When I was a kid, I was (and still am) a big fan of horror anthologies. Beyond vintage TV series such as “Thriller”, “Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits”, I loved the British Amicus films (“Tales From The Crypt” “Vault Of Horror” “House That Dripped Blood”) and Dan (“Dark Shadows”) Curtis’ 1975 TV movie “Trilogy Of Terror”, starring the incomparable, and sadly late Karen Black in three (or four?) separate roles. Even in my adulthood, I came to enjoy newer entries into the genre, such as Spike Lee’s wonderfully evocative and socially-minded “Tales From The Hood” (1995). Horror anthology films were like a bag of Halloween candy; you got several different, delicious bite-sized horror tales in one movie!
The granddaddy of them all was Italian horror maestro Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath” (1963); the original Italian-language version of which was titled “I Tre Volti Della Paura” (“The Three Faces of Fear”). The movie’s credits boast of tales from Chekhov, Maupassant and Tolstoy, but this is mainly just ‘borrowed’ literary credibility. The stories of the film are loosely inspired (at best) by these classic authors’ works. “Black Sabbath”’s screenplay was actually written by director Bava , Marcelo Fondato and Alberto Bevilacqua. And yes, the British metal band Black Sabbath did get their name from this film, and its anthological format directly influenced Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 modern classic “Pulp Fiction” (Tarantino is a huge fan of the film as well). It’s ironic that this now classic horror film, with its tongue-in-cheek literary credentials, would actually inspire future generations itself.
Before each of the three stories, there is a brief introduction by ‘host’ and star Boris Karloff. These introductions (created exclusively for the American version) are similar to what we saw in Karloff’s own “Thriller” TV series (1960-1962), and they are also are shot in extreme color palettes very much in the style of Bava, though the horror auteur had nothing to do with their actual filming. The Americanized “Black Sabbath” differs somewhat from the Italian original “Three Faces Of Fear”, and I’ll delineate those differences shortly. The American version also places the scariest tale of the three, which was originally the climax, as the opening segment…
“A Drop Of Water.”
Early 20th century London-based nurse Helen Chester (French actress Jacqueline Pierreux) gets a call during a terrible storm. Her services are desperately needed. She rushes to the luxurious but dilapidated estate of a now-dead medium, who died in the middle of a seance. Met by the medium’s terrified and cowardly servant (Millie Monti), Chester soon comes face-to-face with the wide-eyed grimacing corpse. With the maid away looking for a suitable burial gown, the greedy Chester eyes a ring on the dead medium’s finger and quietly palms it for herself. She then sees a noisy fly land accusingly on the medium’s now ringless finger…
This is where things start going horribly wrong. Reaching down by the medium’s bed to find the fallen ring, Chester is struck by the medium’s ‘slipped’ hand. Chester’s scream elicits a worried call from the maid, which she dismisses as “nothing.” After dutifully dressing the corpse for the mortician, Chester goes home for a drink (or two) to soothe her rattled nerves.
After a few drinks, Chester experiences a power outage, a faucet loudly dripping (hence the title), a bathroom window randomly slamming in the wind, as well as a mysterious ghostly moan. Growing increasingly convinced (and terrified) that the medium’s ghost is returning for her stolen ring, Chester begins seeing the vengeful crone sitting up in her own bed, petting her cat in a rocking chair and seemingly floating toward her… hands outstretched. This ghostly game of cat and mouse is the single most terrifying sequence of the entire film, no question.
Chester’s own hands begin to claw at her throat and he dies wide-eyed with fear (much like the medium herself). This is meant to imply that the visions of the ghost were conjured from Chester’s own guilty conscience. There is a sudden cut to Chester’s uptight landlady (Harriet White Medin) conferring with police, as the lot of them stand over Chester’s self-strangled corpse… the ring missing, or rather torn off from her finger. It’s implied that the landlady stole the ring off of Chester’s corpse before calling the police. We then hear a noisy fly…
“A Drop Of Water” is the simplest of the three stories, and undoubtedly the most effective. The contorted grimace of the dead medium (a mask made by Mario Bava’s own father) is guaranteed to make little kids wet their pants… and maybe a few incontinent adults as well. Karloff then appears, with a forced perspective telephone gag, to sooth our jangled nerves and introduce the next segment…
The story begins with modern-day (c. 1963) French call girl Rosy (Michele Mercier) coming home and receiving a series of increasingly threatening phone calls from her dead ex-lover “Frank” (Milo Quesada), who is somehow alive and now actively stalking her every move. Frank is angry that Rosy tipped off the police, leading to his stint in prison (and his death). Seemingly watching her every move, a nerve-jangled Rosy calls her former lover Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) to come over.
