Black Sunday (1960)
It’s funny that when you think about the major studio horror productions of the 1930’s and 40’s where even the slightest thing that could be considered blasphemous would be edited or cut altogether. A great example of this would be Universal’s Frankenstein.
As the decades moved forward and we hit the 60’s censorship laws had loosened enough to start pushing the boundaries. The U.K’s Hammer productions already had this stuff covered with their take on Dracula, but when it comes to really stepping it up, you can always count on some great stuff coming out of Italy. Keeping Italy in mind, today we’re going to tackle Mario Bava’s Black Sunday AKA the Mask of Satan.
Black Sunday was released in 1960 and was written by Ennio de Concini and Mario Serandrei. Serandrei would work with Bava again three years later on the movie Black Sabbath, starring Boris Karloff.
Bava did assist in the writing and they had all originally intended to adapt the Nikolai Gogol’s 1865 story Viy. They eventually only took small elements of this tale and somehow turned it into a Vampire flick.
The story starts off in 17th century Moldavia where a princess named Asa (played by soon to be iconic scream queen Barbara Steele) is condemned to die for Satanism and Vampirism. Her assistant (although it was her brother in the original Italian cut) Javuto is also condemned and they both have spiky masks of Satan hammered into their faces. While Asa is burned alive she places a curse against her descendants
The film jumps forward 200 years and we’re introduced to the older and wiser Dr. Thomas Kurvajan and the young Dr. Andre Gorobec played by John Richardson. While traveling through the Russian countryside their carrage breaks down and they decide to go exploring. They come across an ancient crypt and rummage through it finding Asa’s grave. Everything is going fine until Dr. Kurvajan is attacked by a giant bat. It’s honestly so random. He actually pulls out a gun and shoots it but in the process is cut and of course it lands on Asa’s grave. (I like how in these vampire movies, the smallest cuts bleed like a faucet.)
Well Asa gains enough power to resurrect her servant Javuto. There is a great scene where he is rising from his grave. They set out to get revenge on their own ancestors who were the ones to condemn them. Asa also wants to become fully resurrected by taking over the body of her descendant Katia (also played by Barbara Steele) that’s basically the plot.
The interesting thing is how much of a throwback to the gothic horrors of the 1930’s and 40’s this movie feels like. The great thing about it really is how it has a nostalgic feel that those movies had, with the fog and all of the grand architecture but it has the benefit of being made in 1960. By benefit I mean the scenes take it a step beyond the older films that it emulates in terms of gore. Iconic images of Asa’s empty sockets crawling with scorpions in one scene and then maggots in another or the close-up on a man’s face while he burns in a fireplace and many more fantastic special effects really make Black Sunday Standout. Not to mention the subject of Satanism was able to be the focal point of the story.
Some awkward cues for me were a lot of oddball moments. There’s a point in the movie where Andrea is at an Inn and asks a lady for a horse so that he can get to Prince Vajda’s castle quickly and before he goes it just stops to check himself in the mirror. I always just found that hilarious. Another weird moment is when the curtain catches on fire. I know that it’s there so that they can find a secret passage by chance but it’s just so random. The last one I’ll mention that really makes me laugh is when Katia faints after seeing her father’s neck wound so Andrea picks her up and along with her brother Constantine carry her to her bed. While she is unconscious in his arms he just checks her out, noticing how beautiful she is…unconscious. The scene was probably supposed to be sweet or maybe even sexy but it comes off as pretty damn creepy to me.
The musical cues are also kind of off for me. There are plenty of moments where music is used to enhance a scene but there are others where it just seems odd. Like long reaction shots where not a lot is actually happening. Maybe they used the music to try and get those scenes to be a little more interesting. That being said during the films climax where Andrea and Javuto are fighting to the death, there is literally no music. Just a lot of awkward grunting and the sounds of scuffling. Maybe it was just the version I had.
While it does follow the same formula as a lot of other vampire films of the day it also has a lot of unique elements that really make it fun to watch. It easily could have been made in colour but the decision to keep it black and white is what made a lot of the films atmosphere and special effects possible. If you’re looking for some classic horror and you haven’t checked this one out I recommend you do so. I’ll see you next time. Thanks for reading.