Among names like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava stands as one of the great directors of Italian horror. Although his filmography encompasses other genres, Bava is best known for his work within the horror scene. Black Sunday (1960), Blood and Black Lace (1964), and Planet of the Vampires (1965) are all noteworthy titles. However, Bava’s anthological I tre volti della paura (1963) or The Three Faces of Fear is arguably one of his best efforts.
As with any good anthology, I tre volti della paura features diversity amongst its three stories. Although the film and its American edit, Black Sabbath, differ in how the shorts are arranged, all three are present. Opening the film, Il telefone (The Telephone) is set in an apartment where Rosy (Michele Mercier), finds herself being harassed via telephone by an unknown stalker. As if from an unseen vantage point, the stalker informs Rosy of her every move from hiding her jewelry to stuffing an open keyhole. As the night goes on, the calls grow more and more menacing with the caller making threats on her life. Will she survive until sunrise, or will she be dead by dawn as the mysterious caller promises?
Of the three shorts, the segment is the only one not to feature the presence of the supernatural. More closely aligned to an actual thriller, Il telefone represents a very realistic and grounded scenario, one that’s since been made popular in other films like When a Stranger Calls (1979) and Scream (1996).
Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) could be considered to be the definitive example in exploring the notion of film as a voyeuristic medium, but Il telefone should be regarded just as highly. Up until the stalker’s identity becomes evident to the audience, we are said stalker. When Rosy answers the phone covered in only a towel, the soothe voice on the other end begins to describe her alluring appearance in detail. As if on command, the camera then begins to tilt down for the audience to take in her semi-nude figure. There is no looking way – we cannot help but gaze at her exposed skin. Rosy herself cannot identify where the mysterious caller is watching her from, and yet there is the camera (and in turn, the audience) unabashedly watching her without her acknowledgement and permission.
As the title of the short suggests, the prop of the telephone plays an important role. Apart from serving to inform Rosy of her stalker and their intentions, the telephone also functions as a tool for building suspense. Whenever the phone is on screen, silent and motionless, we the audience know that it will ring inevitably – it is only a question of when.
The remaining two segments of the film are I wurdulak (The Wurdalak) and La goccia d’acqua (The Drop of Water). In I wurdulak, whilst traveling the European countryside, the young Vladimir (Mark Damon) discovers a fresh corps – decapitated and impaled with a dagger. Seeking shelter at the nearby cottage, Vladimir discovers that the dagger belongs to the family’s grandfather, Gorca (Boris Karloff). Having left five days prior, Gorca was set on killing a local wurdalak – a bloodsucking corpse that feeds upon the blood of those he once loved. At the stroke of midnight, Gorca returns to the cottage, bloody and gaunt. It’s clear that something’s not quite right, but in spite of the warning signs, Gorca is allowed to enter the homestead by his wary family.
Meanwhile, in La goccia d’acqua, a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called in late one night to help prepare the corpse of a recently deceased and secluded aristocrat for her upcoming funeral. The nurse ends up taking a jeweled ring off the corpse, and is soon plagued by the sound of dripping water. The nurse becomes more and more distraught as the noises continue to haunt her throughout the night. Is she merely overcome with guilt at taking the ring, or is the ghost of the old woman seeking revenge from beyond the grave?
One of the reasons why I tre volti della paura is such a memorable film is through its use of color, and this is where both I wurdulak and La goccia d’acqua excel. Bava’s previous horror title, Black Sunday (Mask of Satan or La maschera del demonio), was shot entirely in black and white. As beautiful as Black Sunday is, I tre volti della paura stands out because of Bava’s lavish use of colored lighting. The colors red, blue, green and violet are all used throughout the two shorts, both in lighting the sets and the actors – providing each with an otherworldly quality. For instance, when young Sdenka (Suzy Andersen) is corned in I wurdulak, the faces of the encroaching vampires are lit in an unearthly, pale green light. Likewise, the dull blinking of cool, blue light from outside the nurse’s apartment not only reinforces the dripping water motif but also creates an eerie mood when the power goes out. Even though the film may not be as vividly extravagant as Argento’s Suspiria (1977) in regards to color, I tre volti della paura is still a visual feast in its own right.
In conjunction with Bava’s lighting, I wurdulak and La goccia d’acqua are both visually appealing thanks to their decorative sets. Anyone who loves the production design from the classic Universal monster movies of the 1940s will feel right at home with I wurdulak. Fog, cobwebs, barren tree branches, candles, and painted backgrounds all come together in creating a traditionally spooky atmosphere. Similarly, the mansion of the deceased aristocrat in La goccia d’acqua is characterized by dusty furniture, tall ceilings, various cats and lifeless dolls scattered about. While some of the sets are obviously artificial in their construction, said artificiality only to the film’s charm.
Aside from the visual appeal of I tre volti della paura, one of the positives of the film is the reserved nature of their scores and audio tracks. The music itself never becomes overbearing, kicking in when appropriate and highlighting each short’s dramatic moments. A good portion of the audio, outside the music, is sound effects. The ringing of the telephone in Il telefone, the howling of the wind in I wurdulak, the sound of dripping of water in La goccia d’acqua. All of these effects aid in creating the haunting impression of isolation and adding significantly to the film’s creep factor. Likewise, the use of silence itself is just as prominent and equally important to the film’s audio — aiding in both heightening the excellent sound effects as well as building tension to the film’s scares. There is only downside to the audio: the lack of Karloff’s actual voice. As the original version of the film, the actors in I tre volti della paura expectedly speak Italian. The exception to this is the British Karloff and the American Damon. While Karloff’s dubbing is adequate, it does draw attention to the fact it is not actually him speaking. Lines like, “I am hungry” do not have quite the same effect when performed in Italian. This absence of Karloff’s voice remains a small drawback considering its charm in the American Black Sabbath.
Speaking of Karloff, he not only stands as the most notable actor in the film, but as its host. The notion of the horror host, especially within the context of today’s more serious horror scene, is largely absent in other anthologies. However, regardless of whichever version of the film that viewers may have access to, I tre volti della paura or Black Sabbath, Karloff’s presence is a relative constant in both. Although featured more prominently in the Black Sabbath in introducing each short, the veteran horror actor nonetheless gives a fun and playful performance as the film’s host in I tre volti della paura. In the film’s opening, Karloff warns viewers of potential vampires lurking amongst the audience. A casual grin then emerges on his face as if he is merely having fun trying to worry nervous viewers. Meanwhile, as Gorca in I wurdulak, Karloff proves memorably sinister with a hostile but sly demeanor, dirty face, and a pair of wild eyebrows and mustache. Either way, there is a reason why Karloff is one of the great horror icons and I tre volti della paura is proof of that.
Horror cinema has come a long way since 1963. I tre volti della paura may be a forgotten gem to some, but that is not to say that the film hasn’t been influential. Again, titles like Scream and When a Stranger Calls owe their premises to the segment Il telefone. The notion of vampires infecting their loved ones can be seen in Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot as well as the novel The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Also, Del Toro’s Crimson Peak from 2015 seemingly borrows the cool blue lighting and color that characterizes La goccia d’acqua. Whether intentional or not, these examples help to iterate the impact and significance of Bava’s film. I tre volti della paura is truly a classic.