Rosy and Mary had a previous falling out, and the reasons differ in the two versions; the Italian version making their lesbian relationship a bit more pronounced, while the US version tones it down considerably. Whatever the audience takeaway, the two actresses’ body language fills in the blanks. Mary prepares a drink for Rosy, slipping her a roofie to calm her down. As Mary is writing the sleeping Rosy a letter of apology for the forced sedation, a curiously corporeal ‘ghost’ of Frank breaks into the apartment and strangles Mary to death with a stocking. He turns to see a waking Rosy, who then stabs the ‘ghost’ with a kitchen knife she kept beside her for this very reason. Frank is seemingly ‘killed.’ Then the phone rings, and we hear Frank’s voice…implying his ‘hauntings’ will continue.
This story underwent the most dramatic revision of the three for its American release. The original version is a straight crime thriller with no supernatural elements at all; it’s more like an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” than a ghost story. Frank is an escaped con gunning for the woman who betrayed him in favor of her new lover. Rosy then kills Frank. Period. The American version implies that both Frank’s calls and his eventual visitation are somehow ‘ghostly’ apparitions (despite his being stabbed and killed…?). The American version’s change to the story’s overall tone is a huge misstep, and this segment was always my least favorite for that very reason. It was clearly a revenge melodrama, not a gothic ghost story. The final result, while very well-acted, is both muddled and confusing, at least in the US version.
Karloff then introduces the next segment with a nice little warning about vampires, aka ‘wurdulaks’ (an Eastern European variant) who only feed on the blood of those they love the best…
The lengthiest and most stylishly filmed segment is set in 19th century Eastern Europe with handsome young horseman Vladimir (American actor Mark Damon) discovering the headless corpse of a slain Turk despot named Alabek. Pulling a distinctive dagger from the body, Vladimir rides on (with Alabek’s horse in tow) to the nearby rural estate of a peasant family dreading the return of their presumed-dead patriarch, Gorca (Boris Karloff himself). Sensing great tension within the family, Vladimir is nevertheless offered a place to stay for the night in gratitude for the returned family dagger and horse.
Making himself at home, Vladimir instantly falls for the beautiful but unfortunately named Stendka (Italian bombshell Susy Andersen). Along with her two brothers, sister-in-law and young nephew Ivan, she dreads the late arrival of Gorca, for fear that his tardy return means he’s already been transformed into a “wurdulak”… a vampirish ghoul who feasts only on the blood of loved ones.
Patriarch Gorca arrives. The alarmed family dog barks. Gorca’s face is ash gray, and there is a gaping bloody hole in his chest. His lumbering zombie-like gate (due to Karloff’s all-too real arthritis), lack of appetite, and fearful aversion to his own dog’s telltale bark clearly signifies that Papa Gorca is now one of the undead. The family grows increasingly fearful when Gorca insists on “fondling” his grandson Ivan (an unfortunate choice of words). A boastful Gorca proudly tells his family that he’s slain the local despot Alabek, and pulls the dead Turk’s head out of a bag as proof. Gorca then orders his son Pietro to put the disembodied head on a gate outside their home, as a warning to others who would seek to avenge the Turk.
Later that night, we see Gorca creep up from behind and murder his son Pietro, in order to snatch grandson Ivan (whom he loves best) and transform him into a wurdulak. The ghoulish patriarch then rides off with the half-asleep boy. The remaining family and Vladimir discover Pietro’s corpse, which confirms their worst fears. Gorca and his now-turned grandson later reappear at the doorstep in the wind-chilled night. Young Ivan’s calls to his “mama” from the doorstep are genuinely creepy, foreshadowing the young toddler Gage’s return from the dead in Stephen King’s 1983 novel “Pet Semetary.” Unheeding her husband Georgio’s cries to ignore their undead son’s call, Ivan’s sobbing mother (Rika Dialina) threatens to kill herself if Georgio tries to return their son to eternal rest. The family is resigned to their collective fate, but Vladimir is not.
Vladmir takes Stendka, and they flee the house of death on horseback. They make their way to some hillside ruins where they decide to spend the night. As Vladimir sleeps, Stendka is spookily called upon by her waiting family, all of whom are now wurdulaks.
Awakening to find Stendka gone, Vladimir then rushes back to the family estate to find her. He does, of course. A melancholy Stendka tells him to forget about her, that she now belongs with her family. The lovesick Vladimir refuses to give up on Stendka, and they embrace. We then realize that she too, has been turned into a wurdulak. Stendka’s family of the undead watches in anticipation from outside a window…
From “Three Faces Of Fear” to “Black Sabbath.”
