Despite the acknowledged classic status of the masterful black & white compendium “Dead of Night”, produced by Britain’s Ealing Studios in 1945, anthologised horror on the big screen largely disappeared from view in the immediate aftermath of that film’s release. Instead, television became the natural home for short form, one-off drama dealing in mystery & the macabre, the unexplained or the supernatural. Spawned from the success of syndicated TV shows such as Rod Sterling’s “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, such fare was a dime a dozen on the small screen in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but American International Pictures (AIP) and Roger Corman became the first producers and distributors to try out the dormant anthology template on cinema audiences once again, for the fourth entry in their informal ‘Poe series’ entitled “Tales of Terror”, released in 1962. That same year, AIP signed the ageing horror legend Boris Karloff to a multi-picture deal that kicked off with an appearance in Corman’s “The Raven” alongside Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Hazel Court. At the time, Karloff had been hosting TV anthology horror and mystery series since the late ‘50s, starting with the never-broadcast ten episodes of “The Veil” which he shot in the UK, and the entirely British-backed “Armchair Theatre” spin-off “Out of this World” made for ABC, culminating in his three year stint spent as the host of the popular American anthology series “Thriller”. When AIP forged an international deal which saw it joining forces with two Italian production companies -- Galatea Cinematografica and Emmepi Film -- and the French company Societé Cinématographique Lyre, the anthology format must have seemed an obvious choice for a movie that would need to appeal to such a wide spectrum of European audience tastes as well as the US domestic market. Nevertheless, AIP intended to stay firmly in the driver’s seat during production, as "I tre volti della paura" (“The Three Faces of Fear”) commenced its eight week scheduled shoot at the Cinecittà and Titanus film studios between February and March of 1963, under the sure guidance of the man who had recently been at the helm of what to date was AIP's biggest imported Gothic money-spinner, “Black Sunday”.
That man’s name was, of course, Mario Bava -- and "I tre volti della paura" is widely regarded as a signature work in the cult Italian maestro’s much-admired oeuvre. It appeared in the U.S., under its re-branded “Black Sabbath” moniker, just at the moment when Britain’s Amicus Productions was re-energising the anthology format through the success of their “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors”, which brought together their rival Hammer Productions’ two leading men, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, for what proved a variable but evocatively framed compendium piece. But Bava’s work in the format, in its original Italian cut at least, is in many ways the purest distillation of both the stylised Gothic visual language and the assured lighting style now intimately associated with the name Mario Bava -- not to mention the thematic concerns which would come to dominate his work across the many genres he was to tackle during the rest of his film-making career. It also provided Italian cinema with an early rough draft of a new kind of thriller, in the form of what Tim Lucas justly refers to in his audio commentary for the film as, ‘the ground zero of the Italian giallo sub-genre.’
AIP was happy to indulge Bava in his chosen theme, which was to be an examination of the emotion of fear as it has afflicted humankind across the ages. However, they stipulated that while he should look to classic literature as the basis for his screenplay, the works of Edgar Allan Poe should be placed off limits as a potential source (that was Roger Corman’s territory, after all). Bava always remained uncomfortable with the process of actually writing the screenplays for his films himself, even though he had clear ideas about the subject matter and themes in most of his movies, and despite being a voracious reader himself of everything from pulp Italian mystery thrillers to the collected works of Dostoevsky. So, although Russian literature and Italian mystery and crime novels were to provide most of the inspiration for the content of "I tre volti della paura", Bava turned for help in developing his material to two relatively unknown screenwriters, Alberto Bevilacqua and Marcello Fondato, who helped him weave the film’s diverse trio of tales from a patchwork of literary sources that have always been largely shrouded in mystery and obfuscation ever since.
Nevertheless, when viewed together, the results both enlarge upon the themes of Bava’s previous film "La maschera del demonio" (also released as “Black Sunday” after being picked up by AIP in the States) while at the same time looking ahead to the subject matter and approach that was to inform many later masterpieces such as “Sei donne per l'assassino" (aka, “Blood and Black Lace”), "La frusta e il corpo" (aka, “The Whip and the Body”) and “Shock”. Bava wanted the film to proceed in such a way that the subject of fear would be first seen in a story that took place in a contemporary context, setting the scene for the two tales that followed it to have more of an historical flavour. Although in the radically re-edited, re-scored and re-ordered AIP version of the film each of the stories is attributed, in either the screen credits or in Boris Karloff’s linking narration, to one of three classic authors -- Anton Chekov, Tolstoi and Guy De Maupassant -- only one of them seems to be directly adapted from a known 19th century source, although it is also misattributed to someone called Ivan Tolstoi on screen by Karloff. “The Wurdalak” follows closely the plot of La famille du Vourdalak, a story written in French by the Russian Count Alexei Constantinovich Tolstoi (not to be confused with the author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”, Leo Tolstoy); while “A Drop of Water” has been traced to the writings of an little-known Italian mystery author who wrote under the name P. Kettridge. “The Telephone” meanwhile seems to have no clear source, although the AIP credits attribute it to French father of the short story, Guy De Maupassant, despite the fact that he died well before the telephone had even been invented!
Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson of AIP kept a close eye over the making of "I tre volti della paura" and sent their trusted company representative, Salvatore Billitteri, to be present on set the whole time Bava was shooting the film. Both of Bava’s previous works, “La maschera del demonio” and “La ragazza che sapeva troppo" (“The Girl Who Knew Too Much”), had required cuts be made, as well as re-editing and extensive re-dubbing, in order to bring them into line on what AIP considered suitable fare for the matinee audiences their own home-grown horror pictures were specifically tailored to appeal to, but “I tre volti della paura” turned out to require much more drastic editing and re-structuring for the American market than any other Bava film before or since.
The US domestic cut known as “Black Sabbath” (so named in order to immediately associate it with “Black Sunday”) features a different Karloff opening introduction and extra linking material by the host not used in the Italian cut, while the stories themselves appear in a different running order and feature variant scenes, altered dialogue, cut plot points and a completely different score by AIP’s Les Baxter. AIP also removed the comedic closing sequence in which Karloff, dressed in his ‘Gorca’ costume from “The Wurdalak” segment, bids the viewer goodnight before the camera pulls back to reveal the simple studio trickery responsible for most of the atmospheric effects seen throughout the movie. Both versions have now been made available in the same package for the first time with Arrow Video’s new deluxe, 3-disc Blu-ray & DVD combo package, and we’ll be looking at the US version of the film more closely later. First of all, the far superior version made for the Italian market gets its best airing yet in a pleasing HD transfer which highlights Mario Bava’s exquisite lighting schemes and the film’s gorgeously ripe Gothic ambience more effectively than ever before.
After its bold opening title sequence presents composer Roberto Nicolosi’s memorable main recurring musical motif, "I tre volti della paura" commences with a psychedelic pre-story introduction in which a brown-suited Boris Karloff cheerfully welcomes the cinema-goer and announces his ‘three brief tales of terror and the supernatural’, warning that ‘spectres and vampires are everywhere’ and that since he happens to know for sure that ‘they go to the movies too’ there might even be one seated next to the viewer! The tone is light-hearted but Bava already makes apparent the strange otherworldly atmosphere that will dominate the majority of this picture and which is rendered palpable throughout by the extraordinary use of multi-coloured spot gels, used by the director to paint scene after scene in an expressionistic collage of vivid colours.
Karloff seems to be stood alone, here, in a rocky, alien, magenta hued landscape, picked out against a vast royal blue cyclorama (the creases in it can now be plainly seen with the increased resolution of this high definition transfer) which seems to undulate with pulses of light and shadow from a spinning zoetrope whose patterns are projected onto its backcloth. As the camera dollies into a close-up of Karloff’s face, the pinkish-violet lighting highlighting and illuminating his features becomes a blanket of deep florescent scarlet. Such irrational use of comic-book colouring defines the phantasmagorical flavouring Bava strives to create in many of the film’s key moments, but the first story presented to us in the Italian cut, “The Telephone”, is more important for signposting Bava’s involvement with the cinematic development of the giallo genre, through its effort to recreate as closely as possible in live action form, the lurid illustrated covers of the yellow jacketed pulp thriller digests known as Il Giallo Mondadori, published by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore from 1929 onwards. The vivid, elaborately decored and attractively stylised mise-en-scène showcased here in what is effectively the first full colour giallo film ever shot, would be further expanded on in the director’s 1964 classic “Sei donne per l'assassino" or “Blood and Black Lace” (someone please try and get that out on to Blu-ray soon, as well!) and features all the key constants of the form whereby sex & death are inextricably entwined and images of shiny black leather gloved malefactors clutching glinting phallic blades appear with as much frequency as one could ever wish for.
