Director/Coscreenwriter: Mario Bava
By Roderick Heath
Mario Bava is a name to conjure with amongst lovers of horror cinema today, after an interregnum when his brand had waned and he was remembered only by film scholars and the directors who ripped him off. His lush, visually symphonic work in the horror field did not just bridge eras in the genre’s evolution, but actively influenced that evolution. Bava oversaw both the great revival of the Gothic horror style, thanks to his rescue job on Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), which beat both Hammer Studios and Roger Corman to the mark of sparking that style, and continued with Bava’s proper debut La Maschera del Demonio (1960). Bava however also oversaw that revival’s displacing by a new style of horror, one which Bava essentially invented, based in more modern conventions, codes, and tropes. This would become known as the giallo movie. In the wake of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), which gave contemporary horror an electric relevance, Bava first compiled the giallo style in 1963’s La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo and its brilliant follow-up Sei Donne Per l’Assassino (1964). Where the Gothic genre was historical, rooted in intensely psychologised images and long-settled figurations representing threat – ghosts, vampires, werewolves – the giallo was stylised according to the shape and rhythm of a less superstitious but equally paranoid contemporary landscape, reconceiving threat as a lurking, masked, gloved killer out to attack and annihilate beauty and complacency. Gothic was rooted in Victorian literary and folk-tale traditions; giallo came from pulp literature, modern art, and urban myth. Giallo latched onto the sorts of figures beloved of trashy newspapers and which seemed to have devolved along with the modern urban world – sex killers, heavy breather phone callers, alienated misogynists, and murderous anarchists.
I Tre Volti della Paura feels like a pivotal movie for Bava, not simply in that its English-language title, Black Sabbath, inspired the name of the prototypical heavy metal band and thus gave it a higher measure of fame than any other Bava work, but because it’s an omnibus movie that allowed Bava to offer variations on new and old horror aesthetics. This analytical presumption contrasts not simply their disparate preoccupations and lexicons, both visual and thematic, but also their shared roots and mutual, closely related power. Bava’s film tells three stories adapted from Anton Chekhov, Howard Snyder, and Alexei Tolstoy, a disparate triumvirate of names and modes of storytelling, ordered depending on which version you’re watching of the film, the Italian or the foreign release cut. The Italian cut commences with The Telephone, from a Snyder story, moves on to The Wurdalak, from Tolstoy, and concludes with Chekhov’s The Drop of Water. The first is clearly an exercise in giallo nerve-wracking, whilst the second is ripe Gothicism, and the third represents a distinct tradition but also presents a curious melding of the two, apt in adapting Chekhov, a writer with old-world class partly veiling a very modern, ironic mind. The horror genre has, over the years, seen more omnibus and portmanteau films than any other genre I can think of, from Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), up to this year’s V/H/S. This seems a by-product of the type of story the genre works well with, minimal mood-pieces where sometimes complication despoils the form’s inherent qualities, and the powerful literary tradition of short eerie fiction. Bava’s work came in the wake of Corman’s Tales of Terror (1961) and anticipated Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964), the multi-director fancies of Histoires Extraordinaires de Edgar Allen Poe (1967), and Milton Subotsky’s series of Amicus films, but unlike most others Bava resists mixing the bag in tone or intent too much, and each episode vibrates with concerted near-perfection.
I Tre Volti della Paura often seems aware of its place as a bridging point of old and new, and certainly Bava keeps glancing over his shoulder at both his own style’s roots, and that of the genre. He signals this most clearly by taking advantage of having Boris Karloff as a star, offering him in a prologue and epilogue as a good-humoured master of ceremonies, warning the audience about vampires who might be sitting next to them – “Vampires go to the movies too!” – and imbuing the film with a self-evident link to the heyday of Hollywood horror. Karloff’s stature as a horror star had taken him through three distinct waves in the genre’s evolution, from James Whale to Val Lewton to Corman and Bava. Karloff’s jests in the bookends suggest an extension to his salutary self-mockery in Corman’s The Raven the same year, and yet his actual role in this film, in The Wurdalak, is serious in a severe and classical fashion. The Telephone, particularly in its Italian version, is remarkable for its concise summary of the underpinnings and methodology of the giallo style. The set-up is simple: a woman alone is terrorised by an unseen threat and a taunting voice on the phone. It’s one of the hoariest of modern genre variants, one that easily turns dull and repetitive in lesser hands, and yet Bava’s version is the ür-text, crisp in its execution and telling in its supple feints and clever miscues.
