Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (titled I tre volti della paura in his native Italian) is a trilogy of short horror films, presented as a single feature. There is nothing to tie the three films together aside from being bookended by a rather funny and tongue in cheek Boris Karloff who also appears in the middle film. Like much of Bava’s work the film’s original Italian version differs greatly from the more widely seen American release and there’s a fantastic comparison feature on DVD releases which highlights the differences in score, props, dialogue and even ordering of the film. Personally I chose the Italian version to watch.
The Italian version is a little gorier and features a lesbian subplot which is absent from the American release. Bava’s choice to package the films in one feature at first feels strange but to be honest, I don’t think any of the stories could have been successfully stretched to make a feature in their own right and it gives a chance for some terrific tales to get a release.
The opening film is The Telephone. It’s a Hitchcockian tale of a high class Parisian call girl who returns home to find herself tormented by a voice on the other end of the phone who appears to be witnessing her every move. At a time before mobile phones, the idea of someone being able to see you inside your tightly shuttered house as well as phone you about it is inherently creepy. The segment features a tension building brass score and some exquisite camera movement which helps to create the claustrophobic feeling of being hemmed in. The poor woman at the centre of the story is driven mad with fear, not knowing what to do or where to turn. The story is laced with sexploitation imagery and tones. The beautiful Michele Mercier spends much of the film in various states of undress from her lingerie to a towel to a revealing night gown. This is added to with a lesbian subtext which is found in the latter stages of the piece. The Telephone is a well crafted and well acted short horror film which builds and builds before revealing itself not once but twice. It’s by far my favourite of the three short films that make up Black Sabbath.
The Wurdalak is based on a Tolstoy novella and is set in 19th Century Russia. A man (Mark Damon) is travelling when he comes across a slain body with a dagger in its back. He takes the body to the nearest house to inform the local people but is met with tales of vampires or Wurdalaks, un-dead people who return to prey on those they loved the most in life. Boris Karloff stars as the head of a family who is due to return from a Wurdalak hunt. It soon becomes apparent that he himself has turned and the stranger, who has fallen in love with Karloff’s daughter (Susy Andersen), has a fight on his hand to keep him and his new love safe. The plot shares similarities to Bava’s Black Sunday and also has a fairly similar look to it. There’s a nice in-joke in the line “I’m sure your father isn’t a monster”, when referring to Karloff who made his name as Frankenstein’s monster in the popular Paramount horrors of the 1930s. There’s a chilling performance from a very young boy (who errily looks like my little sister did at a similar age). His still and solemn performance adds weight to a segment which otherwise didn’t do much for me. The love story didn’t really work and felt rushed but the sets were impressive and it’s always nice to see Boris Karloff on screen.
The final film is The Drop of Water. This story is set in late Victorian London and revolves around a ghost’s revenge. A reclusive old minor aristocrat dies alone in her grand old manor and her last remaining servant calls for a nurse to tend to the corpse. The woman who arrives is short on manners and temper and opens her conversation with the maid with a statement doubting that she will be paid for her trouble. (The American version paints her much more kindly). The nurse is driven by greed to steal a large Safire ring from the dead woman’s finger but grows to regret it as guilt drives her mad. No sooner has she snatched the ring does she begin to hear a dripping tap. The drip follows her home and is soon accompanied by the appearance of cats and even the corpse itself. The psychological guilt here reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart but the story fails to match Poe’s. This segment is notable for its lavish and impeccably lit sets. The old mansion in particular is opulent but decaying and filled with creepy cobwebs, cats and dead eyed dolls. The nurse’s apartment is lit by a flashing green light. A green light of guilt? There’s also a fantastic puppet which is incredibly sinister and the story ends nicely, coming full circle while hinting at a new beginning.
Following the completion of The Drop of Water, we see Boris Karloff talking to camera as he does in the opening. This time instead of being on stage, he is in costume, riding a horse. He wishes us a safe journey home, hoping we don’t have nightmares before the camera pulls back for a tremendously funny and self-referential ending. It’s almost surreal in its boldness and makes one forget the terror of the past ninety minutes. It’s an odd choice for the end of a horror movie but I enjoyed it. Overall Black Sabbath is a decent collection of horror shorts which are well presented by Bava. There’s a mixture of good and excellent stories and all three help to cement the director’s place as a supreme master of the genre.
The Teleophone 9/10
The Wurdalak 5/10
The Drop of Water 7/10
- British heavy metal band Black Sabbath took their name from the film's English title. While playing a small gig in 1968 they noticed that the queue for this movie across the road was larger than their own and changed their name deciding that "horror sells tickets".
- Boris Karloff stated that the intro and outro for this film was some of the most fun he'd had on a film set.
- Karloff appeared in the film because he was under contract with American International Pictures who were interesting in teaming up with Bava.