As is the case with all three of the tales seen in the film, the terrors which assail the beleaguered heroine of this particular story (which is slight but very effective) are all centred on the apparently safe haven of the home. French starlet Michèle Mercier (soon to be typecast in the French-made "Angelique" series of historical romances) plays a high-class call girl called Rosy, who, upon returning home from visiting a client, finds herself the victim of a relentless series of threatening phone calls, apparently emanating from a former pimp/lover she once betrayed to the police, but who has since escaped from jail and now has only revenge on his mind. Bava’s camera prowls around Rosy’s faux sophisticated but really rather cheap apartment, which is over-decorated with an array of gilded kitsch ornaments attached to seemingly every surface (those gold-plated cherub-cupid statues are really something!) and puffed up with flowery drapes and flouncy soft furnishings all around the boudoir. Dominating the scene, though, is a bright red telephone (a prop which would emerge once again in “Blood and Black Lace” in just the way as much of the set décor seen in Rosy’s apartment had been carried over from Laura Craven-Torrani’s house as seen in “The Girl Who Knew Too Much”) which becomes the focus of Rosy’s terror when the menacing voice on the other end of the receiver alternates leering lustful remarks about the beauty of her youthful body with threats of violence against it.
This establishes the giallo genre’s perennial association of sex with violence, and both with the prospect of death, in a creepily effective manner; and the theme of the male gaze used as voyeuristic weapon -- also a recurring trope of many giallo thrillers -- is central here. The caller appears to be able to actually see Rosy, and comments on her undressing and slipping from her working girl’s day cloths, first of all into just a bath towel and then a flimsy, revealing nightgown. He is even aware of her attempts to hide her jewellery under the sofa. Eyes peering through blinds and movements outside the apartment resulting in someone slipping an envelope under the door terrify Rosy, and her nerves are hardly calmed by the envelope’s contents – a newspaper clipping revealing Frank Rainer’s (Milo Quesada) recent escape from prison. Apparently caught in a deadly trap in her own home, she rings a close friend called Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), a handsome, elfin-faced yet severe-looking woman whom the story makes quite plain has previously been involved in a lesbian tryst with Rosy but who has, at some point since, been rejected in favour of Frank. After Mary promises to come over to calm her nerves, Rosy receives yet another telephone call and the threatening presence on the other end of the line lets slip that it has somehow even been able to eavesdrop on this conversation as well!
The reason for this is revealed almost immediately afterwards: Mary has been making the calls herself all along, pretending to be a vengeful Frank by using a disguised voice. How she knows at any given time precisely what Rosy is wearing and how she is reacting to the threats being made against her seems on the surface to be a rather large plot-hole, unless you accept the implication that Mary’s obsession with Rosy has led to her becoming thoroughly immersed in her former lover’s day-to-day routines and that she has come to understand her character so well that she instinctively knows that the call-girl’s first reaction to the ordeal would be to try and hide her valuables!
Mary has orchestrated the persecution of the woman she loves in order to enable her to establish a pretext for coming back into her life. Although the film briefly flirts with the notion that Mary might actually have sadistic or violent intent towards Rosy, and to some extent shamelessly exploits the character’s overt lesbianism as a form of code intended to suggest possible inherent psychopathic tendencies, during a period when normalised depictions of such sexuality in the cinema were still a rarity, her actions, though morally reprehensible, prove to be entirely guided by obsessive desire. Warped sexuality and fetishistic desires are naturally bread and butter to the giallo genre -- and Mary’s dominating presence and propensity for wearing black leather gloves while stroking her former partner’s hair, or handling sharpened kitchen knives, here signal a particularly sleazy and covetous form of fetish that is prepared even to drug its subject in order to have its way with her while she’s unconscious!
The story’s predictable, but no less satisfying, coda is of course that Frank really has escaped (it was the newspaper article about the prison break which gave Mary the idea for her ruse in the first place) and does indeed intent to murder Rosy. The story ends with Mary being mistaken for her while writing -- with her back towards the door -- a note to Rosy now that relations between them have been re-established, justifying her actions and revealing her reasons for hoaxing the threatening calls. She ends up being throttled to death in Rosy’s place with a pair of the call girl’s discarded silk stockings. The large kitchen knife Mary earlier placed under her lover’s pillow, ironically enough, now comes to Rosy’s rescue by enabling her to kill Frank -- just as he realises his mistake and makes to repeat his murderous actions while she cowers beneath the sheets. The story ends with both of Rosy’s former lovers stone dead upon the carpeted floor of her bedroom, and the heroine left emotionally shattered by what she has witnessed and been a party to.
