurdulak is essentially another word for vampire, but these ones only consume the blood of those they love. The film, while completely different from the original film, still is fairly watchable even to this day. I can imagine that I'd give this film a higher rating if I had seen the original cut. If I can ever find a copy then I'll definitely come back here and do this review again. I can imagine that it'd be much better in its original form.
The stories are introduced by Boris Karloff who is simply standing in front of a dated psychedelic-esque background and giving a speech about all things creepy basically. The funny thing is he is dressed quite normally in a simple suit and is hammering on about vampires and spectres as if this were a Vincent Price movie. The stories you see aren't really in that classic vein though, these tales are actually much more grounded and genuinely creepy (well two are).
The first short story revolves around a young French call-girl who starts getting terrorised by phone calls from her ex-pimp (spoiler alert). This pimp has just broken out of jail and is threatening her life because she was responsible for putting him away. The young girl calls her female friend around to help and comfort her, little does she know the threatening calls are from her friend who is simply trying to reunite with her. The friend figures this is the only way the young call-girl will allow her back into her life...pretty extreme way of making up isn't it! In the end the real pimp shows up and kills them both just as the friend was writing a note to explain what she has been doing.
This first tale is quite poor I think, its in no way scary or remotely thrilling, especially when you discover the friend is behind it all. The thing is this revelation gave me a better idea, they should of made the pimp the one behind the calls as originally expected. Then in the end when the call-girl discovers this it would have been cool to also find out the pimp was killed in his prison escape attempt so all along the calls were coming from beyond the grave. The fact that the pimp merely turns up and kills both young women is a complete anticlimax, just a basic murder. Its very glossy though, it actually looks like a high production porn flick at times.
Next up is a more kooky traditional tale of ghoulies in the night...well a spin on vampire lore actually. Set in 19th century Russia a young man stumbles across a small family in the wilderness who are battling against a breed of creature known as Wurdalak. These things are undead zombie types that feed on the blood of the living, especially relatives they once knew strangely enough. Karloff plays the father of this family that ventured out to kill a Wurdalak but has returned one himself, naturally the story plays out as a battle of survival for all the living.
Definitely the best looking of the three stories, the sets and props are really sumptuous in this and could easily be part of a full length movie. Great atmosphere with the swirling mist and bleak locations but the actual tale is pretty daft really. Karloff is wonderful as the pale grizzled bearded undead nightstalker but end of the day he's merely playing an unkempt Dracula. Everything goes as you might predict admittedly but thinking back I just can't fault the production values on this one.
The final act sees a woman stealing a fancy ring off another woman who has recently passed away. This sets off all manner of supernatural occurrences such as a mysterious dripping of water, a mysterious fly that won't leave her alone and eventually the dead woman's corpse actually appearing before her. Now this short vignette is the jewel in the crown for this movie, its actually incredibly spooky and very atmospheric with the dripping water echoing around the woman's house. It really does give you the chills...that is until the finale where the corpse appears and really does freak you the fuck out! The dead body has this God awful twisted expression on her face which is enough to keep you up at night I kid you not, that on top of the whole 'Ring-esque' sequence where it moves towards the terrified woman. The final twist in the tale here is again predictable but oh so delicious.
There is no way an American movie in that era would or could pull off something this scary, at the time this was hard core stuff, the Italians were bold and brave. The mix of half naked ladies, the image of call-girls (hookers), blood and the surprisingly scary final story gave this film a real edge rarely seen in British or American horror anthologies. What's more this entire production clearly has so much class, skill and polish, every segment looks great, sounds great and could work as an individual movie in its own right. The first is standard murder fare, the second is standard ghoulish fare and the third is possibly the inspiration for many modern horror movies ('The Ring'!)...but they are all done very stylishly making other examples look crap in comparison.
Its such a shame Bava chose to end the movie by revealing Karloff astride a fake horse and with all the cameras and crew. The main camera pulls back to reveal the studio floor as Karloff finishes his spooky speech. Not too sure why he's in his Wurdalak character get up either. Can't deny its a fun little ending and very interesting to see how they did that effect, but at the same time I can't help but feel they kinda extinguish everything they managed to created and visualise so well prior to that.