‘Black Sunday’: A True Gothic Horror Classic

Mario Bava’s 1960 Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan), legendary Italian filmmaker’s first credited directing job, is a true gothic horror classic. While it may be full of what have become standard genre tropes—an ancient curse, love from beyond the grave, and a painting that is more alive than it should be—as Bava scholar Tim Lucas says in his commentary track, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who witnessed this during its initial theatrical release who wasn’t at least somewhat traumatized by the film.

Black Sunday combines slick camera movement, spooky aesthetics, and more sex appeal than you may expect from a 52-year-old horror flick. The stark black and white photography is stunning and crisp, especially in the new HD transfer, mastered from an archived 35mm print. This edition presents the original Italian cut of the film, which was trimmed down for its US release. More than three minutes of footage have been restored, along with Roberto Nicolosi’s haunting score.

The film opens in the 17th century, as Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici) are being tortured and burned for witchcraft and general satanic shenanigans. Black Sunday jumps around between crying witchcraft and vampire. For example, crucifixes can be used to ward off dark entities, and blood is sucked, but spells are also cast. Regardless of what you want to call them, the end result is the same, having a spiky metal mask, conveniently called a “mask of Satan”, hammered onto your face. There are also subtle intimations that incest and other nefarious carnal activities play a major role in this execution.

Before death forces her into the arms of her sweet, sweet Satan, Asa spews a bile-filled curse against her enemies. Fast-forward 200 years, and a pair of traveling doctors, Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) and Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi), inadvertently bring the dead vampire witches back to life to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting countryside. Before long the duo are waist deep in corpses, sinister mysteries and, for Andre anyway, totally in love with Katia Vajda (Steele), who is a dead ringer for Asa, as well as being a far removed descendant.

The script for Black Sunday is loosely based on a story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls). From this classical base, Bava crams his film with lurid overtones and imagery. Evil, in the guise of Steele, is presented as simultaneously repulsive and alluring. She is an object of both desire and disgust.

Much of the atmosphere and ambiance comes from Bava’s juxtaposition of light and dark. One harrowing subterranean bat attack early in the film is staged almost entirely using the manipulation of light and shadow, and clever editing techniques, rather than relying on a doll or model that would have come across hokey and unbelievable on screen. Dark forest scenes, backlit matte work, and detailed sets really set the stage for the action in Black Sunday, and sell the story to the audience.

Ultimately the romantic angle is forced and tired. Katia is a beauty to be sure, but considering that the entire relationship between her and Andre spans little more than the course of a single evening and the following day, not to mention that their connection and bond is never developed in any depth, his cries of love and desire are out of place and unearned. You can’t help but think that this is a nod to other gothic horror tales, namely Dracula, that deal with the trials and tribulations of doomed or cursed lovers.

This package delivers a sharp, striking version of Black Sunday, much better than my old, grainy VHS copy. A perfect movie to watch on a dark fall night, as Halloween crawls closer, and the wind whips the leafless branches outside, this is a spooky slice of classic horror from a master of the form.

The disc comes with the original US and international trailers, as well as a collection of previews of other Bava films. Not particularly interesting unless you’re looking for further viewing suggestions, the real selling point among the bonus features is the commentary track with Lucas. He literally wrote the book on Bava, it’s called Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, and he offers a wealth of critical insight, historical background, and anecdotes from the set and from Bava’s life and career. This audio is definitely worth listening to, especially for classic horror buffs. However, while it starts strong, as the movie progresses, there are large gaps and lapses in Lucas’ narrative. Silent for stretches, you get the feeling that you’re listening to a hardcore fan getting sucked into one of his favorite films from time to time.

RATING 7 / 10