Black Sabbath, more properly titled I tre volti della paura (The three faces of fear), is out of chronological order in our BavaFest, but perhaps that is fitting. The AIP version, which was streaming on Netflix last week, has the segments out of sequence, and severely edited. It is also fitting because it’s now in the middle of the schedule, and in many ways the film is central to understanding what Bava was about. Bava had three obsessions, illustrated through the three stories:
“The Telephone” – sex and death
“The Wurdalak” – destruction of the family from within
“A Drop of Water” – psychological terror
We have seen these strands in other Bava films – psychological terror was the main component of The Girl Who Knew Too Much; sex, death and the family collapse were all part of both Black Sunday and Blood and Black Lace. The coworkers in the fashion house could be seen as a type of family unit, as could the ship’s crew in Planet of the Vampires. There is also an element of voyeurism and a feeling of claustrophobia that Black Sabbath shares with other Bava films. “The Telephone” shows this in particular. The action is all confined to the apartment, and the camera is often positioned in a way that makes us feel like we’re spying.
The film also bridges Bava from stories of the past to contemporary settings. Most of his previous work had been set in the past. Much of what he did following was set in the present.
As both Lucas and Howarth describe “The Telephone,” the story involves two prostitutes who are former lovers, and their pimp who recently escaped police custody and is after revenge on the girl who turned him in. Watching the film, the relationships between the characters and their professions was not so clear. We know Rosy and Mary had some sort of falling out, and that Mary is manipulating Rosy to re-establish their friendship. We know Rosy informed on Frank, but the details are unclear. Maybe I missed something, or maybe key details were edited out of the version I saw. In the US version, Frank was supposed to be dead, and his ghost calls on the phone after Rosy stabs him to his second death. The producers thought the story as Bava presented it was not spooky enough, as well as being a bit too adult for their target audience.
As an interesting side note on the topic of target audience, Lucas says it opened in NYC on the bottom half of a double bill with McHale’s Navy. It’s amazing the way his work was mishandled and mangled when it came over here. The editing on “The Telephone” diluted its impact, the re-ordering of the segments fractured the structure of the film, and changing the film score overwhelmed Bava’s subtle and brilliant use of sound throughout the movie. Speaking of the soundtrack, Remains of the Web supplied a link to Roberto Nicolosi’s original score:
Bava considered this his favorite of all his films. Lucas says Bava shows us this with the crazy ending (Youtube, en espanol) seen on the Italian version, where the camera pulls back from Karloff to show us how the shot is being filmed:
the coda is nothing less than Bava’s unmasking of himself: a man who became a cameraman in order to be unobtrusive as an artist, a man who disliked being photographed, a man whose chosen field of endeavor was the once-invisible field of trick photography. A man of Bava’s character could have conceived such a final for only one reason: he had finally achieved something of which he could be proud, something warranting his full disclosure.