The woman here is Rosy (Michele Mercier), a gorgeous young trollop who arrives home one evening, strips down, and gets ready for bed, only to start receiving phone calls. At first the caller does not answer her plaintive demands to know who they are and what they want, and then finally the raspy mystery man begins to taunt her with threats of rape and murder, before slipping a newspaper cutting under her front door. The cutting suggests the caller is a former boyfriend of hers, Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), who has since gone to jail and now escaped. The caller seems to know everything she does, and Bava privileges the audience to a glimpse of malignant peering eyes through a window blind. Rosy, distraught and told if she calls the police then the killer will come in and finish her off, instead phones up her former lover Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) and begs her to come over. Mary arrives and after soothing her fears ends up sleeping with her, but as Bava has already revealed, Mary is in fact the source of the phone calls – a pretext in her desire to get back with Rosy. But as Mary writes a confession to leave for Rosy to read in the morning, the real Rainer enters the apartment and sneaks up on Mary, assuming she is Rosy.
The Telephone is a masterpiece of compact storytelling, unfolding with Bava’s illustrative intelligence whilst accepting distinct formal restrictions. The lesbian twist to the episode, carefully fudged in the English-language version, gives it a darker and deeper emotional punch than would otherwise offer, making Mary’s malfeasance a keener manifestation of emotional jealousy and longing worked out through a sadistic ploy, and staking the tale in a game of reversing roles. Mary pretends to be Rainer and Rainer mistakes Mary for Rosy, the man and woman swapping parts in their desire to possess/destroy Rosy’s fecund but independent sexuality, but finally only helping destroy each-other. This element plugs into the contemporary anxiety over sexuality and changing social mores overtaking traditional morality which would give the giallo genre so much of its bite, albeit often with reactionary overtones. Only a couple of years after Fellini offered arch queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita (1960), Bava treats this element with beguiling matter-of-factness, carefully depicting Mary as driven by angry desire to duplicitous means, eyeing Rosy’s fancy rooms and wondering out loud who pays for it all. The suggestion is that Rosy has often used her as her emotional comfort whilst working her way through men who could help her financially. Mary’s bitterness at being thrown over is then all too palpable, and it’s clear that Rainer, a dangerous criminal, was one of those men. Bava’s usual punitive moralism, often even stricter than his own hero Alfred Hitchcock, is apparent as all three characters pay a steep price for their transgressions, with Rosy left alive at the end as perhaps the worst punishment of all as the victims of her romantic life lie quite literally sprawled on the floor.
At the same time, Mary’s gamesmanship replicates on a narrative level the fundamental dynamic of Bava’s direction, a reduction of drama to the act of looking, watching, hypnotised by the pure spectacle as Bava stokes Rosy’s fear with pseudo-erotic sadism, the unseen watcher/caller standing in for the camera, director, audience, willing the game to go further, deeper, and climax with orgasmic act of murder. But like his successor Dario Argento in his early work, Bava enjoys disrupting the expectations about whose viewpoint the terror represents, evoking polymorphic underpinnings to a nominally simple exploitation of phobias of sex and death: it’s like Sartre’s No Exit reconfigured as chamber piece horror. The Telephone charts Bava’s precise awareness of just how long to string along the situation, offering his key revelations, like the staring eyes behind the blind and the identity of the caller, with seemingly casual yet actually precise and forceful cuts and camera moves as if following a thread to the heart of the labyrinth. He sustains dread in the meantime with the resolute build of shots around Mercier’s terrific performance, with each new call causing a distinct mounting of tension manifest in Rosy. Whilst the pace of editing builds, the telephone itself turns in an object of adversarial power – it’s coloured red and black, looking forward to the red telephone receiver that dangles as the evocation of severed lives and ruined loves at the end of Sei Donne per l’Assassino. The Telephone sees Bava at once defining the basic principles of giallo for the future – peering eyes, gloved hands, wickedly shining knives, isolation, paranoia, the fetishistic delight in the image of a terrified woman – whilst also looking back to Hitchcock’s immediate influence. He executes the story within one room, recalling Rope (1948) and Rear Window, particularly the latter with its emphasis on voyeurism; the eyes behind the blind evoke Psycho, whilst Bava mimics a singular shot from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) as he performs a delicate camera move around Rosy, as she listens to an unfolding nightmare on the telephone. A climactic shot of Rainer sneaking up on Mary with an appropriated stocking clearly references Dial M For Murder (1954).
