Black Sabbath AKA I Tre Volti Della Paura AKA Black Christmas (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (27th January 2018).
The Film

I tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath, Mario Bava, 1963)

A portmanteau film which features three stories linked by nothing other than bravura visual design and bold Technicolor colours (two of the stories feature supernatural elements whilst the third is utterly non-supernatural), I tre volti della paura (‘Three Faces of Terror’) was Mario Bava’s first colour Gothic, released in Italy only a week prior to Bava’s La frustra e il corpo (The Whip and the Body, 1963). Though Bava’s pepla Gli invasori (Erik the Conqueror, 1961, recently released on Blu-ray by Arrow and reviewed by us here) and Ercole al centro della Terra (Hercules in the Haunted World, 1961) had featured bold use of colour combined with baroque prowling camerawork and striking set decoration, I tre volti della paura was Bava’s first film to marry this distinctive visual style to a Gothic horror plot (well, three Gothic narratives, in the case of this picture). This is something which would become a defining characteristic of Bava’s later work in both the thrilling all’italiana (for example, Sei donne per l’assassino/Blood and Black Lace, 1964; Arrow’s Blu-ray release of this picture was reviewed by us here) and in ‘pure’ horror films (such as Operazione Paura/Kill, Baby… Kill!, 1966, Arrow’s Blu-ray release of which was reviewed by us here).

The film’s English title was intended to capitalise on the success of Bava’s previous monochrome Gothic La maschera del demonio (released in the US as Black Sunday, 1960). The presence of Boris Karloff, as the film’s guiding voice (Karloff introduces and concludes the stories) and within one of the stories (playing the patriarch of ‘The Wurdalak’) was a further attempt to appeal to the English-speaking market. Bava’s playful approach to the material is foregrounded in the concluding scene of the picture, in which Karloff is shown riding a horse and in his costume from ‘The Wurdalak’. Karloff bids the film’s audience farewell and warns them to watch out for vampires, before the camera dollies backwards to reveal the horse to be nothing more than a bucking prop (rather than a living creature) and the sense of motion to be created by stagehands moving prop branches around on the set. It’s a very ‘meta’ conclusion to the film which, in its playful foregrounding of the processes of cinema, invites comparison with Fellini’s pictures.

As the film opens, Karloff tells the viewer they are about to watch ‘Three brief tales of the supernatural. I hope you didn’t come to the movies alone’. However, in truth, and in the original Italian version, only two of the stories feature supernatural phenomena – although the third was reworked in the English-language export cut to include supernatural elements. The stories in I tre volti della paura run the gamut from a Hitchcockian ‘woman in peril’ suspense plot (‘Il telefoni’/‘The Telephone’) to a period-set vampire tale (‘I Wurdalak’/‘The Wurdalak’) and a contemporary ghost story (‘La goccia d’acqua’/‘A Drop of Water’) in which Bava uses careful sound design and visual tricks to suggest the presence of the supernatural. The credits suggest the stories have a strong literary pedigree, being based in story by Guy de Maupassant, Tolstoy and Anton Chekov. Where the relationship between ‘The Telephone’ and Guy de Maupassant seems to be a pure fabrication, ‘The Wurdulak’ was indeed rooted in a story by Tolstoy – or rather a Tolstoy, the story having its roots in the 1839 novella The Family of the Vourdalak by Aleksey Tolstoy, not Leo Tolstoy. The suggested connection between ‘A Drop of Water’ and Chekov also seems to be pure fabrication.

‘The Telephone’ takes place almost entirely within the home of Rosy (Michele Mercier), a young woman who is haunted by persistent and malicious telephone calls. These telephone calls torment Rosy, the caller threatening to kill her out of ‘revenge’ and suggesting that they can actually see everything Rosy is doing. Believing the caller to be Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), her former lover and pimp who Rosy turned in to the police, Rosy calls her friend Mary (Lidia Alfonsi) and asks her to come over. However, it is revealed that the telephone calls were actually from Mary, who is bitter over Rosy’s dissolution of their sexual relationship and masqueraded as Frank in order to persuade Rosy to draw Mary back into her life. Fearful of reprisals from Frank, Rosy allows Mary to spend the night in her apartment; however, their union is broken when the real Frank arrives the next day.

