Movie Moment: A story in stills — I Tre volti della paura, aka The Three Faces of Fear, aka Black Sabbath

A touch of giallo and genuine fear in the rainy April. In honor of the upcoming thirtieth anniversary of his death, I declare this Mario Bava Movie Moment Week. He was a really terrific director of plenty of genres, though he is best known for his work in horror, with a good sense of fun AND fear, and a truly great gift for cinematic expression. His colors, lighting, and cinematographic choices are amazing. I look forward to highlighting some of my faves from him over the next seven days!


Bava big pimpin’! image via Thizz Face Disco right here on the wordpress.

Thought I’d start with I Tre volti della paura, aka The Three Faces of Fear, aka Black Sabbath (1963). It’s a story in stills edition, folks, so skip to the bottom if you don’t want spoilers!


(stills via proximity seamstress in the Nostalgia Party community on the lj. YOU ARE SO COOL!)

Arguably Bava’s masterpiece, Black Sabbath is broken in to three segments. I feel that each of the three segments explores a various type of terror: from the psychological, to the monstrous, to the uncanny. The only element of continuity between the three stories is a cinematic one: Boris Karloff, one of the kings of classic horror, comes out to introduce each segment in the version with which I’m familiar (though I’m told this is not the case with the original U.S. release), and plays a vampire in the second of the segments.

These screencaps are exclusively from what I’d term the strictly psychological thriller segment, “Part I: The Telephone,” a noirish story about wicked people with ulterior motives couched in deceit, coupled with the dramatic sexy violence and twists characteristic of giallo films. Set in Paris, the short is familiar pulp territory, with the titillating added thrill of bisexuality, but it’s shot with a Hitchcockian tension to the angles and edited with sustained, lingering frames interrupted by abrupt cuts that really ratchet up the anxiety level.

The story takes place in pretty much one location over a single evening, almost in real time, which contributes considerably — along with the short length of the segment — to a swiftly rising pitch in suspense.

This hot ticket is Rosy, played by mega-hottie Michèle Mercier. Rosy is a call girl whose boyfriend and former pimp, Frank, has just escaped from prison. As she testified against him in his trial, she’s understandably concerned after hearing the dramatic news of his escape that he is going to seek her out soon for reprisals.

(And you thought nervous girls getting all naked and wet was a trope that was invented for seventies slasher flicks. Silly you. Friday the 13th ain’t got nothin’ on Sgr. Bava!)

It seems Rosy’s concerns are well-placed, because she begins receiving mysterious, threatening phone messages from a gruff caller who says he is Frank and warns that he is coming to get her.

Rosy calls a girlfriend, Mary, to confide her fears. Over the course of the conversation, you realize, oh, snap! This is a girlfriend-girlfriend! And Rosy is now even hotter. A high-femme damsel in distress, she is relieved when her more strong, slightly domineering and weirdly “off” ex promises to hurry over to the apartment and help Rosy relax.


Mary’s “offness” is explained when she turns right back around and calls Rosy back, disguising her voice and pretending to be Frank — she is the one who’s been making the threatening phone calls that have Rosy so shaken up. Also, she is a very smart dresser, as you can see in the following still.

Look at you, girl! All a dominant and crafty lipstick sixties lesbian, all suited up and catty in your emerald green, all situated in the bed looking cosmopolitan with your little sherry glass — I said goddamn, Lidia Alfonso: haters to the left. She’s looking mighty good. That shit would sooo work on me.

Mary is just full of good counsel and reassurance for her frightened former lover. As an example, she suggests that Rosy put a carving knife under her pillow …

and take a nutritious, delicious tranquilizer. Those are two things that always go together really, really well, especially in a film called The Three Faces of Fear.

Man. The trustworthy Miss Mary’s lifestyle tips are practically gold. She should start a magazine. How to Put Your Ladytimes Lover in Serious Danger: Accessories and Cocktail Suggestions for the Scheming Butch on the Go!

To Mary’s credit, once Rosy drops off, Mary pens her a letter which explains her motivations (something we’ve been curious about, too, since making prank calls saying you plan to end your lover’s life is kind of a sketchy thing to do).

Mary writes that she had missed Rosy terribly since their breakup and, when she heard about Frank the scary pimp’s prison break, she decided to use the opportunity to invent a scenario where Frank was threatening to murder Rosy so that Rosy would call Mary for help. After being around Mary again, the plan went, Rosy would realize the mistake of their separation and invite her back in to her life. Mary’s sorry it had to be done in a deceitful and scary way (which it didn’t, actually — that kind of convolution is pretty much strictly the logical provenance of giallo), but she writes that she loves Rosy and hopes to make it up to her.