Corruption and perverse sexuality; abuse, deception and sexual exploitation, emanate from every pore of “The Telephone” even though we never leave Rosy’s single apartment rooms; but Bava perfectly captures the colourful milieu suggested by the garish artwork of the giallo publications he himself avidly consumed, in what becomes a condensed microcosm of the ideas and images which would very soon come to be fleshed out even more fully, both by Bava himself and, later, by such acolytes as Dario Argento, when the giallo bloomed to become one of ‘60s and ‘70s Italian cinema’s most popular genre mainstays.
After this non-supernatural tale of psycho-sexual horror, the Italian cut segues neatly, without introduction, into the longest story of the trio: “The Wurdalak” stars host Boris Karloff in one of the most haunting and transgressive roles of his career. This is very much a full colour Gothic partner-piece to Bava’s previous black & white masterpiece “La maschera del demonio", in which a peasant family, somewhere in central Europe, is threatened by an undead vampiric contamination which makes its victims prey upon the blood of their loved ones in order to perpetuate itself indefinitely. Here though, the established paraphernalia of the vampire genre – the fangs, the crucifixes and the erotic seduction angle that was by now firmly established through Hammer’s brand of Technicolour Gothic horror – is entirely absent, and the horror of the tale comes about through the manner in which it explores the psychological implications of the family that preys upon itself, and allows that concept to be spun out to its inevitable conclusion. Whereas “La maschera del demonio" took pains to effect a somewhat unconvincing ‘happy ending’ in which the vampiric duo of Princess Asa and Prince Javutich are eventually vanquished and their plot to destroy their descendants is defeated, here there is no such let off or escaping the ruthless logic of the Wurdalak.
After some rather banal second unit location footage in which young good-looking nobleman Vladimir D’Urfe (Mark Damon, “The Fall of the House of Usher” ) is seen riding cross country on his way to a faraway city and stumbles upon a headless corpse with a Turkish dagger protruding from its heart, the film enters Bava’s haunted wonderland proper as Vladimir is side-tracked from his journey by the urge to discover what his gruesome discovery really means. Some beautifully crafted scenes are then presented in which Vladimir D’Urfe comes upon an isolated cottage in a clearing amid a twilight winter landscape of gnarled leafless trees, created as part of a studio mock-up of the house’s exteriors through the use of atmospheric lighting and a drifting haze of dry ice to suggest the lifelessness of the barren surroundings. Inside, Vladimir finds a space on the wall where the dagger he retrieved from the corpse clearly belongs. He meets brothers Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) and Pietro (Massimo Righi) who tell him that the dagger belonged to their father Gorca, who had set out several days previously with the intent of killing the Turkish criminal Ali Beg. This man had been terrorising the area for months and was believed by many to be a member of the dreaded race of Wurdalak: a form of vampire that mainly consumes the blood of those it loved the best in life, and which can only be disposed of by being staked through the heart and then beheaded. However, before leaving on his mission, Gorca had warned his family that should he not have arrived back safely inside of a five day period, then they should not under any circumstances let him re-enter the house at all – for it will mean that he himself has now become one of the cursed Wurdalak! But Gorca duly appears only moments after midnight has struck on what is technically the fifth day, leaving his family unable to decide if this means he has been changed or not, and unwilling to consider the possibility that he might indeed have joined the ranks of the vampire undead.
Boris Karloff’s entrance as Gorca makes for a memorable sequence that is almost as iconic as his first backwards steps into the room for James Whale’s “Frankenstein”. Dressed in a hooded cloak of black ostrich feathers that frame dishevelled strands of snow white hair and an untidy droopy moustache, Karloff limps into shot to confront his family in the courtyard outside their home, wondering why not one of them rushes to embrace or kiss him. Inside, beside the inviting amber warmth of the hearth, Gorca refuses all food from his son’s wife Maria (Rika Dialina), demands that his favourite dog be shot as it continues to howl mournfully in the storm despite its master’s return, and dotes rather dubiously over his curiously whey-faced grandchild Ivan, as his parents, Giorgio and Maria, gaze uneasily at this figure who seems the same yet so very different. Vladimir too witnesses these events, but his attention has also been taken by Giorgio and Maria’s grown-up daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen). The family members manage to persuade themselves that Gorca is still their father of old when he produces the decapitated head of their foe Ali Beg from a bag, and demands that it be hung outside to announce to everyone in the area that the horror of the Wurdalak is finally done with. However Gorca prowls restlessly around the cottage at night, looming threateningly over Vlaiamir at one point, but eventually setting his designs on his grandson Ivan whom Vladimir wakes to see being stolen away from his bed in the night by the Wurdalak.
