J. Malcolm Stewart
Imagine it if you will, mi amigos. It’s a typically smoggy, nasty August day in the industrial suburb of Aston, Birmingham UK circa 1969. You are one of four local, knock-around guys who have done the typical late-teens, early-twenties thing and formed a band.
Now, you’ve gotten some gigs. You’ve also got a look. You’ve even developed a thunderous, down-shifted, distortion-heavy type of sound which is loud enough to be heard over the din of the warring skinheads and leather longhairs who frequent your shows. A sound that reflects the grim reality of the polluted, post-war nightmare where you spent your reckless youth.
But the problem is… The name of your band is Earth. EARTH. It makes you sound like a bunch a flower power rejects from a production of Hair. Worst of all, there’s another band with the same damn name! This simply won’t do. You’re sitting around wondering what to about this hideous turn of events. You end up drinking a lot of beer.
But this day, your bass guitar player and lyricist, who has spent the better part of the last year delving into the occult fiction of Crowley-ite Dennis Wheatley (author of The Devil Rides Out), looks out the soot smeared windows of your practice hall towards the local movie theater. There he sees the marquee title for a revival of Mario Bava’s influential 1963 color triumph, I Tre Volti Della Paura (translated: The Three Faces of Fear) which some AIP censor in his wisdom has decided to call Black Sabbath.
Dark gears turn in his mind. Soon you have a song. And a name. And a uniquely strange connection to one of the classics in the history of horror.
The Three Faces of Fear was Bava’s first, full attempt at a Technicolor process film. After his black-and-white masterpieces, Three Faces partners Bava’s eye for detail with a number bizarrely arranged color worlds. Shot by Ubaldo Terzaro, (who would become a Bava family favorite) the film lives up to its billing by given the viewer three, distinct vignettes dealing with terror.
The Telephone (starring Michele Mercier) is the first offering, a psycho thriller involving not just warring lesbian lovers, but also a jealous husband straight out of the can with revenge on his mind. The last, The Drop of Water (with Jacqueline Pierreux) has a sticky fingered nurse getting the turnabout from one of her dead patients. But it’s the middle section, The Wurdalak, which makes the film a classic as it contains the last, great performance of horror film mainstay Boris Karloff.
Karloff had slid into relative obscurity by the 60’s but Bava’s craft pulls one more great performance from the black-and-white veteran. Playing an Eastern-European, recently undead vampire, Karloff returns to his family homestead to wreak havoc its terrorized survivors. The aged star pulls of some chilling moments as he systematically takes the lives of those who were closest to him. The final scene between the obligatory wandering stranger (played by Mark Damon) and Karloff’s now-undead daughter prefigures the sickening trend towards supernatural romance that now dominates our bookstands. (Excuse me. I think I threw up in my mouth a little.)
Three Faces gives Bava a chance to stretch his story-telling muscles while paying tribute to such Asian masters as Kurosawa. According to legend, Quentin Tarantino in his video store clerk days saw Three Faces and decided that he would use the multi-story format to tell a story of his own one day. But I digress from our original digression…
So, did Mario Bava invent Heavy Metal (for better or worse)? Well, as far as anybody has determined, Il Maestro never knew about the influence his little movie had on the music world (and on crazed parents who have been shouting “Turn-that-crap-down!” for forty years). As for our beer-drinking band mates, no one can recall if they actually saw the movie. (C’mon, that was a LOT of lost brain cells ago.)
In someway 2013 was unlike any other for Black Sabbath in their 40+ year history. Their release, “13,” was their first to top the American Soundscan Album chart and their subsequent world tour has sold out stadiums all across the world, smashing the eardrums of many who were just glimmers in the eyes of their stoner parents when the Ashton boys first hit the world scene with “Paranoid” and “War Pigs.” Hell, their chances are better than even to leave with a miniature gramophone for “13” at this weekend’s Grammys for Best Metal Album.
So, what’s in a name? For a masterpiece of horror movie making with a mistranslated name, a name can go a long way. Let’s just hope that if the rumored film biopic of a certain nonsense-muttering, reality-show starring, screeching Prince of Darkness comes to fruition that the director is savvy enough to throw some metal-horns Mario’s way.
(Thanks to Martin Popoff and his excellent musical biography Doom Let Loose: The Encyclopedia of Black Sabbath for helping to set the historical mood for this review. )