Saturday, November 19, 2011

Black Sunday aka The Mask of Satan (1960)

Director: Mario Bava
Writers: Enniio de Concini, Mario Serandrei (and more)
Genre: Gothic horror
Recommended to: Fans of classic horror, horror historians, Bava
Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) – the vampire witch
(Arturo Dominici) – Pricess Asa’s vampire lover (and brother?)
Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) – Gorobec’s mentor
Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) – Kruvajan’s assistant, Katia’s love interest
Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani) – Descendent of Asa, father of Katia and Constantine
Princess Katia Vajda (Barbara Steele) – daughter of Prince Vajda, Asa’s target, Gorobec’s
love interest
Prince Constantine Vajda (Enrico Olivieri) – brother of Katia, son of Prince Vajda
Ivan (Tino Bianchi) – Servent of the Vajda family

Synopsis: Two hundred years after their execution, a witch and her lover return from the grave to take revenge on their descendents.

The Ramble:
You have no reason to fear the dead. They sleep very soundly
The first film directed by Italian horror master Mario Bava (or at least the first credited to him), Black Sunday is an acknowledged classic, and has been cited as an influence by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton.

Italy had banned horror films until the 1950s, so Black Sunday is only the third horror film to be made in that country. Bava was given the movie as a reward when he helped the studio finish Caltiki: The Immortal Man. Told he could make any project he wished, he opted for Black Sunday, a tale nominally based on a Russian folk tale (which bears almost no resemblance to the final film). The studio must have had great faith in Bava to offer him such a deal, and then back it up with a $100,000 budget and 6 week shooting schedule, both a good 50% more than was typical at the time. The investment paid off, as Black Sunday earned millions in the international market.
Black Sunday is a visual feast. Stark black and white cinematography gives new life to clich├ęd images of old crypts, dusty castles, and gnarled forests. At times it is tempting to turn the sound off and just take in the delights that Bava serves. Many practical effects are also utilized in the film, often to stunning effect. This is well before the age of ILM, let alone CGI, and it all serves to show how a little ingenuity can go a long way.

Perhaps the films best visual sequences comes in the middle of the film. A girl spies a ghostly carriage moving through the fog. We cut to Kruvajan, enjoying a smoke outside the tavern. A low mist intrudes on the scene, threatening to ensnare him. He turns to find Javuto besides the carriage, supposedly dispatched to bring the doctor to look after the Prince. We follow the pair through a breakneck carriage ride back to the castle, Javuto wildly spurring on his steeds, an effect realized with nothing more than a branch attached to a fan. After misleading the doctor through a secret passage, Javuto disappears into the darkness, leaving his lamp suspended in mid air.

Italian horror is noted for pushing the boundaries of blood and gore, and while Black Sunday never goes as far as its successors, I can see how this film might have disturbed audiences in 1960. An iron masked hammered into Barbara Steele’s face, a hot iron melting into flesh, wooden stakes stabbed into eye sockets – little of this would raise an eyebrow today, but it surely got a rise out of the censors of the day, and over three minutes of footage were excised for the American release. Thankfully the full 87 minute version is readily available on DVD.
This is the witch of the old legend! See this bronze mask? One was always placed over the face over a condemned witch, so she would wear for all eternity her true face: the face of Satan.
While the images are stunning, the plot is paper thin, the story jumbled – sadly something that will also prove a hallmark of Italian horror. Supposedly the film was rewritten constantly during filming, and even more in the editing room. Barbara Steele claimed that the actors never had more than a few pages at a time, and did not know where the film was going. The movie is never clear on whether Aja and Javuto are witches or vampires, and is vague on whether they are related (though that may have been to avoid implications of incest, which really would have got the censors on them). Why does Javuto get free so early in the film, yet Asa remains trapped in her tomb even after drinking blood? Pacing is slow, characters are paper thin, and the dialogue is mostly expository.

The actors all give it their best, but it is hard to fairly evaluate them through bad dialogue and worse dubbing. It was not until I watched the film while listening to the audio commentary that I found myself warming to the performances. Special credit must be given to Ms. Steele’s magnificently expressive eyes. It is no wonder that this film launched her career as the Queen of Horror.

