Monday, 8 April 2013

Black Sunday (1960)

It’s almost superfluous to write a review of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio). This movie has already garnered so much adulation. I’d seen it before of course, but now I’ve had the opportunity of seeing it on Blu-Ray.

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.


Oz said...

Excelente post amigo, muchas gracias por compartirlo. Te quiero invitar a mi nuevo Blog de Cine de Terror que seguramente te gustará, espero tus comentarios en:

Un gran saludo, Oz.

Randall Landers said...

I'd never seen this film until recently on EPIX Drive-In. It's simply one of the most beautiful horror films of its time, and it's terrific. I intend to mention it to our local Drama and Film instructor.

Kho said...

This is probably Bava's best work although I also love Black Sabbath. The Whip and The Body was also very good. I would love to get my hands on the AIP versions of the first two movies. Les Baxter's scores add immensely to the viewing pleasure and well the AIP version of Sabbath has Karloff's voice which really is important. There are some flaws in the AIP version of that film but Karloff's voice adds to it. I never saw the AIP version of Black Sunday but am curious about it.

I managed to recently get ahold of Steele's film, the Horrible Dr. Hichcock and loved it. I'd been wanting to see that one for years.

Bava's 1970's films left me a little flat. His Bay of Blood was revolutionary giving birth to the violent gory slasher film that became commonplace later in that decade and the 80's but I am no fan of that genre. Baron Blood was rather dull. Lisa and the Devil is strange. A bit slow but Telly Savalas as Satan with his lollipop save the day. Shock was ok but left me feeling a tad depressed.

Black Sunday is wonderful though.

I appreciate Tim Lucas but he seems to think that Jess Franco was a brilliant director and well I've seen alot of his films and some of them are really terrible. Like Lust for Frankenstein. While some of Franco's films especially his early to mid 70's output is sexy and appealing to me. His later work leaves much to be desired. His early horror films from the 1960's are pretty good but he never made a masterpiece like Bava did. Too many of Franco's films are marred by his need to constantly zoom in on something and not with a steady hand or in focus for that matter. I still wonder what Orson Welles saw in Franco.

dfordoom said...

Kho, I love The Horrible Dr. Hichcock as well - a very underrated eurohorror flick.

On the whole I agree that Bava's 1960s films were his best. I'm not much of a fan of his giallos. I think he should have stick to gothic horror. But Lisa and the Devil is still my favourite Bava movie. It's the only time he really got to do exactly what he wanted. Then of course the producers hacked it up but luckily we have more or less the original movie as he intended it.

Kho said...

Wife and I were watching Mad Men on Netflix the other night. After that was over I searched for sometyhing else to watch and lo and behold there's Black Sunday and I start the movie wanting to see what my wife's reaction to the prologue was. She was disgusted and thought she would get nightmares from the hammering of the mask onto Steele's face. She was yelling at me to turn it off, turn it off. I gleefully left it running. I got a certain thrill from her reaction and I love my wife. Undoubtedly, the movie still holds up as a classic. I knew she couldn't watch any more of it as it was her bedtime but I was curios to see how she would react to the first five minutes. Horror films are more terrifying if they leave something to the imagination rather than show the gore. Lisa and the Devil is an interesting film. Very artistic and I think it does demand repeat viewings but it just went a little slow for me the first time I watched it. I'll watch it again. As awful as House of Exorcism is,I'm a sucker for movies about demon possession because I know possession is possible although somewhat rare. Though in these times maybe not as rare as I would like it to be but that's a topic for another day.