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

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