Aside from the title, there were many significant changes when Bava’s “Three Faces Of Fear” became Americanized into “Black Sabbath.” The primary change was the order of the segments. “Three Faces…” began with “The Telephone”, with “The Wurdulak” as a middle act, and “A Drop Of Water” as a shockingly scary finale.
When the film came to the American International Pictures producing team of James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, “A Drop Of Water” was rearranged to be the first segment of the three. This is unfortunate. The other two segments, which were purposefully designed to build up to the horrific “A Drop Of Water”, now follow it instead. “Black Sabbath” unwisely shows its strongest cards in the opening hand of the game.
There are also significant changes made to “The Telephone,” as mentioned earlier. Specifically, the change of the original’s all-too-human revenge tale into a somewhat illogical ghost story. “Black Sabbath” also downplays the Italian version’s more casually depicted lesbian relationship between Rosy and Mary. In “Black Sabbath”, their relationship is still implicitly intimate (conveyed mainly through the performances), but the dubbed English dialogue waters it down a bit.
Another key difference was American International Pictures’ addition of several colorful new Boris Karloff introductions to each segment. Given Karloff’s iconic voice and presence, these additions were most welcome. Karloff did similar hosting duties for his own TV series “Thriller,” and of course, the former Universal “Frankenstein” monster would later narrate the legendary cartoon adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” in 1966. Karloff’s voice is legend.
As a Boris Karloff fan, I find one of the most egregious offenses of the original Italian version to be the decision (however necessary) to dub over the irreplaceable voice of Karloff with a nondescript Italian actor’s gruff voice. The loss of Karloff’s iconic vocals drains much of Gorca’s melodic menace. This is one area in which the Americanized “Black Sabbath” trumps the original “Three Faces Of Fear” (beyond its cooler new title). Dubbing over the legendary Boris Karloff’s voice is horror blasphemy.
The original “Three Faces…” version also ends with a pre-credits scene (much like modern post-credits codas) that sees Karloff astride a horse, recreating the undead Gorca’s horseback abduction of young Ivan. The camera then pulls back to reveal an obvious rocking horse prop, as well as stagehands rushing by with branches to give the illusion of a galloping horse ride through trees. Karloff himself merrily laughs at this breaking of the fourth wall. It was the original’s cheerful way of informing its audience that the horror they’ve seen was all just make-believe. This wonderful moment of peeking out from behind the curtain almost feels like it belongs on a DVD bonus features’ blooper reel. The American version’s Karloff-hosted introductions played a similar role in allowing the audience to breathe a few sighs of relief between the scares. Trick or treat indeed!
“Black Sabbath” also replaces “Three Faces…” composer Roberto Nicolosi’s moody, contemplative score with more frantic, obvious horror cues composed by Les Baxter. There are a few other minor edits, such as a shortened reveal of Alabek’s bloody disembodied head, as well as a more haunting ghostly moan dubbed onto “A Drop Of Water”‘s English-language track. To its credit, the English-language dubbing (which I normally abhor) of “Black Sabbath” was carefully timed to better match the lip movements of its non-English speaking cast.
Overall, the changes between the two versions comes down largely to personal tastes. There are strong arguments to be made for either version. If one is a big Karloff fan (as I am) I would recommend the American version without hesitation. If one prefers a bit more subtlety, as well as the restoration of the moodier Nicolosi score, I would have to recommend the Italian original. For myself, I choose not to choose… hence, the reason that I own both.
“Black Sabbath” masterfully showcases the presence of the legendary Boris Karloff, still mesmerizingly magnetic only a few years before his death in 1969 at age 81. Jacqueline Pierreux and Michele Mercier are also standouts of the international cast. The film also boasts downright sumptuous color cinematography credited to both director Mario Bava and director of photography Ubaldo Terzano. Not surprisingly, the movie is also a personal favorite of its director, who also helmed “Black Sunday” (a black & white tale of vampirism with passing similarities to “Wurdulak”), as well as “Blood and Lace”, “Planet of the Vampires,” “Kill Baby, Kill” and “Danger: Diabolik.” While later horror anthology films would offer up their own brands of atmospheric scares, Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath” (aka “Three Faces Of Fear”) is a true landmark of the genre and should not be missed by fans of classic gothic horror. Whichever version of “Black Sabbath” one chooses, Italian or American, this richly atmospheric anthology makes for exceptional Halloween viewing.