The predation of a child and the associations such images inevitably have with incest and paedophilia -- implications brought to the film through the sexual connotations that always attend the vampire metaphor -- are shocking enough, even today. The sequence in which Gorca seizes the child (‘am I not permitted to fondle my own Grandson?’) and kisses and leers at him in front of his parents who uneasily look on, torn between the natural desire to protect their offspring and an unstinting loyalty to their father, the patriarch of the family, still causes a frisson of uneasiness after all these years. But Bava also doesn’t flinch from portraying the fact that poor little defenceless Ivan is later drained of blood and killed by his own Grandfather. Pietro meets the same fate, and although his brother Giorgio ensures that he is laid to rest by performing the necessary dagger-through-the-heart-and-decapitation rituals, Maria cannot bring herself to allow such actions to be performed upon her child. This theme is at the heart of the story: the love each family member has for the other is what eventually tears the unit as a whole apart when a mother’s love for her child is set against a husband’s love for his wife, etc. Giorgio gives in to his wife’s grief-driven demands and allows Ivan to be buried without the necessary procedures that are required to ensure that he does not come back as one of the undead. Sure enough, young Ivan returns to the door of his parents’ home that very night amid a raging storm, forlornly begging to be allowed in and tugging at his mother’s heart-strings all the more when calling out through the howling wind that he is cold. It is too much for Maria to stand, and she fatally stabs her husband rather than allow him to refuse the boy entry. However, it is the malevolent countenance of Gorca that greets her at the door when she rushes to let her undead infant son back into the family fold.
Mark Damon’s role in the story as the romantic hero of the piece is interestingly ambivalent: he tempts Sdenka to leave the bosom of her family and spirits her off, presumably intending to whisk her away to live out a happy-ever-after fairy tale existence in a distant land much like the one we saw implausibly essayed by Katia and Gorovek in "La maschera del demonio". At the same time, he is breaking up a home and encouraging Sdneka to abandon all of her loved ones during their greatest hour of need, which hardly seems particularly heroic! This section of the story becomes a struggle between loyalty to family and the need to branch out and break with its parochial bonds in the name of self-discovery, Bava’s lighting arrangements during the latter half of it surly ranking as some of the most delirious of his career (aside from “The Drop of Water” which follows it) . When Vladimir and Sdenka take refuge in the ruins of an abandoned abbey a riot of irrationally placed colours vie with each other amid the cobwebbed crypt-clutter of their hideout, resplendent in the special ambience created by lilac and emerald green spot gels set alongside strategically rendered dabs of pink, red and blue, emphasising the fantastical nature of this feverish Gothic dream world.
This heightened, unrealistic visual palette is even used to illuminate Karloff’s sudden re-appearance in close up after Gorca and his now vampirised family, thus far consisting of Giorgio, Maria and Ivan, track Sdenka down and lure her away from her new lover in the night, amid a dusky landscape of ancient ruins created with the use of miniatures and glass matte paintings carefully lined up with the soundstage sets. Bava also makes use of a device used to great effect previously by Jean Cocteau in “La belle et la bête” to add even more nightmarish other-worldliness to proceedings, as the trio of Wurdalak undead advance towards the guilt-ridden Sdenka by gliding, silently floating in a dream – an effect achieved by standing the actors on trolleys mounted on castors. When Vladimir returns to the abandoned family cottage and finds Sdenka already there waiting for him, he too is unable to resist her mesmeric pleading to be held by him in his arms once again, and as a result (ironically) he soon also joins the reunited family of vampires, falling into the clutches of the Wurdalak because of his love for Sdenka, as the ghostly triumvirate of Gorca, Ivan and Maria gaze upon the couple while framed within the icy panes of the bedroom window as Sdenka bites Vladimir – always one of Bava’s most enduringly effective recurring visual metaphors for the lonely isolations of the dead.