In ‘The Wurdalak’, Count Vladimir D’Urfe (Mark Damon) is riding through the forest on his way to Gersy when he discovers a decapitated corpse by the river, a distinctive dagger buried in it. D’Urfe continues on his journey and discovers an isolated house. The family within it tell D’Urfe that the corpse is that of Alibeq, a cruel and murderous Turkish criminal. ‘They say he was a wurdalak’, D’Urfe is told; Alibeq tormented the community, until the family patriarch, Gorca (Boris Karloff), rode out vowing to kill the Turk once and for all. Gorca told his family, including his beautiful daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen), that if he did not return within a set amount of time, they must not let Gorca back into the family home: he will have become a wurdalak, a revenant that feeds on the blood of its loved ones.

Gorca returns just as the deadline breaks. The family treat him with suspicion – even the dog, which howls persistently until Gorca orders his son to kill it. Gorca reveals that he is in possession of the severed head of Alibeq: proof that he has killed the Turkish criminal. At night, Gorca steals his young grandson Ivan away from the family home. Ivan’s father Giorgio (Giauco Onorato) rides after Gorca and Ivan, but to no avail. Ivan’s body is found, but his mother Maria (Rika Dialyna) forbids the enactment of the only ritual which will prevent her son from returning as a member of the undead – decapitation and impalement with a dagger. Ivan is buried outside the house. However, at night Ivan returns to the family home: he is now a wurdalak, and he pleads to be let into the house. Ivan’s mother Maria (Rika Dialyna) cannot ignore her son’s cries, letting the child into the family home with predictably disastrous results.

In ‘A Drop of Water’, nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called to the home of a deceased Countess, an avowed spiritualist, by a terrified woman. Helen is to look after the corpse until the morning. However, Helen becomes fixated on the dead Countess’ jewellery. She steals the Countess’ ring but finds herself haunted by inexplicable sounds. Eventually, Helen finds herself pursued by visions of the Countess’ corpse, which seems determined to drive Helen to the grave.

For the English-language export version, American distributors AIP commissioned a new score by Les Baxter and restructured the film, rearranging the sequence in which the three stories were presented. Where the Italian version begins with ‘The Telephone’, follows it with ‘The Wurdalak’ and concludes with ‘A Drop of Water’, the English-language export version begins with ‘a Drop of Water’, followed by ‘The Telephone’ and ends with ‘The Wurdalak’. In addition, AIP made edits to each of the stories: ‘The Wurdalak’ was trimmed of some of the more graphic moments; ‘A Drop of Water’ featured some changes to the sound design; and ‘The Telephone’ was fairly extensively edited to remove the suggestion of a homosexual affair between the female leads Rosy and Mary, reworking the character of Frank into a ghostly presence (rather than a vengeful lover/pimp) and adding a new character, a neighbour of Rosy’s, into the story.

‘The Telephone’ takes a Gothic ‘woman in peril’ plot and transposes it to the present day, Rosy being terrorised in a modern apartment rather than a Gothic castle. Rosy is also tormented by that very modern invention, the telephone. The red telephone in this film, and the similar red telephone used in Blood and Black Lace, apparently led to the invention of a new subtype of Italian cinema: ‘telefono rosso’ pictures. The label ‘telefono rosso’ was applied to films with a vivid sense of décor and extravagant mise-en-scène, and was a parody of the ‘telefoni bianco’ films made in Fascist Italy during the 1930s, in imitation of American films. The ‘telefoni bianco’ films were studiobound, conservative in their outlook and based on concepts of bourgeois ‘good taste’ (white telephones being seen as status symbols). Italian Neo-Realism was seen as a reaction against the ‘telefoni bianco’ pictures, and the ‘telefono rosso’ films of Bava et al offered a movement towards a vivid, proletarian form of entertainment that in its focus on excess was arguably in opposition to bourgeois concepts of ‘good taste’. (Given this, you might wonder what Italian audiences made of the Batphone in the 1960s Batman television series.) The manner in which Rosy is tormented by a caller who claims to be Frank and who seems to be watching Rosy in ‘real time’ became a key paradigm of later examples of the thrilling all’italiana, in which the amateur detectives were frequently threatened by malicious telephone calls, and American ‘slasher’ films of the 1970s.

