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Black Sunday

Black Sunday

By Simon Powell • February 13th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5

Original release: August 11th, 1960
Running time: 87 minutes

Country of origin: Italy
Original language: English

Director: Mario Bava
Writers: Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei

Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi

Black Sunday

Black Sunday is a hugely important milestone in horror cinema, which launched the career of Mario Bava, and the distinctive Italian strain of the genre, both in Europe and in the US. As a film, the, at times, confusing plot is no match for the atmosphere and imagery, and it works best when viewed as an eerie, dreamlike Gothic fairy tale.

The script is, according to the opening credits, based on The Viy, a short story by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, but “inspired by” is a more accurate description, as it jettisons Gogol’s plot, but keeps the 19th century Eastern European setting, along with witches, vampirism and a gloomy atmosphere of decay.

In 17th Century Romania, a witch, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and her brother Javuto (Arturo Dominici) are sentenced to death for witchcraft. As a mask of Satan’s likeness (a striking and wonderfully crafted item) is nailed onto her face, Asa puts a curse on the descendants of the Grand Inquisitor, her estranged brother. Two hundred years later, she’s accidentally brought to life by two doctors, and sets off to carry out her vengeance on her killer’s relative, a girl to whom Asa bears a striking resemblance to.

Already an established cinematographer, Bava moved into directing almost by accident, stepping in to finish the 1956 film I Vampiri after the original director quit. Black Sunday was the first film Bava directed in its entirety, and we can already see some of the elements that would recur throughout his career, such as virtuoso camera work, atmospheric settings, violence, and a preference for visuals over plot.

Black Sunday

Visuals are definitely Bava’s strong point, and considering Black Sunday is his first as a director, it looks like a remarkably assured debut, with some highly striking and original shot compositions, some of which are so well crafted they sometimes resemble paintings. Although he made most of his films in colour, here he shows he has no problem working in black and white. Indeed, he makes a virtue of it, both to create atmosphere and suspense, by keeping things hidden and disorientating; and, by keeping things hidden; he cleverly helps mask the low budget. The lack of colour and abundance of fog also bring to mind the Gothic feel of the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s and 40s.

However, unlike those films, Black Sunday introduces a streak of violence, which at times, becomes quite sadistic, particularly in the opening scene of Asa getting branded and tortured, with the camera lingering in close-up in a way rarely seen then, and with blood spurting as the Mask is nailed onto her face. This scene was cut from the original US prints, and led to the film being banned outright in the UK for many years. The discovery of Asa’s corpse, with its empty eye sockets, is also more gruesome than audiences of the time were used to, sockets that are later refilled in a slimy and noisy manner. There are also sexual undertones, with hints of an incestuous relationship between Asa and Javuto.

The film made a star of Barbara Steele, and rightly so, as she shines in her dual role of Asa the vampiric witch and the peasant girl Katia. We don’t hear her speaking voice as the film was dubbed, the usual practise with Italian horror cinema at the time, so the success of her performance comes from her physical presence and her ability to create two distinct characters. One is as alluring, sexual, and predatory as the other is innocent, virginal and meek, the classic virgin/whore split. The passive female character isn’t so unusual in horror films, but, aside from the violence, one of the Black Sundayways Black Sunday is ground-breaking for its time is by having a female lead villain who is aggressive and monstrous, a heady mix of sex and violence. This is captured in the symbolism of Asa’s face, simultaneously alluring, and scarred and deformed from the nails in the mask hammered into her face in the opening scene. However, with a star so overpowering, the rest of the characters are forgettable, and underdeveloped, with the exception of Kruvajan, the elder of the two medical men, who is played with a likeable warmth and energy by Andrea Checchi.

The plot is a little confused at times (are Asa and Jatuvich vampires or witches? Why does one need to sap people’s life force in order to move about, while the other comes back from the grave fully formed?), but this is not to be taken as a criticism. Black Sunday isn’t a tightly plotted character study, it’s a visual feast that feeds on that uneasy, hard to define, and sometimes confusing claustrophobia of our nightmares. Cinema is uniquely placed to tap into that, something recognised nearly a hundred years ago by Harvard psychologist Hugo Munsterberg, in his essay The Photoplay. He felt the medium of film has its own unique language and techniques, distinct from other arts such as literature or theatre, and many of these, such as close ups or cutting back and forth in time, feel similar to how the unconscious inner mind works, providing a way to access it directly.

This is definitely where Bava succeeds, skilfully blending the old fairy tale tropes of evil witches and haunted fairy tales with the techniques of film to produce a nightmare. Just like a nightmare, Black Sunday is confusing at times, as characters words and deeds do not always make sense and the rules of logic and reason that work so well in the real world are all but useless here. Nevertheless, just like a nightmare, it’s overwhelming and chilling, a memorable experience that haunts our mind for a long time afterwards.

Black Sunday

Simon Powell

Simon Powell

Simon grew up on a steady diet of James Bond and Ray Harryhausen films, but has been fascinated with the horror genre since a clandestine viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager. Since then his tastes have expanded to take in classic horror from the Universal and Hammer Studios, as well as branching out into Video Nasties, Sci-Fi, Silent Comedies, Hitchcock and Woody Allen.

Apart from getting married, one of his fondest memories is buying a beer each for both Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen and Dave “Darth Vader” Prowse at a film festival, and listening to their equally fascinating stories of life at totally different levels of the industry.

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