[To help get you into the spooky spirit this October, the Daily Dead team thought it would be a great idea to spotlight some of our favorite witchcraft movies that just might cast a spell on you and make your Halloween season a "hexcellent" one!]
Alfred Hitchcock brought horror up to date and out of the shadows in 1960 with Psycho; he was more interested in the monster within than nuclear ogres or the realm of the supernatural. The same year, however, saw the solo directorial debut of Italian cinematographer Mario Bava, who showed with Black Sunday that he was very much interested in the supernatural. And the shadows.
Black Sunday was originally titled La Maschera Del Demonio (The Mask of Satan) in Bava’s homeland. An acquisition by American International Pictures for stateside release resulted in three minutes of trimming for excessive violence, a new score by Les Baxter (The Dunwich Horror) to replace Roberto Nicolosi's (Black Sabbath) elegant work, and a complete English redubbing even though the original production company Galatea provided one. The Mask of Satan proved to be a big hit back home, and the newly minted AIP-titled Black Sunday was as well, and, in a shocking turn of events, was received warmly by critics.
Perhaps not as warm as Princess Asa (Barbara Steele, listed without that last "e" in the credits) is feeling as the film opens; it’s 1630 in Moldavia, she’s a witch, and she’s branded on her back with an ‘S’ for Satan before having a nail-laden mask bloodily adhered to her face by one cloaked hangman and his oversized mallet. The same fate is doled out to her lover (in the original version, he’s her lover and brother), Javuto (Arturo Dominici). He is then buried in the criminal’s graveyard, and she is entombed in the family mausoleum. Oh, I almost forgot to mention before this occurs, she curses her brother (not the one she’s boffing) and all his descendants, promising to return one day to wreak vengeance upon them. (But you kind of assumed that anyway, didn’t you?)
200 years later, the horse-drawn carriage of Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) and Kruvajan (Andrea Checci) is passing through Moldavia when they lose a wheel in the graveyard. As their driver makes repairs, the duo wanders through the graveyard and down into the tomb that holds Asa, accidentally shattering her glass coffin while shooting at a wayward bat. A couple drops of Kruvajan’s blood falls on her pin-cushioned face (the docs have removed her mask) as they head back to the surface; it is here that they meet the stunning Princess Katia (also Steele), and the younger Dr. Gorobec is instantly smitten.
Meanwhile, back in the crypt, Asa slowly regains her powers, commands Javuto to rise from the grave and help see through her resurrection into the body of… Katia, who comes from her brother’s bloodline. Will Gorobec and Kruvajan be able to stop Asa’s insidious plan before it comes to its evil fruition?
It isn’t hard to imagine Black Sunday reverberating as it did upon release; steeped in inescapable atmosphere, it manages to rise above hoary clichés to arrive at a unique mixture of past and present. The story has an unapologetic Gothic bent that owes a lot storywise to the (even by then) classic Universal tales; if we weren’t explicitly informed it is about witchcraft, we’d be looking at every frame for fangs. Vampire iconography abounds; crosses are bad news, as is fire. Having said that, townsfolk with pitchforks and torches also pop by, so maybe we should be on the lookout for lab equipment as well. The point being, Bava was clearly very fond of monster movies growing up, and was stoked by the tropes that fueled those features.
The prominence and looser onscreen morals of Hammer films play a part as well. Black Sunday is quite violent for the time, with eye gouging, bodies and faces grotesquely aflame in a fireplace, and Asa’s facial aerating among the ghoulish highlights. Rarely has such depravity been so lovingly displayed.
The twisted eye of Bava is clearly in charge from the start. Already a seasoned cinematographer by this time, he frames every black and white shot as if they were a lobby card to be mesmerized by while waiting for the feature to begin. This is where he also displays his love of Universal and James Whale, but with a stronger sense of composition. Ignoring the Technicolor bleeding of Hammer, he luxuriates in the stark fog blankets and gnarled trees, the sense of clear foreboding that seems to play better in monochrome. Even if you roll your eyes at the antiquated storyline, you can’t deny its beauty.
But Black Sunday is about mood and the contrivances are merely a line to pin his pictures on. He works hard to move them along, and with a tight 87 minutes (83 stateside—boo), there isn’t too much time to ponder any inconsistencies, nor frankly care. The spell Bava weaves is instantaneous and holds from first frame to last; any shortcomings become peripheral fodder for those not in tune with Bava’s wavelength.
So, is Black Sunday a case of style over substance? Well, there’s as much adherence to story as any Universal monster movie; what you bring to it will depend on your worldview. As seen through the persecuted eyes of Asa, the patriarchy has kept her down and seemingly stomped her out, but with her witchcraft, she is able to rise again and get her comeuppance against those who wronged her. Sure, she has to wait 200 years, but patience has no expiry date for the damned. It really can’t be seen as a stand of solidarity as would become the norm in future witchery. Asa is alone, with no coven to rise with, only her servant Javuto and her eternal service to Satan helping her on her journey. There is resistance against oppression, nevertheless.
This may come across as a “sympathy for the devil” kind of gesture, but it really isn’t; it’s just that Steele is so alluring, powerful, and seductive as Asa that it’s hard not to feel some sort of connection to her. Even more so with her kind and defiant portrayal of Katia, although by the end her character has succumbed to the very tropes necessary to wrap things up. Either way, the film simply does not work without Steele, her hypnotic gaze, bewitching smile, flowing black gown, and complete submersion in Gothic aesthetics.
Black Sunday is a rarity not only among horror films, but cinema in general: a debut feature that shows a filmmaker with a fully formed vision, ready to share with the world and inspire countless others to do the same. Whatever potions Bava blended together, it worked.