The telephone calls that harass Rosy are overtly sexual in their content (‘You’re so beautiful. Too beautiful, Rosy [….] A body like yours can drive a man to madness’) before it is revealed that they are being made by Rosy’s ‘friend’ Mary. It quickly becomes clear that Rosy and Mary were involved in a passionate affair. The ‘backstory’ of Rosy and Mary’s relationship is gradually teased out as the story progresses, and it is suggested that Rosy was responsible for Frank’s incarceration and ‘shacked up’ with Mary before dissolving their relationship. This led to Mary’s intense sexual jealousy, resulting in the malicious telephone calls from Mary to Rosy, in which Mary masquerades as a vengeful Frank in order to persuade Mary to seek solace in the company of her old friend and former lover. ‘Everything’s just as it was when we were friends and I came over all then time’, Mary insinuates when Rosy invites her to her apartment; Mary then sits on Rosy’s bed and comments suggestively, ‘Just like old times’. Rosy allows Mary to wear one of her nightdresses, and the two women go to bed. Sultry saxophone music insinuates their sexual union, which is broken by the arrival of the real Frank Rainer in the morning.

‘The Telephone’s bold and stark depiction of sexuality is matched by the implied violence of the opening sequence of ‘The Wurdalak’, in which D’Urfe discovers the brutalised corpse of The Turk in the forest. The corpse has been decapitated, and Gorca’s distinctive dagger is sticking out of its back. Gorca’s family fear the return of Gorca, believing that he may have been transformed into a wurdalak. When Gorca returns, he behaves strangely, asking his family why they don’t embrace him and ordering one of his sons to kill the family dog – which, apparently sensing that Gorca is now one of then undead, howls persistently. Gorca becomes the ‘bad’ parent, a recurring paradigm within horror films. The ‘corruption’ of Gorca is answered later in the story when Gorca steals little Ivan, and the child returns as a wurdalak. At night, young Ivan returns alone to the house and pleads to be let in (‘Mama, I’m cold’); it’s a plea that no mother can leave unanswered. In his later film Kill, Baby… Kill!, Bava included another ‘poisonous’ child: the ghost of Melissa, whose appearance is a signifier of doom. (‘Bad seed’ children also featured in Bava’s darkly playful thrilling all’italiana Reazione a catena/Bay of Blood, 1971, and many subsequent films by other Italian horror filmmakers, such as Andrea Bianchi’s La notte del terrore/Nights of Terror, 1981.) Bava’s use of ‘poisonous’ children seems heavily symbolic, considering Italian neo-realist cinema’s employment of children as symbols of Italy’s future. In ‘The Wurdalak’, both the past (represented by Gorca) and the future (embodied in Ivan) become ‘corrupted’, feeding off those in the middle. The film’s depiction of child death, and the return of the dead child as a revenant, marks it as very different to most modern horror films – in which the exploration of such a theme has become profoundly taboo.

In ‘A Drop of Water’, nurse Helen Chester’s apparently lonely lifestyle mirrors that of the spinster Countess who has been found dead in her home. ‘Couldn’t you call a relative?’, Helen asks the woman who calls Helen to look after the body. ‘You know she had no friends other than the ones who made the table shake’, the woman responds. On a table in the deceased woman’s apartment is a Tarot deck, the cards spread as if the spiritualist was in the middle of a reading when she died. The Countess died during a séance, Helen is told, whilst still in a trance. (The story has some minor echoes of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar’, which is narrated by a man who placed a dying patient into a hypnotic trance that allowed the patient’s consciousness to transcend death.) It’s a simple story, with Helen’s theft of the ring resulting in her being ‘haunted’ by various sounds, including the buzzing of flies and the sound of dripping water. These sounds become symbols of Helen’s guilt, pursuing her through the narrative until they become accompanied by terrifying visions of the Countess’ corpse in Helen’s bed, in her rocking chair, and floating towards Helen ethereally.