Which is not to say Bava’s filmmaking is imitative, but simply paying nods where they’re due, whilst also presenting his own stylistic brilliance, his sense of colour and composition and genius for fluidic, sensuous camera movement, and these qualities permeate the whole of I Tre Volti della Paura. The Wurdalak, the second and most elaborate episode, is a miniature epic that offsets the contemporary vision of private hells in The Telephone with a more traditional version. Bava’s penchant for the folkish eccentricities of the Slavic ghost story canon had already seen him loosely adapt Gogol’s ‘The Vij’ for La Maschera del Demonio, and The Wurdalak like that film takes place in a netherworld version of Eastern Europe, with sonorous location shots fleshing out perhaps Bava’s a beautifully crafted exercise in gothic horror. Freda, Bava, Sergio Leone and others of their breed were always expected to make their films look like the popular and commercially dominant English-language genre films in their fields, and even as they began to distort the results towards their own interests they paid lip-service to this necessity: here Bava pays clear nods to Corman by importing the stolidly handsome star of his House of Usher (1960), Mark Damon, to play a variation on his role there as an outmatched ingenue locked in a battle with his lover’s very identity. The set-up has distinct resemblances to several of Corman’s Poe-derived or inspired cycle, as Damon’s Count Vladimir d’Urfe takes on the role of archetypal Wanderer, in a vaguely identified, eerily depopulated land where peculiar social assumptions and menacing activities permeate the onerous scenery. The Count discovers a headless corpse on a riverbank with a distinctive knife in the heart. Vladimir straddles the corpse across his horse and carries it to the nearest house, where he discovers a family living in cowering anxiety and expectation, and he’s confronted by Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) who recognises his own father’s knife as the one Vladimir has removed from the body.
When Vladimir leads Giorgio outside to inspect the body, it proves to have mysteriously vanished, only to turn up a short distance away, being stabbed through the heart with punitive relish by Giorgio’s brother Pietro (Massimo Righi). Somehow this discovery is actually more unnerving than the corpse’s reanimation would have been, the sight of the headless remnant being stabbed with a need for certainty commingling with the impossibility of ever truly killing the spectre of fear, heightening the atmosphere of hysteria that builds in the forty or so minutes of The Wurdalak’s running time. The corpse, it’s explained to Vladimir, was that of Alibeq, a Turkish bandit who had terrorised the region and who was rumoured to also be a vampire-like wurdalak. Their father Gorca (Karloff) had gone out days earlier to find and kill the enemy after he had murdered the clan’s foreman, but left behind a mysterious entreaty that they should kill him in turn, if he turned up more than five days after departing, a timespan which happens to run out at midnight, for that would mean that he would certainly be a wurdalak too by then. As the family waits fearfully for the appointed hour, Vladimir’s is drawn to Gorca’s stunningly beautiful daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen). As midnight ticks by, Gorca appears, haggard and alternately fierce and strangely unctuous in his manner, displaying Alibeq’s head which he’s been carrying around with him, a strikingly iconic image of a man who’s given into savage nature even in attempting to annihilate it. His fearful children know they should obey his previous statement, and yet can’t bring themselves to. In the night, as Pietro is left to keep watch, Gorca begins moving about the house, claiming Ivan, the child of Giorgio and his wife Maria (Rika Dialina), and leaving Pietro for dead.
