“Black Sabbath”: Maestro of the Macabre Mario Bava’s 1963 film featured the great Boris Karloff

By on July 10, 2017

Black Sabbath (Italian: I tre volti della paura, which translates into English as The Three Faces of Fear) is an anthology-style omnibus horror film from the early ’60s, directed by the influential Italian filmmaker Mario Bava, the Maestro of the Macabre.

It stars the great horror icon Boris Karloff, who appears in one of the three unrelated stories and also serves as the movie’s master of ceremonies, introducing the three colorful vignettes in this Italian-language version (yep, no English subtitles).

Black Sabbath is now streaming in our Horror collection over on Night Flight Plus (we’ll tell you more about how you can watch down below).

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Black Sabbath — Bava’s sixth feature, and please note, the version we’re screening here on Night Flight Plus is the original Italian-language version of the film!! — is an old-fashioned anthology-style triptych of terror,  a type of film presentation which seems to have fallen out of favor but was actually quite popular, especially among European filmmakers at the time, often more than one director coming together to work on the project.

It is composed of three unrelated vignettes, two short story exercises and another longer essay in screen terror.

The film is credited to various authors but is predominantly based on several uncredited sources.

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Black Sabbath was co-scripted by Bava and Alberto Bevilacqua, who would become a renowned author in Italy after the success of his novels La califfa (1964) — which he also adapted for the screen and directed in 1970, a film starring Romy Schneider and Ugo Tognazzi — and Questa specie d’amore (1966).

In “The Telephone” (“Il Telefono”), a comely prostitute named Rosy (the beautiful French actress Michèle Mercier, who we mentioned in this previous post) is settling in for the evening, changing into her dressing gown and getting ready for bed.

That is, until the phone rings, and she ends up becoming unhinged by a series of threatening phone calls interrupting her nighttime reverie.

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Initially, there’s no one on the other end of the phone, but eventually the voice reveals itself as a former client from her past, Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), a dangerous ex-lover who she believes has escaped from prison.

It turns out that Rainer had been convicted and her testimony sent him off to be executed, but she now believes he’s out of prison and out for her blood.

Every time the phone rings, it seems that this murderer is even closer to fulfilling what he’s clearly set out to do.

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Rosy calls an old friend Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), and asks to stay with her, but we learn that Mary also shares a past animosity with Rosy (“He always knew about us,” she says, hinting at the possibility there were two two jilted lovers scorned by Rosy).

By the end of this briskly told tale of bloody revenge, a deadly secret is revealed.

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Black Sabbath‘s centerpiece, “The Wurdulak” (“I Wurdulak”), is based on a supernatural folk tale by Count Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, often referred to as A. K. Tolstoy, the 1839 short story “La Famille du Vourdalak” (“The Family of the Vourdalak”).

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Set in the early 1800s, this segment comes complete with great atmospheric visuals (a fog-shrouded nightscape, dangling cobwebs) and great audible hints (whistling wind, howling hounds) which tell us this is going to be a very creepy and memorable story.

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Although Bava’s filmed segment strays from Tolstoy’s plot towards the end, he mainly sticks to it for the main plot, balancing visually-stunning exterior sequences shot on location with others that were clearly shot in a studio setting.

Chiefly the story concerns a Russian count, Vladimire d’Urfe (Mark Damon) who stumbles upon a headless body with a dagger sticking out of its chest.

He ends up stopping by a house tucked away nearby in the Russian countryside, and ends up staying with Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) and his family.

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The knife, it is revealed, belongs to Giorgio’s father, Gorca (Karloff), who has been away on a hunt for the past five days, trying to capture a Turkish bandit, Ali Bek.

Before he left, however, he warned them that this particularly vicious kind of vampire he’s after will drain the blood from the living persons, and subsequently transform into beings that appear as their own family relations.

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In other words, if and when Gorca returns from his vampire-hunting expedition, it may or may not be him.

That’s why Giorgio says, “the only one we have to fear is our father.”

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Vladimire, meanwhile, in what seems to us like a bit of a rushed romance, falls for Sdenka (Susy Andersen), and they make plans to run off together.

Before they do, the great Gorca returns, and Karloff — who was suffering from arthritis during the filmming, limiting his ability to move around — plays the ill-tempered patriarch of this cursed Russian family to the hilt.

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One of the more remarkable scenes takes place at the end, a glimpse into the process of filmmaking in the early Sixties, where we see Karloff’s Gorca on horseback as the camera pulls back to reveal that the action is actually taking place in a studio.

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“A Drop of Water” (“La Goccia d’Acqua”) is the creepiest of the three stories in Bava’s anthology, a poetic and startling piece of work, set in Victorian London.

It was reportedly based on a tale by Anton Chekov, about a nurse, Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux), who steals a beautiful amethyst ring from an elderly female patient.

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We see that patient lying in her bed has turned into absolutely frightening and grotesque corpse, a mannequin-like body, her face a withered mask with both eyes and mouth wide open, her teeth like a cemetery with broken headstones (those dead eyes refuse to stay closed, as we shall see why).

According to her caretaker, we learn that the patient — a recently dead spiritualist who had had a heart attack and died in mid-sentence, induced by a séance — “has no friends, other than the ones who made the table shake.”

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The nurse believes that the spirits of the dead had killed her, and she won’t miss the ring, but of course that’s where she’s going to be proven dead wrong.

Bava’s film excels in the world of superb art direction and lavish set design too, as we see in the décor of the dead woman’s dreary, dank residence in its state of total disarray, with its heavy draperies and weird doll-like figures strewn haphazardly about the house, seemingly without explanation.