Video

On this release, Arrow include two versions of the film: the Italian version, I tre volti della paura, with a running time of 92:15; and the English language export version, titled Black Sabbath and running 95:51 mins. (For the differences between these two cuts of the film, see the main review above.)

Both versions are presented in 1080p, using the AVC codec. The film is presented in its intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Italian version takes up 21.6Gb of space on the disc; the English export cut takes up 20.1Gb of space.

Like all of Bava’s pictures, Black Sabbath features extraordinarily carefully, almost obsessively designed mise-en-scène: the spaces in ‘A Drop of Water’, in particular, feel wonderfully ‘lived in’, filled with clutter. The stories also feature highly expressive use of lighting and coloured light: in ‘A Drop of Water’, a blinking green light casts its hue over the set, its presence unsettling and menacing (like the flashing primary coloured lighting in the antique store attack sequence in Bava’s Blood and Black Lace). This careful control over the mise-en-scène is mirrored in the film’s exceptional photography, Bava employing formal – almost painterly – compositions and careful camera movements. Some of the lenses used during production seem to produce a vignette-like softness around the edges. With that in mind, the level of detail in Arrow’s HD presentation of the film is excellent, fine detail being present in closeups. Contrast levels are very well-balanced, with strongly defined midtones and deep blacks being present throughout the film. Colours are reproduced very well, the more vibrant colours (such as the blinking green light in ‘A Drop of Water’) having an impressive sense of consistency. Finally, a strong encode ensures the presentation retains the structure of 35mm film. There are some moments in which the source material shows evidence of density fluctuation in the emulsions but these are wholly ‘organic’, and this is a very pleasing film-like presentation of the film.

THE TELEPHONE


THE WURDALAK


A DROP OF WATER



NB. Some fullsize screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review.

Audio

The Italian version of the film, I tre volti della paura, is presented with an LPCM 2.0 track that is accompanied by optional English subtitles. This track demonstrates good depth and range and, aside from a small amount of hiss in the background of some sequences, is very well-preserved. Subtitles are accurate in translating the Italian dialogue.

The English version features a LPCM 2.0 track accompanied by optional English HoH subs. This version, as noted above, replaces the jazzy score by Roberto Nicolosi with a new score by Les Baxter. This track is also clean and clear throughout, the accompanying subtitles being accurate and easy to read.

Extras

The disc includes:
- Audio commentary with Tim Lucas. Lucas provides a characteristically breathless and thoroughly researched commentary to the film, exploring its placing in the context of Bava’s other films and considering Bava’s technique as a filmmaker.

- Twice the Fear (32:13). This video essay features a detailed comparison of the Italian and English language versions of the film, highlighting the differences between the two edits.

Overall

Black Sabbath is a pivotal film in Bava’s filmography, representing his turn towards the vivid colour photography of his later Gothic pictures. The three stores work well together, representing very different types of horror narrative: a non-supernatural (at least in the original Italian version) ‘woman in peril’ story; a vampire tale with a period setting; and a modern-day ghost story in which the supernatural is suggested through clever sound design and editing. Bava handles all three stories excellently: all three stories are presented through some powerful photography and carefully-composed mise-en-scène. ‘The Wurdalak’ perhaps stands out the most because it is anchored by the presence of Boris Karloff (and, to some extent, Mark Damon, playing a similar role to that he essayed in Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher three years earlier). Notably, ‘The Wurdalak’ was later expanded to feature length in Gorgio Ferroni’s haunting 1972 picture La notte dei diavoli (Night of the Devils).

A superb example of the portmanteau form, Black Sabbath is represented very well on Arrow’s Blu-ray release, with strong presentations of both the domestic Italian cut and the English language export cuts being accompanied by some good contextual material. For fans of Bava or, more generally, European horror cinema, this is a must-own release.


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