One of Bava’s distinctive traits as a filmmaker was his clear understanding of the basic underpinnings of the dark fantasies he was engaged in depicting. Just as La Maschera del Demonio expanded intelligibly on the schismatic yet eternally conjoined images of Madonna and whore, and Sei Donne Per l’Assassino would contend with the urge to exterminate beauty if it could not be possessed, The Wurdalak anticipates Operazione Paura (1966) and Lisa e il Diavolo (1973) as Bava’s inwardly spiralling meditations on the encaging horror that can be family identity. Here the poisoned patriarch Gorca, who had gone out to do battle with the marauding villain, comes back as the force of evil he had sought to exterminate, and swiftly causes his clan to fall victim to it, complete with clear overtones of paedophilia and incest as he singles out young Ivan and snatches him away into the night, and the net draws tighter around Sdenka even as Vladimir begs her to escape with him. Images in Operazione Paura of evil lurking outside windows, peering in on the warm and contented with baleful intent to feed on that land of life, are prefigured here, as the household eats itself from the inside out. What’s most striking and pathologically precise about The Wurdalak is its pitilessly unsentimental view of sentiment, one which plainly prefigures the similar brute logic that George Romero would examine in his best films, a tension between emotional reflex and survivalist necessity.
This tilt on the familiar dramatic necessities of fighting evil examines the way people can behave in illogical ways when their lives are at stake and disturbing facts are plainly apparent, but their taboos and intensely entrenched prejudices and loyalties, no matter how retrograde or ignorant of other concerns, have been internalised so completely that they demand people act in contrary ways. Thus Bava shows the clan destroyed by its blindness to anything but its own hermetic nature, in a pungent metaphor for this schism: the sons cannot obey the father’s own advice and destroy him, and Giorgio’s wife murders her husband when he tries to prevent her letting in their plainly vampirized son, who seems to come wandering out of the frigid night to scratch at the door (anticipating memorable moments in Tobe Hooper’s spin on Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, 1979). Many a young lover has often felt like they’re trying to extract the one desirable member from a family of monsters, and Vladimir struggles to convince Sdenka to flee with him as she believes she must stay with her family for loyalty’s sake even as they all expire. Although Vladimir does finally convince Sdenka to leave, the delay is fatal, for the clan are able to catch up with them. In a brilliant depiction of the inescapable nature of formative roots, Sdenka is caught between her transformed family members, advancing to claim her in the midst of a ruined church, shambling corpses still obeying their inculcated ideals of clannish behaviour, and ghosts of ancient repressions still overwhelming all good sense in the present. When Vladimir awakens alone, he retraces the path to the Gorca house and finds Sdenka, waiting in all luscious readiness for him to join the family circle.
Interpretative perversities aside, The Wurdalak is visual gothic par excellence, with Bava manipulating both the studio settings and the location shooting to maximum atmospheric effect, conjuring a magnificent, appropriately fairy-tale world of menace, frames teeming with overgrown thorny bushes and misted forests, frosted windows and warm hues of longed-for shelters and sunrises. Indelible images proliferate, like Gorca stalking across the bridge on his way home, the faces of the undead glaring through frosted windows, and young Ivan clawing and weeping at the door, stoking his mother to emotions so desperate she cuts through her husband to get to her son. Bava pulls off one of his most felicitous bits of filmmaking here as he cuts from Giorgio and Maria arguing to the plaintive yet disconcerting image of what they think is their son kneeling with arms spread on the front door, and then cutting back to the sigh of a pair of scissors, daubed in Giorgio’s blood, falling to the floor, the mortally wounded man still crying out to the wife who’s killed him not to open the door for the monster. The deliriousness of Bava’s sci-fi horror riff, Terrore Nello Spazio (1965), is nascent in the saturated colours and dream-like mood. If the last chapter, The Drop of Water, seems comparatively lightweight after the The Wurdalak, it actually represents Bava’s most purely stylistic coup, in the orchestral use of colour, composition, sound, and camera work utilised in compiling a growing sense of unease.