Black Sunday is indeed a classic, but unfortunately, “classic” does not necessarily mean “timeless.” Black Sunday is a visual tour de force and still hold up on that level, but it is also too anchored in the contrivances of its time to completely win over modern audiences. If you can suspend modern sensibilities and enjoy the old monster flicks of the 30s and 40s, you should enjoy Black Sunday as the classic that it is. But if you can not get past a lack of color, leaden dialogue, slow pacing, and theatrical performances, you will likely find yourself wondering what the fuss is all about

The Reef (2010)

Director: Andrew Traucki
Writer: Andrew Traucki, James M. Vernon
Genre: Shark Horror
Genetic Links : Jaws, Open Water, Black Water

Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling): Captain of the boat, Kate's "on a break" boyfriend
Matt (Gyton Grantley): Luke's friend, Kate's brother, Suzie's boyfriend.
Suzie (Adrienne Pickering): Matt's girlfriend.
Kate (Zoe Naylor): Luke's "on a break" girlfiend, Matt's sister
Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith): Luke's first mate

Five people are stranded in the middle of the ocean when their boat is overturned. One remains on the sinking vessel, while the rest choose to swim through shark infested waters in hopes of reaching a distant island. Based on a true story.

The Ramble
If fear is the oldest of all emotions, then it is almost certain the first emotion ever felt was a fear of being eaten. Humans have eliminated the cause of this fear from our daily lives, but the primal terror still lurks within us. The Reef effectively taps into this fear as we helplessly watch a quartet of people who are on the wrong end of the food chain.

The Reef is the latest film by Australian director Andrew Traucki, who previously gave us the similarly themed Black Water. Both films center on a small, tight knit group trapped in an aquatic wilderness, stalked by a hungry predator. As a fan of this subgenre, I would rate both films as among its finest entries.

The film moves quickly, with the entire cast introduced in ten minutes, and the boat capsized before another ten have passed. The remaining hour is one of the most harrowing I can recall. Where Jaws kept the audience on edge with an ominous score and shots from the shark's point of view, The Reef builds suspense by keeping the audience in the dark. Traucki largely sticks to the characters' POV, so we are just as paranoid as the protagonists. In a stroke of brilliance, Traucki equips Luke with a pair of goggles, allowing us glimpses of the briny deep, indistinct shapes flitting on the edge of perception.  When the shark does arrive, it dances on the periphery, fading in and out of the blue. If the shark breaks the surface is it for just a moment - there are no lingering shots of a dorsal fin knifing through the water. Jaws conditioned us to link the shark with the musical cue - we knew when to be nervous, and when to relax. When we do see the shark, it is (seemingly) a real animal, captured in its native habitat, often placed (digitally?) in the same frame as the characters.
"You look like a seal in that. Sharks love seals."
The film plays fair with its monster - the shark (or sharks - one hysterical charatcer insists it is the same shark following them, but she lacks credibility) is frighteningly mundane. Yes it is a great white (white pointer in Australia), which I found sadly cliched (how about an oceanic whitetip?), but it is not of record proportions or keenly intelligent. It is an animal and acts as sharks act, curiously investingating a potential food source before moving in for the kill. This naturalism continues through the end - there is no grand royale, the final showdown between man and beast.
"Hey guys? Not so much splashing..."
Traucki is adept at shooting landscapes, and the everpresent expanse of ocean constantly reminds the viewer of the hopeless scenario the characters are in. Early on in the film, a snorkeler gazes over the edge of the reef into the deep blue abyss. The message is clear - this is not her world, and she does not want to be part of it.

One other thing The Reef shares with Black Water is that each film treats death seriously, and neither ignores the emotional toll on the survivors. Both films keep the cast confined to a few characters connected by blood or romance, and as a result the surviving characters cannot ignore their losses. As the deaths mount, you can see the burden is getting harder to bear.

Though the film has an R rating, don't expect to see much viscera on the screen. As one would expect, the injuries inflicted on our characters remain unseen below the water, though the sea does tinge red after an attack (and there is one particularly effective shot of a blood trail disappearing into the abyss). There are no imaginative kills to be found here, and those looking for thrills would be better served by Deep Blue Sea or Piranha 3D.
To say (as some have) that this is the best shark film since Jaws is overselling it, simply because the competition is so damn thin. I do feel the film is hamstrung by its paper thin characters - again the action starts about 20 minutes into the film, and by that time only 2 of the five characters have had any substantive dialogue. You don't have to be a horror veteran to figure out who the first to go will be (though, to its credit, it did have me guessing as to which, if any, of the four would make it out alive). The film worked for me because I could put myself in that situation, ask what I would do, wonder if I would have the stamina to make it (I wouldn't), but if you need deep characterization to care whether or not Suzie is eaten by a shark, the film may not have the same impact. For me, the weak characterization is The Reef's most notable black mark, but the harrowing final hour more than makes up for it.