Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Black Sunday (1960)

Much like Kurosawa, Mario Bava made his early reputation by ghost-directing films for more prominent directors. He started as a cameraman and director of photography. His first major directing jobs came when he directed part of Hercules (1957) and most of Hercules Unchained (1958).  Riccardo Freda tricked Bava into taking over directing duties on Caltiki the Immortal Monster, and the producer rewarded Bava's good work by allowing him to choose his own film for his official directorial debut. That story became The Mask of Satan, better known by the American-International Pictures release title of Black Sunday.

I grew up watching horror and science-fiction movies on TV. I was well-versed with the standards shown in late-night and Saturday afternoons. Black-and white Universal monster films, giant bug movies of the 50's, the color Poe films that Roger Corman made for AIP -- it was a rare treat to catch one of those -- Godzilla (of course) and even the oeuvre of Edward D. Wood, Jr. It wasn't until I discovered a copy of Cult Movies Magazine (either # 5 or 6) in a bookstore around 1991 that I really started reading about and studying this strange and wonderful world of movies outside the mainstream, and that included learning about the works of Mario Bava.

It's surprising just how prolific Bava was. In addition to Black Sunday, highlights of his directing career would include Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), Black Sabbath (1963), the first true Italian giallo Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965), Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966), Danger: Diabolik (1968), and Baron Blood (1972). The filmography on the DVD suggests that the full extent of his fill-in work still continues to be discovered.

Black Sunday answers the age-old question: If you are a doctor, a professional, and you know that the coffin that you find in a crypt has a window on it so that the corpse will forever see the stone cross standing above it, do you just leave the coffin alone if you accidentally break the cross? What if you reach into the coffin to pull off the mask that has been hammered onto the face and, in doing so, you leave behind enough blood on the broken glass to bring the corpse back to life?

Bava intended to film Nikolai Gogol's story "The Vij", but little remains of the original story. Instead we have family curses, cobwebbed castle corridors, villagers with torches and pitchforks, and witches brought back to life, acting more like traditional vampires. Instead of a stake through the heart, they get a stake in the eye!

The atmosphere of the film is a mix of the Universal Monster and the British Hammer movies: lots of old, dark castle and crypt scenes with unexpected gore. It's a bit of a surprise to see a spiked mask hammered onto the face of a witch (with the resulting blood spurts), or tiny scorpions crawling out of a corpse's empty eye sockets. Tame by today's standards, but shocking enough to be trimmed from the AIP release (and you couldn't use "Satan" in the title, either). Bava's familiarity with the camera is on display here. Even at this early point in his career the shots are composed beautifully, and there is a great 360-degree pan around the crypt in the ruined chapel.

This is the film that started Barbara Steele's career in horror films. She's quite popular as the first real "Scream Queen" of horror movies, but I must admit that I'm not that familiar with her work other than The Pit and the Pendulum.

I watched Image's 1999 DVD release of the original Italian director's cut with English dubbing. It includes three pages of liner notes and an audio commentary by Video Watchdog Magazine's Tim Lucas, who is the foremost authority on Bava and literally wrote the book on him.

Update: Kino Lorber released a new edition of this film on DVD and Blu-ray in September 2012.

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