The third and final tale in the collection, “A Drop of Water”, showcases an even more assured and original use of colour and lighting effects in a simple narrative which evokes the psychological nature of ‘the horror of a single person, alone in a room, afraid of only themselves’ more acutely than anything else Bava ever shot -- and it certainly ranks as one of his most technically accomplished achievements. The story centres on a middle-aged nurse who is called out in the middle of a stormy night to the dilapidated and unkempt mansion of an eccentric Countess who died while still in a mediums’ trance, during one of her regular Friday night séances. While dressing the body for burial, Nurse Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) notices a valuable ring on the finger of the corpse and covertly brushes away a fly in order to pocket it which, at that very moment, has settled above the rigor mortis stiffened digit. However, in the process of concealing her actions from the Countess’s maid (Milly Monti), she knocks over a glass of water on the bedside table and the spilt drops continue to patter onto a discarded brass plate which is among the general junk and clutter strewn around the bedroom floor. Later, back at her lonely apartment, Chester is first of all tormented by the same fly, which seems somehow to have followed her back to her own rooms, and then starts to hear the echoing ghostly pitter-patter of dripping water emanating from different sources all around her abode. The lights go out during the violent storm that is still raging menacingly outside, and as the apartment begins to pulse to the garish hue of the neon green illumination that perpetually flashes outside the building, a ghastly waxen apparition of the dead medium begins to haunt the terrified woman: she first encounters it as it rises in her own bed; then stumbles in on it seated in a rocking chair in her living room, stroking one the mewling cats earlier seen stalking her empty mansion. She also feels it tapping at her shoulder from behind doors of darkened rooms left ajar; and finally, it looms above the trembling nurse, floating with grasping hands outstretched with intent to throttle her from beyond the grave …
The next morning, Nurse Chester’s corpse is found by her neighbour (Harriet Medin), strangled to death by her own hands -- her death mask a reproduction of the contorted bulging-eyed rictus which had once disfigured the visage of the dead medium. When one of the police officers called out to examine the scene, discovers that a ring has been wrenched from the dead woman’s finger, the shifty-looking neighbour’s eyes involuntarily move away guiltily, as she becomes distracted by the faint buzzing sound of a fly ...
The opening sequence of the tale is a master-class of scene-setting and story-telling with minimal use of exposition or dialogue. French actress Jacqueline Pierreux deftly conveys a sense of her character’s isolation and loneliness, and the self-centred frame of mind which eventually brings about her downfall, while the art direction reveals details of small cramped untidy rooms full of clutter, old furniture and a large wind-up gramophone player -- indicating a spinsterish crankiness or eccentricity born of many years spent alone not having to worry about projecting a presentable image to the world at large. Nurse Chester consoles herself with the clearly eagerly-anticipated pleasures of the remains of a bottle of gin and a plate of biscuits all to herself, and the manner in which she becomes irritated by the interruption of a phone call, just as she is about to settle down to a night in, listening to music with her knitting on her knee (fortified by plenty of drink!), speaks volumes about this character’s withdrawal from society at large. There’s a slight voyeuristic tinge to our being allowed to look in on this private moment of lonely solace, which is amplified when our attention is drawn to the independence of the camera’s gaze during a moment when Chester starts to undress as she prepares to attend the call-out and Bava takes the camera on an unnecessary sojourn into the next room as the record player winds down: it’s reminiscent of the way in which Dario Argento would often make his camera an independent observer of events in his films, prone to taking flight of its own accord and abandoning the action to go off on some mysterious travels all of its own!
When Nurse Chester arrives at the residence of the deceased Countess, we’re confronted with some of the ripest imagery of faded Gothic decrepitude in the Bava cannon: the lighting and sound effects, the décor, art direction, set dressing and just a handful of lines uttered by the dead woman’s harassed looking maid-of-all-work come together to suggest a detailed portrait of this person whom is only ever actually shown to us in the form of a ghoulish, grimacing death mask sculpted in wax by Bava’s father Eugenio (as was the head of Ali Beg in “The Wurdalak” segment). Her vast mansion is kept in permanent semi-darkness with most of its light cast by the flickering, poorly maintained fire in the grate, which is thrown upon chipped, unpolished gilding of poorly kept 18th century furnishings while illuminating the purplish bruised pinks of the décor which surrounds the vaulted ceiling. As Tim Lucas mentions in his audio commentary track for the Italian cut of the film, this shell of a residence is a forerunner of the phantasmagorical Villa Graps from “Operazione paura (“Kill, Baby … Kill!”): the Countess’s stray cats continue to roam unattended amid the paper rubbish and countless numbers of discarded dolls strewn haphazardly all over the floor and across the furniture; the circular card table, at which the Countess once regularly communed with the spirits of the dead, has been left as it was during the moment at which she at last came to join them permanently; and the thunder and pouring rain heard on the soundtrack throughout the sequence is beautifully and convincingly augmented by the tremulous dappled lighting effects Bava employs to add to the atmosphere of joyless storm-lashed doom enveloping the site.