Stop — Boris Karloff time! (Please, Boris Karloff, don’t hurt ’em.) I have inserted this interruption completely out of sequence. I just really wanted to throw it out there. Back to the story. Are you ready for the twisty turn of the screw?

While Mary is busy writing her love letter to the tranqued out Rosy, a man steals in to the apartment, clearly intent on murder. It is Frank, the pimp, now a genuine threat even though thirty seconds ago we thought he was not! He didn’t call but he was actually coming all along.

Crap! Mary, with whom we have just become totally sympathetic due to her big reveal of being a lover not a murderer, does not hear him because she is wrapped up in her lovey-dovey explanatory note-writing, and Rosy is asleep in the arms of Prince Valium in the other room.

He grabs the silk stocking off of the chair where Rosy discarded it earlier before her steamy I’m-scared-so-I’ll-strip bath and subsequent frightened call to Mary.

He sees the back of Mary’s dark head and, oh, no!, without seeing her face, begins to strangle her with the stocking. He assumes she is Rosy, his intended target.

The muffled thumps of Mary and Frank’s struggle Rosy slept straight through, but her lover’s death rattle finally wakes Rosy.

Maybe some kind of sympatico mental thing. She knows she has just heard something bad. She realizes it was Frank and deduces that he killed Mary. She is frozen in fear, looking at his face.


Suddenly, Rosy remembers the knife that poor dead Mary suggested that she stash beneath the pillow back when we still half-thought Mary might end up using it on Rosy herself.

Rosy stabs Frank with the knife, killing him, then breaks down sobbing and freaking out and crying, surrounded by the corpses of people she used to have sex with. I assume someone found her and stopped her screaming eventually. In any case, that knife sure ended up being a danged good idea. Why did you say it wasn’t? Sheesh.


Bava at work.

Mario Bava said repeatedly that this was the best of all his directorial work, placing it even above the classic La Maschera del Demonio/The Mask of Satan/The Black Mask (it is in Italian horror directors’ contracts that all their movie titles have at least three crazy names. Did You Know?). The man — Quentin Tarantino — has cited the narrative structure of Black Sabbath as his inspiration for the disjointed cinematic discourse in Pulp Fiction.


Why did I choose the least-flattering picture of QT ever? Answer: So that he will look at it and think I’m the best he can do and we can get married.

Seeing this motion picture on its release in Great Britain also inspired one Mister Ozzy Osbourne and his associate, a Mister Geezer Butler to change the name of their heavy blues/rock ensemble Earth to the film’s U.K. title: “Black Sabbath.” Previous band names included Mythology and effing Polka Tuck (I have a really hard time with that), so you may thank Sgr. Bava for inspiring one of the badassicalest band names in the history of rock-and-or-roll*, chosen by a group that would go on to become the Greatest Metal Band of All Time. Grazie!





*The worst band names ever are “Green Jellÿ”** and “The Alan Parsons Project.” Documented fact.

The first instance is the most idiotic use of an umlaut in recorded human history, and the second name sounds like a public access show about whittling that you watch by accident in a hospital because the batteries in the clicker have died and the only magazine in the deserted waiting room is a copy of People featuring Kathie Lee Gifford. Which you have already read since arriving. Cover to cover. Twice. (“Former ‘Brady Bunch’ star’s new lease on life — thanks to gem meditation!” “Dr. Mehmet Oz lists the surprising holiday foods that you can load up on!”)


image via the smart and sexy towleroad on the typepad.

Agree with me that the second cover story on that phantom hospital waiting room’s phantom Kathie Lee issue of People is: “Plus — Mario López: Why hasn’t TV’s most eligible (and ripped!) bachelor found a lady?” Oh, such a head-scratcher. Poor Mario! Sigh. Just like Liberace.

**In Green Jellÿ’s defense, they actively set out from the moment of their inception to be literally the worst band ever, beginning with their name. To my knowledge, the Alan Parsons Project was titled in earnest and has no such excuse.

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3 Responses to “Movie Moment: A story in stills — I Tre volti della paura, aka The Three Faces of Fear, aka Black Sabbath”

  1. namelessneed Says:

    great stuff, damn fine reading. I intend to investigate “Black Sabbath”
    right away.
    sign me up for much more, thanx

  2. G.R. Says:

    I did track it down (thanx to you) and so enjoyed the first third (The segmant you discussed) “The Telephone” was too fun to look at. captivating, erotic, and unpredictable (I did’t catch which of the short stories masters,,they mentioned three literature greats early in the film
    was responsible for the original idea. Do you? thanx again, friend

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