Black Sunday (1960)
Directed by Mario Bava
Starring Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Enrico Olivieri, Antonia Pierfederici, Tino Bianchi
Once you start to wander down the path of Italian horror cinema, there is one director that is a must for you to seek out. While I know quite a few fans start out with Dario Argento, which is a great place to start, but you mustn’t stop there, but go further back. Back to 1960 when the film Black Sunday was released. There are many titles that are considered ‘classics’, but director Mario Bava’s tale of witchcraft, Satanism, and revenge, is one of the best examples of black and white horror cinema, or really horror cinema in general.
For his first official directorial debut, Bava loosely based his film on the Russian story Vij by Nicolai Gogol, giving us a simple story of an ancestral evil that threatens its descendants. With it, he gives us one of the most beautifuly shot and choreographed films in cinematic history. While color horror films were sweeping the theaters, mainly due to Hammer in England, Bava shot this one in black and white and showed audiences that you can still paint an amazing product by just using those two colors. He not only shows us a wonderfully dark gallery of images, some that stick with you long after the credits finish, but also gave us some glorious and innovative shots with the camera. From long panning shots, to incredible glass matt paintings, to an array of techniques, Bava’s work immediately started to inspire filmmakers then, and still does today. In the beginning of the film, there is a 360 degree camera pan, showing the entire set, letting the ambiance and atmosphere seep into the eyes of the viewer. This really is a film that one can watch over and over again and still be in awe of the beauty and talent on display here.
Probably one of the most famous sequences is right in the beginning, that must have had one hell of an effect on the audiences back then, and still even packs a good punch today. We witness Asa, accused of being a witch and consorting with the Satan, being branded with the mark of Satan on her back, as the camera dwells upon the burn. After being sentenced for her crimes, she lays a curse upon her brother, swearing to wreak vengeance on his family for centuries to come. Then they bring out the famous spiked iron mask to cover her face, slowly moving towards the camera as if it is going to cover our own face, seeing the close up images of the huge spikes inside the mask. Once it’s in place on Asa’s face, we see a huge man with an even bigger mallet come forth to smash it onto her head with one powerful swing, as blood and screams bursts out from behind the mask. Strong stuff, folks.
In a little bit of trivia, the masks were made by Bava’s father, who was a sculptor. He also sculpted the decomposed face of Asa once the mask is taken off. Mario was a painter before getting into filmmaking and this movie is a perfect example of how he used film to continue to paint such beautiful shots up on the screen. Speaking of the mask, the actual title of the film was La Maschera del Demonio, the literally translation being Mask of the Devil. When American International Pictures (AIP) picked up the film for U.S. distribution, they cut it, changed the music and re-titled it to its most common name now, Black Sunday.
The 23-year old Barbara Steele, in her first starring role, plays the dual roles of the cursed witch/devil worshipping Asa and her descendent Katia. With a young face just perfect for this role, giving viewers something to be entranced by, both in passion and in fear. Even seeing her punctured skin, with eyes seemingly bulging out, she put the audience in a daze. Steele would continue with her roles in the horror genre, making a huge name for herself, but not without a cost. She would later regret it and was even quoted in saying, “I never want to climb out of another fucking coffin again!” Though she might have been upset by her career choices, fans of those gothic films were just loving it. Over her career, she worked with some of the top directors from the genre, such as Mario Bava, Ricardo Freda, Michael Reeves, David Cronenberg, Joe Dante, Jonathon Demme, Antonio Margheriti, Lucio Fulci, and Roger Corman. Whether she was happy for her genre roles or not, horror fans were very happy for them.
Another familiar face in the cast was John Richardson. He would make a big name for himself battling dinosaurs while trying to save Raquel Welch in Hammer’s One Million Years B.C. (1966), as well as She (1965) and its sequel The Vengeance of She (1968). But he also came back to Italy to make a few other films like cheesy Frankenstein 80 (1972), Torso (1973), Eyeball (1975), and even Michele Soavi’s The Church (1989), making his last film appearance before becoming a photographer.
Black Sunday is probably one of the most impressive debuts for a director, though rumors say he had un-officially directed a film or two before this one. None the less, it is a film that still makes an impact today, and is one that film scholars teach about, horror fans drool over, and one that will still be having that effect many years to come. This is one of those classics that not only is a must for every horror fan out there, but one that needs to be watched over and over again.