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The visuals in this story, with its echoes of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” are beyond beautiful, vibrant in colorific Technicolor, and once again, Bava’s incredible use of sounds — a persistent fly buzzing, doors creaking, and, as the title implies, water dripping from a glass that the nurse had knocked over in the process of stealing the ring — are all paramount to creating what one noted horror film critic called a “miniature masterpiece.”

Bava himself considered it the most technically perfect work of his career, helped in great part by his father, Eugenio, a pioneer of Italian special effects, who created several haunting wax masks for the film.

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Boris Karloff was at the time the then-host of the successful U.S. anthology TV series “Thriller,” and even though he was near the end of his amazing career — playing assortment of ghoulish roles dating back to the silent era, including the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, Fu Manchu, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde… even detective Dick Tracy’s fabled nemesis Gruesome — he’d continued to work on films well into his late seventies.

Bava’s Black Sabbath provided him with one of the most unique roles, that of a vampire, and as the anthology film’s emcee, of sorts, introducing the trio of stories while standing before a psychedelic-colored screen as he narrates each chapter in that wonderfully sepulchral and stentorian voice that we all recognize now (along with Bela Luglosi’s and Vincent Price’s, we suppose) as the true voice of horror.

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The garishly intoxicating colors, as you’ll see, are just incredible: the deep purples and crimson reds and electric greens, and often there are scenes where multiple characters are lit with their own distinctive and dramatic lighting.

Here’s the original A.I.P. trailer, and there’s more about Mario Bava and Black Sabbath below:

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Mario Bava

Mario Bava (1914-1980) grew up in a household where he was very much influenced early on by the visual arts.

At the time of his birth, his father, Eugenio Bava, was a sculptor and a cameraman at what was likely the peak of Italy’s silent film period, and he introduced his son to painting.

Little Bava reportedly loved playing with the potassium cyanide in his father’s laboratory because he liked its red color.

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Bava was later encouraged by his father — who, for a time, headed up the optical effects department of LUCE (L’Unione Cinematografica Educativa, which had been established by the Fascists in 1924) — to give up painting for cinematography, which he did, establishing himself as a highly-respected cameraman sometime around 1939.

Bava only became a director himself after he was asked to fill in after directors had walked off the films he’d been shooting (one of the first examples of these was Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri).

This led to Bava directing his own horror film, Black Sunday (Italian: La Maschera del demonio) in 1960, the film which made Barbara Steele a genre star.

Even though he would ultimately become known for working in the horror genre, Bava also directed documentaries and short films, and feature-length movies in a variety of genres, from spaghetti westerns, sword-and-sandal adventure films, moody detective film, and at least one romping sex comedy.

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“I’m especially interested in stories that focus on one person,” Bava once said. “If I could, I would only tell these stories. What interests me is the fear experienced by a person alone in their room. It is then that everything around him starts to move menacingly around, and we realize that the only true ‘monsters’ are the ones we carry in ourselves. Alas, the marketplace demands terrible papier-mâché creatures, or the vampire with his sharp fangs, rising from his casket!”

Black Sabbath was Bava’s personal favorite of all of the films he directed, and it was the film he’d expressed the most pride in.

It’s also probably the best film to showcase his unique visual skills behind the camera, here giving us a visually stunning assortment of camera angles and various other interesting things to look at within each carefully framed shot.

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He has been credited as the first filmmaker to direct (or co-direct) an Italian science-fiction film and first to direct a specific type of an Italian crime film called “giallo,” which we’ve told you about a few times here on Night Flight (it’s one of our favorite sub-genres).

Bava once said that he believed that the “photography in a horror film is seventy percent of its effectiveness; it creates all the atmosphere,” which may be one reason it is so effective in Black Sabbath.

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I tre volti della paura was re-titled Black Sabbath by its American distributor, American International Pictures, for distribution in 1964.

Much to the annoyance of horror film fans and scholars, who all felt Bava’s work should remain unmolested, A.I.P. suggested several changes to Mario Bava, after the film had gone into production, to make the film more acceptable for the American target audience.

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A.I.P. re-worked the original continental cut (the one we’re featuring here on Night Flight), changing the sequenced order of the stories and even made a few edits, trimming of a few frames of shocking but gratuitous gore and giving the film less-sexually suggestive tone (while also changing a few plots points along the way, chiefly lesbian overtones in “The Telephone”), then adding more Thriller-style Karloff interstitial introductions between the segments.

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A.I.P. also swapped in Les Baxter’s emphatic score in place of Roberto Nicolosi’s original soundtrack score, which was deemed a bit too understated.

A.I.P.’s Black Sabbath partly came about due to the fact that they’d had some success with the anthology format with their Tales of Terror (1960), which had presented three short stories by Edgar Allan Poe directed by Roger Corman.

A.I.P. also had Karloff under contract, and no doubt knew what an opportunity it was to cast him in the feature and having him star in one of the episodes as well.

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Black Sabbath opened in neighborhood theaters and drive-ins across the U.S. in late May of 1964, where it was usually paired with another Mario Bava import, 1963’s Evil Eye (The Girl Who Knew Too Much).

The film — which was successful in every country it was screened in around the world, where it was re-titled Black Sabbath everywhere except Italy — continued to circulate around the country on later drive-in double-feature bills along with Herschell Gordon Lewis’s splatter-ific Blood Feast (also 1963), before it ended up being aired repeatedly on mostly local TV stations during their late-night scary movie programming.

You may already have surmised that the British heavy metal band Black Sabbath — who formed in 1969 — got their name from Mario Bava’s film, and were deeply influenced by the supernatural, occult and horror imagery found in a lot of horror films of the late Sixties, and we’ll be telling you more about that in a future Night Flight post.

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Watch the Italian-language uncut European version of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and other Horror films over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.