Operating in a similar mould of isolated anxiety, depicting a woman alone in her apartment afraid of lurking terrors, to The Telephone, The Drop of Water is the story of plebeian, sticky-fingered, hapless nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux), who is called out on a dark and stormy night from her warm abode to attend to her just deceased charge, a reputed but reclusive medium. Distracted and irritable, Helen espies and surreptitiously steals the enticing ring on the corpse’s finger. If The Telephone and The Wurdalak explore two major strands of horror, The Drop of Water exemplifies a third, the morality play where justice, which may be supernatural or might simply be overloaded mental credulity, comes surging from beyond the grave to punish transgression. For Bava, the mechanics of this kind of storytelling are comparatively simplistic, but the elements of class envy and the depiction of property as a maddening and destructive spur look forward to the insidious supernatural class struggle again in Operazione Paura, and the war over the estate that drives the bloodshed of Reazione a Catena (1971). Bava further invests The Drop of Water with overtones of black comedy, through Pierreux’s amusingly exaggerated performance as Helen, and the minute, nuisance-like, yet cumulatively maddening proliferation of difficulties in her attempts at thievery that start to resemble silent comedy. This restrained slapstick has consequences, as these events begin to recur as increasingly dreadful portents of warning after they’ve already suggested the taboo nature of stealing from the dead, building with a rapid but precise relish reminiscent of Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1957), where again the temptation to profitable transgression is met by the corrosive terror of being caught.
Whilst the episode’s tone sustains impudent humour, Bava still constructs this episode with magisterial craft, contrasting the decaying splendour of the Medium’s mansion and Helen’s flat whilst filling both with resplendent colour effects that communicate moral, corporeal, and spiritual rot, for both places are filled with hues eloquent of decay and slovenly disinterest. Bava’s camera peers into spaces where any manifestation of evil might appear and yet which don’t – until finally they do, or at least the mind, tired of waiting for them to arrive, conjures them itself. Helen’s midnight suffering as she hears dripping water and is tormented by a single, impudent fly, sees her worked up into a pitch of anxiety. Finally the ghoulish visage of her dead charge appears in the shadows, gliding with eerie weightlessly and terrible purpose, her face, distorted as on the deathbed into a gnarled and gruesome leer, is etched in sickly hues of green and red. Helen is found dead the next day, missing the ring. Perhaps the ghost came and claimed it, and yet, as Bava details the guilty face of Helen’s neighbour and zooms in for a last look at Helen’s dead face, now distorted itself into another grim leer, the neighbour has taken the ring, and the roundelay of guilt and fear invoked by this seamy fixation with possession will continue. You can’t take it with you, but you can damn well haunt whoever else thinks it’s theirs.
The title’s cleverness becomes apparent by the end, as the “three faces of fear” refer not only to the trio of spooky stories, but to the cumulative fixation each episode has with a face that encapsulates fear, whether being experienced, as found in Rosy’s or Helen’s sweat-dabbed, tremulous brows, or inspiring it, as in Gorca’s and the Medium’s funereal visages, even coalescing monstrosity and beauty in Sdenka’s enticing final clinch with Vladimir. If, as Jean Renoir once said, the face was the greatest tool at the filmmaker’s disposal, this was Bava’s response, his proof of faith in the gestural power of the human element to invoke the most extreme cinematic emotions. If Sei Donne or Operazione Paura offer complete statements that are ultimately more powerful, I Tre Volti could well be the best produced of Bava’s horror films: the production carries little of the tackiness a lot of even the best Italian genre cinema could never quite escape, and the costuming, lighting, and settings reflect craftsmanship of a rich and delightful sort. Bava’s collaboration with DP Ubaldo Terzano is superlative. This excellence is ironic, as the film finishes up making fun of its own construction, revealing in the climax the tacky charm required to conjure such visions as Karloff, in his Gorca guise, suddenly stops riding the mechanical horse he’s mounted on to jest with the audience, whilst Bava pulls back to reveal crewmen running in circles to create the effect of forest brush whipping by. This jokey epilogue is Bava laughing at his own showmanship and Karloff mocking his own legacy, but not with tiredness or self-contempt, but the knowing winks of great magicians who don’t mind giving the game away if it’s been played well enough. Or perhaps it’s Bava’s answer to his pal Fellini’s inverted study in cinematic creativity released the same year, 8½. Anyway, when it’s all over, it’s not the humour you remember, or the storytelling: it’s that primal image of the Medium’s face, sliding forth out of the darkness, straight out of every childhood nightmare.