Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan) (Mario Bava, 1960)

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A diabolical witch and her partner who were executed 200 years ago return from the grave to possess the body of her identical descendant.
COSDS-Black-Sunday00002How exactly does one begin a review on such a seminal horror classic as Black Sunday? Mario Bava’s (The Whip and the Body, Blood and Black Lace) directorial debut also serves as his masterpiece, and helped initiate his legacy as one of the greatest directors of horror films in history. Bava had of course had extensive experience prior to this influential film with a couple documentaries and shorts in addition to completing a handful of films for other directors; including Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri, which is widely considered to be the first Italian horror film. Having a hand in kickstarting a genre is certainly no small feat, and is testament to Bava’s extraordinary talent and vision.
COSDS-Black-Sunday00005Black Sunday opens with a witch trial where a group of hooded inquisitors are preparing to punish the evil witch Katia Vajda (Barbara Steele; Curse of the Crimson Altar, Castle of Blood) for being in league with the devil. Standard practice is of course to tie her to a tree and light her on fire. Witch Disposal 101, right? Fuck no. Apparently Katia was so badass in league with the Prince of Darkness that the only fitting punishment after branding her with a nice big “S” on her back is to take the Mask of Satan (an iron mask in the devil’s visage lined with nasty spikes on the inside) and literally HAMMERING it into her face as an eternal reminder of her diabolical misdeeds. Right then and there you know you’re in for a pretty wild ride as Black Sunday pulls absolutely no punches. Cut to 200 years later and Katia and Igor are resurrected and begin to prowl about as a vampires eager to possess the youth and beauty of the young Asa who lives in the castle nearby.
COSDS-Black-Sunday00008Considering it came out in 1960 the graphic violence in the film fueled much controversy, getting it banned in England until 1968. In the far more liberal US the gore was censored before it was unleashed onto audiences theatrically. Even by today’s standards the violence is inventive and quite gruesome, being filmed in black and white in addition to Bava’s brilliant cinematography skills bringing these scenes to life with an eerie realism. Gore aside, Black Sunday Is an absolute feast for the eyes from the very first frame. When I say Bava was a master cinematographer one just needs to take a look at the way his scenes are painstakingly assembled; everything is so meticulously placed – every shadow, every cobweb is completely deliberate and makes for a final product that is so far beyond what most other directors were churning out that they can’t even compare. From the long sweeping shots of the countryside to the dark gaping maw leading to the tomb of Katia Vajda, the contrast between light and dark, the creepy mist filled tombs… these elements are almost characters unto themselves; providing more atmosphere than a hundred lesser films could muster up together. The scenes where Katia is resurrecting herself in her stone coffin are absolutely brilliant, and will remain unrivaled ad infinitum. I for one couldn’t believe the grisly imagery Bava packed into these scenes while still managing to preserve their gothic feel rather than allowing them to cheapen the film. Bava’s take on the vampire mythology here is both refreshing and clever in that the vampires are dispatched via a stake to the eye (in yet another wonderfully nasty scene). There’s not a single moment in Black Sunday that doesn’t have a powerful presence. The film has a dark, gloomy, and foreboding feel to it and there is so much to take in that the film downright demands repeated viewings. Needless to say the film’s reputation is well deserved. The film has influenced countless films since its inception including the bizarre Mexican monster flick The Brainiac, the excellent Bloody Pit of Horror, and Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic abortion Bram Stoker’s Dracula which goes as far as attempting to recreate entire scenes from Bava’s masterwork.
COSDS-Black-Sunday00018It’s comes as no surprise that Barbara Steele is magnificent as both the evil witch Katia Vajda as well as her current-generation doppelgänger Princess Asa Vajda. Her ability to be completely sinister and frightening as the former and then turning around and playing the innocent young victim is tell of a talent that certainly solidifies her a place in horror history. John Richardson (One Million Years B.C., Torso) as Dr. Andre Gorobec, Andrea Checchi (Erik the Conqueror, A Bullet For the General) as his mentor Dr. Thomas Kruvajan, and Arturo Dominici (Castle of Blood, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) as Igor Javutich, Katia’s evil cohort are also equally excellent in their respective roles. Interestingly, in the Italian language version of the film it is alluded to that Katia and Igor are brother and sister thus suggesting an incestuous relationship between the two. This element is absent from the English dubbed version.
I don’t care what you’re into, what you’ve seen or haven’t seen. Black Sunday is absolutely essential viewing. The cinematography, story and performances are absolutely breathtaking. If you have even the slightest passing interest in film or not, I implore you to sit down and watch this work of genius. It will change your view on what cinema is capable of being.
Official COSDS Nunspank Rating:
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Duane co-founded The Church of Splatter-Day Saints in 2005. When not immersed in film he's enjoying good whiskey, smoking meat in the backyard or thinking about sluts. He makes a damn fine habanero fire sauce.

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