There is a clear affinity being suggested between Nurse Chester and the Countess, here, which also extends, in the final moments of the story, to the fusty busy-body neighbour who discovers the nurse’s prone corpse the next morning: each one is a middle-aged, isolated female figure, cut-off from society and left to their own devices. But while Nurse Chester and her neighbour have taken refuge in trifling material comforts, the Countess neglected the corporeal world completely, making the dead her only friends and leaving her estate and affairs to go to ruin to such an extent that her maid can only hope to find ‘a few shillings’ in the mansion with which to pay Nurse Chester for her work. The spectral haunting which results from the nurse’s theft of the ring while preparing the Countess’s body for her funeral in the virginal white gown laid out in the kitchen quarters, is a transference which brings the uncertain twilight realm between life and death into the consciousness of someone who is not previously accustomed to reflection upon her own morally dubious behaviour or her mortality. The film thus uses the psychological ghost story as a metaphor to illuminate the dawning of such considerations in the mind of a person more used to focusing on the here-and-now, while never betraying the genre with an ‘it’s all in the mind’ cop-out. The nurse’s home is transformed into a nightmarishly lit kaleidoscope of psychedelic terror, where the sights and sounds and atmospheres experienced at the Countess’s death bed during the moment at which Chester removed the ring, follow the woman back to her apartment and manifest themselves there once more, only this time refusing to leave her consciousness until the terrified nurse has extinguished her own life.
After these three doom-laden tales of dread have played out, Bava concludes the film with a light hearted coda designed to placate his AIP paymasters after they had sent him a letter (which reached him only on the last day of filming) asking him to ‘lighten up the ending’. However, they hated the ironic jokey coda Bava concocted with Karloff during a final day of shooting in which the linking introductory scenes for all the stories were filmed (most of them only appear in the AIP cut). In it, the actor appeared in his persona as the malevolent, hooded Wurdalak for a parody of the moment from that story in which he is shown galloping away from the family homestead on horseback, with his doomed young Grandson clutched to his bosom: in an audacious undermining of the artifice and illusion of cinema, Bava allows the camera to pull right back to reveal Karloff perched on a harness attached to a fake nag’s head, in a studio setting where stagehands race in a circle around the camera waving branches to create the illusion of foreground scenery rushing by, and a wind machine (which resulted in Karloff contracting pneumonia soon afterwards) is used to add to the deception that’s created by the zoetrope and cyclorama backdrop that Karloff and his mount are moving at great speed thorough an exterior landscape. Arkoff and Nicholson felt that the sudden intrusion of comedy into a film which otherwise had worked extremely hard beforehand to create a palpable feeling of dread, would fatally undermine the movie as a whole, and so this coda was dropped altogether from the AIP cut, which also re-arranges the running order of the stories so that the film ends with Karloff’s “The Wurdalak” segment -- thus ensuring that “Black Sabbath” became the first traceable instance of a horror movie in which evil is shown triumphing at the end!
These changes are comparatively minor though when compared to the long list of differences between the two cuts enforced by AIP, which taken together succeed in lending each version its own very distinctive character. Now that we have both films together as part of the same release, with a handy thirty-two minute documentary newly prepared by Arrow Video, which allows us to directly compare and contrast individual variant scenes as they run side-by-side, Bava’s Italian cut can clearly be seen to be the stronger of the two versions in almost all regards other than the advantage the AIP edit gains from having Boris Karloff deliver his own vocal performance rather than having it dubbed by an Italian actor, as it is in the Italian original. Both versions are included on the Blu-ray disc in the three-disc deluxe special edition. The transfer used for the Italian cut is massively superior to that used for the AIP version though: colours are stronger and better defined and picture detail is often exquisite, lending more emphasis to the depth of field Bava often employs to such a great extent (particularly in “The Wurdalak”) that, as Tim Lucas points out, often makes it look as though the movie was shot to be seen in 3D. The AIP print used here still retains the film’s gorgeous colour palette, although there is a slight blue tint to it, and much more damage in the form of speckles and dirt marks makes itself apparent throughout. The print doesn’t feature the same level of picture detail either, but it’s still more than acceptable as a compliment to Bava’s better Italian cut, though, allowing viewers to experience Karloff’s vocal interpretation of the role for the first time in years, as well as the surprising amount of extra material that was shot by Bava, but which only appears in the AIP cut.
