Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on March 1, 2017
Okay, it may technically be Wednesday, but there’s never a bad day of the week to pay a visit to Black Sunday (1960), the grandmother of Italian horror films. Sure, the country produced a few movies with horrifying or macabre elements, most notably Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1957), but here’s where the magic really kicked into high gear and set the stage for a dazzling wave of phantasmagorical creations that would run well into the 1990s.
You’ll notice I used the term grandmother above, and it’s fitting in this case because this is one of the most overwhelmingly female-driven genre films of its era. There might be men behind the camera and male actors wandering around in front of it, but the presence of Barbara Steele, an English actress who struggled to breakthrough in Hollywood or the U.K., utterly overwhelms every frame of this film. Even when she isn’t present in either of her dual roles, the force of her presence from the chilling (and, at the time, extremely shocking) prologue casts a spell that seems to seep into every tree branch and each stone in the walls of the cursed Vajda castle.
Black Sunday was one of the first films to trot out what would quickly become a familiar trope in horror films, the executed witch who lays a supernatural hex on the descendants of the executioners and usually comes back in reincarnated form to lay waste to the countryside. This film takes a more sexualized view of that idea than most, and you can find variations on the same theme in other films like the same year’s Horror Hotel (1960), The Haunted Palace (1963), Witchcraft (1964), Mark of the Witch (1970), The Haunting of Morella (1990), The Lords of Salem (2012) and even a couple of other Steele vehicles, The Long Hair of Death (1964) and The She Beast (1966).
What sets this film apart is its icily precise construction, creating a dark fairy tale world in which every characters has a secret chamber that can be unlocked, unleashing a torrent of spiritual darkness. Even the family patriarch isn’t immune from the demonic forces in this film, represented by the diabolical Princess Asa (Steele) and her evil lapdog, Javuto (Arturo Dominici). Both are executed in the opening moments by her brother for acts against God. The sight of a defiant Asa being branded and having her face penetrated by a spiked metal mask remains a powerful one in the horror canon. We see the mask approaching from her point of view, and it’s terrifying. Finding no aesthetic pleasure in her torment, the viewer experiences a conflict of emotions. Sure, she may be an agent of darkness and all, but everyone else comes off a whole lot worse. After all, she’s the only one wearing white, and everyone else is in black. That should tell you something.
As we flash forward a couple of generations, Asa’s relatives don’t seem so bad on the surface with beautiful and seemingly innocent Katia (Steele again) and her father (Ivo Garrani) living a solitary existence, interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) and Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi), whose coach breaks down on the way to a medical conference. Needless to say, not all of them make it to the final credits. The film doesn’t pull any punches with its grisly highlights, including one vampire getting a metal stake in the eye, another’s face frying in a fireplace and most notorious of all, Asa recomposing herself from a waxy corpse into a necrophilic dream girl luring men and women to their doom.
Very loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s novella Viy (which was filmed far more faithfully under its original title in the U.S.S.R. in 1967), Black Sunday (known in Europe as The Mask of Satan, a literal translation of its Italian title, La maschera del demonio) was the first solo directorial feature for the great Mario Bava. A cinematographer and visual effects wizard, Bava went on to become an influential cult figure inspiring directors as diverse as Dario Argento, Tim Burton and John Carpenter. Oddly enough, he would become best known for his flamboyant use of stylized color in such eye-sizzling films as Black Sabbath (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965), Danger: Diabolik (1968) and Lisa and the Devil (1973), only returning to monochrome for the film usually cited as the start of the giallo (Italian murder mystery) craze, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), a.k.a. Evil Eye. This film would remain his biggest and most famous international success and was often cited by critics well into the 1980s as his best film. That consensus has shifted considerably now that superb editions of most of Bava’s subsequent films have proven masterpieces, but this is still the most important as it laid the sinister groundwork for what was to come both for Bava and his many colleagues and successors like Argento, Freda (for whom Bava had stepped in to helm parts of I Vampiri), Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi and many more.
It’s worth noting that the version of Black Sunday streaming here on Filmstruck as part of The Panic Room horror theme is the full-strength one released in Europe, featuring a handful of shocking moments deemed too intense for the U.S. by distributor American International Pictures. (You’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.) When the film came to the U.S., it was also given a different (and, I think, better) English dub track (there is no “authentic” audio for this film as it was shot silent with dialogue created later in post, even in Italian). The European music score by Roberto Nicolosi was also replaced by a more aggressive one by easy listening legend Les Baxter, AIP’s go-to guy for Roger Corman / Vincent Price projects and Euro imports. Baxter also stepped in to score the U.S. versions of Bava’s Evil Eye, Black Sabbath and Baron Blood (1972), and I have to confess that I really like his work in all three of those films. Definitely check it out here first, but if you love the film, try to track down the American version as well; besides, this is such a great film it’s easily worth watching twice.
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