What can be said of the almighty Mario Bava that has not been said already? He catapulted the giallo genre, is one of the undisputed masters of horror and had such a unique, romantic and gothic sense of direction that remains unmatched to this day. Quite simply, Mario Bava was one of the most talented artists to ever graze the horror genre and his legacy will, no doubt, outlive us all. Black Sabbath (or The Three Faces Of Fear), Bava’s second feature to fall into the horror genre released in 1963, is a landmark film that deserves all of the praise it receives and then some. Black Sabbath is a horror anthology picture that, for those unfamiliar, is a feature film comprised of several short films, sometimes tied together thematically and other times not; if you’ve seen Creepshow, Trick ‘R Treat or Tales From The Crypt (the film) than you’ve got a good idea of what an anthology film is already. Anyway, Black Sabbath is divided up into three unrelated chapters: The Telephone, The Wurdalak and The Drop Of Water, the middle-piece starring none other than the much-revered Boris Karloff.
Before I venture further into the review I’d like to address the controversy that exists between the original Italian version of the film and the American International Pictures (AIP) version. The AIP version is not only slightly cut in The Wurdalak but also rearranges the original order of the chapters into the following: The Drop Of Water, The Telephone and The Wurdalak. That’s bad enough, right? Wait, there’s more! The AIP didn’t feel The Telephone was suitable for American audiences due to its implied lesbian subplot so the AIP literally changed the plot to make it a ghost story instead which, if you’ve already seen the original Black Sabbath, you know ghosts have absolutely nothing to do with The Telephone in any way. Ridiculous, I know, and unacceptable through my eyes. The American version also features different music and a different introduction from Karloff as well. It’s true, the AIP version does feature Boris Karloff’s voice which, for some people, is more important than retaining Mario Bava’s original vision but I am much more concerned with the film as a whole as opposed to whose voice is in it. Anyway, the Italian version is the definitive version of Black Sabbath that is aligned with Mario Bava’s direction and is, thankfully, the one that is most readily available thesedays (although, at this point, all versions of Black Sabbath are out-of-print in the States). If you happen to have an AIP copy you’ve got a dramatically altered version of the film that was what the AIP intended rather than Mario Bava.
Black Sabbath, aside from a short introduction by Boris Karloff, begins with one of the first giallo films audiences had the pleasure of viewing: The Telephone. It has a couple of rather unexpected twists and certainly contains some of the common elements found in giallo films such as murder, mystery, eroticism and violence. The Wurdalak, Black Sabbath’s centerpiece, is an astounding piece of horror cinema that is perhaps best described as a color version of Black Sunday. Bava’s cinematography is breathtaking and the medieval atmosphere found throughout The Wurdalak is both mesmerizing and hypnotic. Karloff’s performance as a wurdalak (a type of vampire most concerned with converting his or her family first) is something to behold in of itself and is much better seen than described so I’ll just keep it at that. The Drop Of Water, Black Sabbath’s finale, is perhaps the most effective ghost tale I have ever seen on film that epitomizes Bava’s statement “the horror that interests me most is the horror of a single person, alone in a room” perfectly. Indeed, The Drop Of Water will have even the most seasoned horror hound looking on with both awe and terror as the spectral figure makes its first appearances as both a corpse and a phantasm. One of the most evocative and frightful characters to be found in the vast annals of horror, no doubt! Did I mention Black Sabbath’s ending? It’s utterly surreal and is certainly something you won’t be expecting!
From the blossoming beginnings of the giallo to the harrowing wurdalak to the nightmarish spectre, Black Sabbath is chockfull of genuinely horrific imagery that is amongst the best of the best. The AIP tried to dampen this otherwise perfect film but thanks to the folks at Image Entertainment (and later Anchor Bay) we, on this side of the planet, have been given the true, authentic presentation of Bava’s masterpiece as it was meant to be seen. Black Sabbath is a film deserving of a spot in any horror fan’s collection and is one of the most definitive pieces of the genre whose influence has reached even beyond cinema (the band Black Sabbath, for example, named themselves after this film) so if you haven’t seen it already make it a top priority to do so – quintessential viewing!