Monday, 8 April 2013
Black Sunday (1960)
The plot is hardly original and would itself be much imitated. It was very loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story The Viy but by the time it made it to the screen very little if anything remained of Gogol’s story.
This was Bava’s first official assignment as a director although he had already completed a couple of movies begun by other directors. It was to be his only black-and-white movie and it demonstrates his artistry in that medium.
A man and a woman are burnt for witchcraft in the 16th century. They pronounce the usual curses upon their persecutors, and their persecutors’ descendants. Asa’s chief persecutor had been her brother who held the office of Grand Inquisitor.
Two hundred years later the witch Asa will have her chance to execute her vengeance. The Princess Katia is the spitting image of Asa (both women being played by Barbara Steele). A middle-aged doctor and his young colleague unwittingly offer Asa her chance. The doctor cuts himself and the blood falls on Asa’s long-dead face, reawakening the witch to life (life of a sort anyway). What Asa now needs is a new body, and Princess Katia’s will do her just fine - thus neatly combining vengeance with her desire for renewed life.
Bava had been director of photography on Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri in 1956 but the Italian horror boom really started to take off in the wake of the success of Hammer’s 1950s gothic horror films. Black Sunday shows an obvious Hammer influence but being shot in black-and-white it also shows the influence of the old Universal horror movies.
Bava did the cinematography for Black Sunday as well as directing so the movie’s visual style can be entirely credited to him. And the visual style is of course stunning. Bava offers us some very memorable images. Apart from the famous scene that introduces Barbara Steele to the film (the scene with Princess Katia and her two mastiffs) there’s also a particularly wonderful sequence of a carriage in the mist. The entire movie is a succession of wonderful images.
Barbara Steele’s extraordinary looks, her ability to appear both beautiful and evil with such ease, was obviously a huge contributing factor to the movie’s success. There was apparently some tension between Steele and Bava which might explain why he never worked with her again. The other cast members are all quite competent but it’s Steele who dominates the movie.
Arturo Dominici as Asa’s lover Javutich is almost as striking in appearance as Steele.
By the standards of 1960 this movie was fairly strong stuff and several scenes were considered to be too strong for the US theatrical release. In some later movies Bava would overdo the gore but in Black Sunday he uses shock effects sparingly and they therefore have maximum impact.
An interesting point raised by Tim Lucas in the accompanying commentary track is the surprising but apparently considerable influence of Disney’s Snow White on Italian horror in general an this film in particular.
The US Blu-Ray release comes from Kino. It really offers very little that a good DVD release couldn’t have offered. Picture quality is good but there is a little graininess at times. If you already own the movie on DVD I wouldn’t bother upgrading to this Blu-Ray edition. Extras are also sparse, the only one of importance being Tim Lucas’s commentary track. Lucas certainly knows Bava’s work well but I was slightly disappointed by the commentary track. It offers no great revelations about the movie. Perhaps I expected too much,
A great horror movie from a director whose name is synonymous with visual brilliance.