Title: Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan) (1960)
Director: Mario Bava
Stars: Barbara Steele
Black Sunday was Mario Bava’s official directorial debut. He’d worked as a director in a couple of films before he made Black Sunday, but they were never His films. He started working on these pre-Black Sunday films as a cinematographer, but most of the time he ended up directing the films himself because the original director would abandon the project for whatever reason. He ended up half directing four films this way, among them the vampire movie I Vampiri (1956). Bava did such great work on these that he was given the chance to direct his first official film. It ended up being the gothic masterpiece Black Sunday. So, how did Bava do on his first film as a full fledged director?
The story for Black Sunday is centered on an evil witch/vampire named Asa. She and her brother Javutich are 100% Satan worshippers. They love the guy and are more then willing to bring you into their own Satan worshipping club. Problem is that the catholic inquisitors aren’t okay with that so they capture Asa and her brother Javutich and prepare to burn them at the stake! But before they do this, they hammer a mask on to their faces that has spikes inside of it! Then they bury her and her brother in a special tomb so that they can’t ever escape. Fast forward 200 years later, and two curious passers by stumble upon both graves while traveling through the woods. Will the evil witch and her brother be released from their slumber? Will Asa and Javutich execute their long awaited revenge?
First off, I have to say that this film has one of the most awesome opening sequences on any movie, EVER! Seriously, if any more horror coolness could be jam packed into those first fifteen minutes; my DVD player would have burst into satanic flames! I loved that whole sequence where they are about to burn Asa and Javutich alive! It’s all about the spooky looking woods, the dialog coming from the evil witch and the equally evil looking catholic inquisitors! I mean, these guys are supposed to work for the church right? But they look so evil dressed in these black robes with hoods over their faces! The good thing about this opening sequence is that it immediately lets you know what kind of film you are up for! If you cant take these first fifteen, you are in the wrong movie my friend!
Its fairly obvious that Mario Bava was trying to do his own version of Dracula, because this film feels very much like Universals Dracula. Switch Barbara Steele with Lugosi and you’ll see they are pretty much the same movie story wise. Not style wise because Bava’s film is so much richer in that sense then anything Universal ever cooked up, with the possible exception of Bride of Frankenstein, Universal best monster movie in my opinion. There are of course a couple of things that make Black Sunday different from any Universal or Hammer film. Number one, when you watch a film like Black Sunday it doesn’t feel as silly as the old Universal Studios Monster sometimes did. No matter how many times I watch those old Universal Monster movies, I can’t help to notice how silly they can be, specially when it came to its more watered down sequels like Daughter of Dracula. Its like they werent even trying to be scary. Bava’s Black Sunday does have its fair amount of cheesiness (that giant vampire bat was the only thing that tainted the movie for me) but it has this serious tone to it, its not softening the horror elements like Universal Monster movies did. Bava’s Black Sunday is trying to scare you, it deliberately amps up the horror element as far as they could take it. Well, at least for the 1950-60s. This movie must have been so shocking to audiences back in those days! One look at the first 15 minutes of Black Sunday and you know this film isn’t playing around. When that mask gets hammered onto Asa’s face, you know this film isn’t playing games. Another scene that I found absolutely terrifying was Javutich’s resurrection! Awesome in deed! Kind of makes you wish they made movies like this again.
Something I greatly admire about these old school Mario Bava horror films is the genuine artistry involved in them. I have seen my fare share of Hammer Films and I couldn’t help but notice how some of the sets are obviously sets. I mean, you can tell they are made out of wood. This is not something that either Black Sunday or Black Sabbath suffer from. The sets look so solid, so realistic. If you see a fireplace Black Sunday it won’t be just any old fireplace, you can bet your ass it’s going to have some cool looking stone gargoyles engraved around it or something. The cobble stones look like cobble stones, the dungeons look like they are really made of ancient stone. I mean, I loved that about this movie. There’s a real effort to make these sets look freaking awesome. Your eyes will just eat it up if you appreciate this sort of thing in a movie. It makes the illusion that much more real to me. Art direction in Black Sunday was top notch.
I really admired how much of the story Bava can tell without any dialog whatsoever. He showed complete control over his story telling abilities, and this was his first official film! I was amazed at all these sequences that were moving along without a single line of dialog being spoken. Yet the intensity, the suspense and the horror of the moment were left intact, or at times even augmented by the use of sound effects and the music. My hats down to Bava for doing this so well. Conjuring up these frightful images and moments and marrying sight and sound so well made this one of the best horror films I have ever seen. This of course speaks volumes of Bava’s inherit ability to tell stories. They guy can really weave an interesting yarn that’s for sure. There are some moments on this film where you could just taste the fear and the suspense. The supernatural is made so real in this movie! There is one scene where one of the main characters is following a ghost, but he doesn’t know it’s a ghost…until he reaches the ending of the tunnel. Wow, what a spooky scene!
I cant go without saying something about Barbara Steele’s awesome performance as with Asa. Steele didn’t have this goody little two shoes look to her, she had a mean look to her and was perfect for playing villains in films. Its all in that look, that stare! I have to salute her here because she plays two diametrically opposing roles. One is the evil with/vampire Asa, and the other is the good natured descendant of Asa. She has a strange kind of beauty to her and well, was perfectly cast in this movie. According to Bava she wasn’t easy to work with, but he stuck with her because she really does look the part.
This film has been so influential on lots of modern day directors. While watching it, one can immediately see where Sleepy Hollow came from. When you see Sleepy Hollow’s horse carriage sequences in the woods; the scenes where Ichabod Crane’s witch mother is placed in the Iron Maiden by her religious zealot father one thing becomes abundantly clear: Tim Burton definitely saw Black Sunday quite a few times before making Sleepy Hollow. Its no surprise Burton has been quoted as saying that Black Sunday is his favorite horror film. Can’t say I blame him. If there’s one bad thing I can say about the movie is that at one point it suddenly becomes a love story, and it looses its horror vibe. But this interim doesn’t last very long. We get right back on the horror band wagon and things move along excellently. Another thing I found a bit off is that at times, specially during the films last frames, it felt like some scenes needed to have a musical score in them but didn’t. Something was missing in there, specially during some fighting sequences. These are really the only reasons why I didnt give this movie a perfect score.
Black Sunday was a huge success when it was released in Italy and in the United States. This film was such a huge hit in the United States that it became American International Picure’s biggest money maker ever! Even though they had edited about three minutes of gore and dialog! The version I saw was unedited, it had all the gooey blood and satanic dialog that Bava originally intended it to have, so of course I was having a blast while watching it. Any horror fan that hasn’t seen this film yet should make it a top priority. To me both Black Sabbath and Black Sunday are the best representations of what a good Italian Horror film is, and I have seen a lot of Italian horror films! This is a master at work here; don’t miss it!
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5
Spanish release poster. The title translates to "The Mask of the Demon"