Black Sabbath (Mario Bava / Italy, 1963):
(I Tre Volti della Paura; The Three Faces of Fear)

The ruptures of fear, Mario Bava orchestrates three of its faces, an Italianate Kwaidan and no mistake. First, "The Telephone." ("It rings and you run," says Degas to Valéry.) Luxurious apartment, party girl (Michèle Mercier) quivering in a negligee, raspy voice on the receiver. "Who’s this?" "You’ll find out right before you die." A story of estranged lovers and contrasting vengeance, one is a pair of eyes near the closed shutters and the other is a Sapphic flame embodied as a knife under a pillow. The panning camera gives a Manet view of a cadaver at the close, and that’s how La Voix Humaine becomes a terse giallo blueprint. "The Drop of Water" is the concluding segment, another use of a dissolving female psyche as the linchpin for a positively Minnellian mise en scène. A vexed caretaker (Jacqueline Pierreux) prepares the medium who expired mid-séance ("Talking to the dead, there’s a good cure for you!"), a sapphire ring is pried off the lifeless finger and the buzzing insect of guilt will not be placated. Two moments: A tilt down from a chandelier chocked with cobwebs to the skittering cats and scattered tarot cards filling a vast crumbling hall; then the shock, set up by the iambic pentameter of a dripping faucet, of an empty rocking chair suddenly and gruesomely occupied. Bava’s centerpiece is "The Wurdulak," virtually a tragic epic brought down to Gothic sketch size. Howling wind and decaying light are the elements of Mitteleuropa in the grip of cruel winter, out of the cold staggers none other than Boris Karloff as the patriarch with an open wound in his chest and a decapitated head in his hands. "Bloodthirsty corpses" prey on their loved ones, so falls the family, survivalist dread is no match for emotional instinct when the undead child starts scratching at the front door. (Polanski benefits from this most opulently in The Fearless Vampire Killers.) The coda is a charming bit of Cinecittà illusionism elided in the American version, on to Jodorowsky it trickles. "Remember, vampires go to the movies, too!" Cinematography by Ubaldo Terzano.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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