As far as Mario Bava's films go, The Three Faces of Fear (Black Sabbath among English audiences) is a relatively restrained affair lacking a wealth of shocks and nail biting suspense. It's not as violent as Twitch of the Death Nerve or as campy as something like Planet of the Vampires or Kill, Baby, Kill, but it compensates in its use of atmospheric mood setting and appropriate musical accompaniment, not to mention solid performances that help to sell what are admittedly simplistic tales that don't rely on overt twists to lure the audience. Shot in gorgeous Technicolor, the use of lighting here and the generally slow, assured pace are what will stand to memory long after the stories have played out, but I must warn any prospective viewers in advance that the Italian version of the film is by far the one worth watching, as the American remake significantly alters one of the stories ("The Telephone") to remove a pretty tame but potentially controversial subtext and mixes around the playing order unnecessarily.
The first of the three stories, "The Telephone" is a simple stalker piece involving the titular device in a central role. I wouldn't call this one entirely predictable, since there's a slight tint of irony to the resolution, but really the joy here is in experiencing the clean movements of the actresses (and actor) to the chic lounge-jazz score. But really, this is but a setup for the far more interesting period piece "The Wurdulak", which is the most beautifully shot, with a larger cast than its neighbors and a very certain level of somber suspense and psychedelic occult, not to mention an internal, appreciated consistency. Boris Karloff, who opened the film with a bit of narration, also features here and does his usual 'monstrous' job, gluing the audience to his wild eyes and spectral movements across the screen. The final piece, "The Drop of Water", is your garden variety ghost story with a hint of Edgar Allen Poe, but to its credit it manages a few cheap thrills and again the great use of lighting and minimal effects to rouse the audience.
What I didn't actually enjoy about Black Sabbath was the lack of any real consistency in the way the three stories related to one another. Outside of the fact that they were indeed horror, it just felt like an omnibus of material, and they clearly weren't equals (I found "The Wurdulak" to be superior to both of its surrounding shorts, and almost wish they had been omitted to provide a full-length feature with more twists and turns to that particular story). Also, as was generally the case for a lot of Italian films or gialos in the 60s-80s, the cast feels almost too beautiful to really believe, especially in "The Wurdulak", in which even the peasants are enormously well groomed and cleanly despite living in the middle of goddamn nowhere. I blame it on Hollywood, really, for the sense of glamor so central to the casting, and it's not as if the actresses are hard on the eyes (Michele Mercier, Rika Dialina, Susy Anderson and Jacqueline Pierreux are all Helen of Troy material), but a little bit more grime beyond the few elderly characters would not have hurt.
Ultimately, the trio are aesthetically pleasing enough to recommend to anyone into retro horror flicks from the 60s, and especially those into the classic Hammer Horror vibe. There can be no doubt of the influence of Mario Bava on directors worldwide: his pacing and atmospheric focus are quite intense, and his eye for capturing statuesque beauty. There can also be no doubt of the film's influence on pop culture at large, thanks to a little Birmingham, England band who decided to snap up the title as their moniker, and help birth a genre of music whose purpose was to aesthetically mirror the horror genre with somber blues, crushing chords and ominous lyrics and song structures. To think, without triad of Bava briefs, I might not be sitting here typing this to you right now...
Verdict: Win [7.25/10]