The US version actually begins with a new Karloff introduction that wasn’t shot by Bava at all, although it makes use of more or less the same dialogue. It features Karloff as a disembodied head, injecting more menace into his over-the-top delivery of the dialogue than is apparent from the light-hearted approach employed for Bava’s original curtain-raiser. The film then starts with “A Drop of Water”, where not only has Roberto Nicolosi’s wonderfully nuanced and haunting music been replaced by a blaring Les Baxter score that signposts every beat of the story with strident musical stings (whereas the Italian cut often drops musical accompaniment altogether and uses sound effects to achieve a much more subtle result), but much of the effective sound design has been completely overhauled as well. “The Telephone” has been mangled the most, though, by AIP’s insistence on removing the lesbian relationship angle of the story in its entirety, and remoulding the episode as a supernatural tale. Here Rosy is no longer a call girl and she and Mary are instead both made former lovers of Frank, who comes back from the grave to kill them for their betrayal. Les Baxter again smothers the material in an unsympathetic score, as opposed to Nicolosi’s sophisticated jazz-tinged stylings from the Italian original, and the dialogue has been completely re-written by Salvatore Billitteri, whose New York-based Titra Sound Corporation was employed by AIP to oversee the English language dub track. There are extensive (though minor) scenes included here that are not seen at all in the Italian cut though, which make this a valuable addition to the Bava fan’s collection.
All of the changes are listed and compared in the comparison documentary “Twice the Fear” - the only featurette extra to be found on the Blu-ray disc included with this special edition. The rest of the disc space is given over to the two variant versions of the film itself. The Italian cut also features Tim Lucas’s excellent audio commentary, in which the editor of Video Watchdog and author of “Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Night” also talks about the background to the different versions of the film and fills in plenty of biographical details on the cast, as well as just providing insightful analysis of the material itself. The Italian cut features newly translated removable subtitles while the AIP English language version features SDH subtitles.
Disc two is a DVD featuring a standard definition version of AIP’s “Black Sabbath” and the “Twice the Fear” documentary, while disc three contains the Italian cut under its original title of “I tre volti della paura", along with the Tim Lucas commentary and a number of extra features which only feature on this disc. They include an Alan Jones introduction to Bava’s cut, and a selection of trailers and radio spots for both versions. Finally, a 20 minute interview with the romantic lead of “The Wurdalak”, Mark Damon is included, titled “A Life in Film”. Here, the former star talks about his childhood and his discovery by Groucho Marx, which led to him being placed under contract to 20th Century Fox and being groomed to become one of its teen idols in the late-fifties, in films such as “Young and Dangerous” (1957). It was Damon who gave Roger Corman the idea of adapting public domain titles by Edgar Allan Poe, as long as he was allowed to star in the first of them (“The Fall of the House of Usher”, 1960) and direct the second (“The Pit and the Pendulum”, credited to Roger Corman, 1961). Tempted to Italy by Luchino Visconti, Damon became a star of over thirty Italian genre movies, encompassing Spaghetti Westerns, action films and sword & scandal peplum fantasy pictures, but he turned down Sergio Leone when he was casting for “A Fistful of Dollars” on the advice of an agent, and instead set up the meeting which led Clint Eastwood to his iconic role. The former actor also talks about his memories of Bava and Karloff on the set of “I tre volti della paura", before moving onto his successful post-acting career as a producer and distributor who has been responsible for bringing titles to the screen as diverse as “Das Boot”, “The Never Ending Story”, the erotic films “Nine ½ Weeks” and “Wild Orchid” and the gritty biopic of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos, “Monster”.
The three disc package comes with a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film critic David Cairns, a comparison of the two versions of the film by Tim Lucas and an interview with AIP producer Samuel Z. Arkoff on his experiences working with Bava, illustrated with original stills and posters. A reversible sleeve provides the purchaser with a choice between the original poster artwork and a new piece commissioned from Graham Humphreys.
Once again, this is the best edition currently in existence of one of Mario Bava’s most luxuriantly colourful Gothic epics. Arrow Video are really on a roll at the moment with a succession of top notch releases. This one is highly recommended too.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!