Black Sunday (1960)
By: Julian on July 21, 2009  | 
Umbrella (Australia), Region 4, PAL. 1.66:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 87 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Mario Bava
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
I'm not a big Mario Bava fan. Of the admittedly limited exposure I've had of him with material like Twitch of the Death Nerve, Kill Baby... Kill! and Baron Blood, I've been pretty consistently disappointed – Bava is incredibly adept at generating a brooding, Gothic mood but at dire expense of story. And I'm not talking a few acceptable concessions – Bava makes Argento look like a pedant for logical plot. Black Sunday is probably the most extreme example of Bava's strengths and weaknesses as a director – he's a totally incompetent storyteller but an incredible visual stylist, creating some unbelievable set-pieces in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, imbued in a completely incoherently told plot.

Titled La maschera del demonio ("The Mask of Satan", which is the title the film goes by in the opening credits) in its native Italy, Black Sunday begins with a good old bit of witch-burning. It's 1630, in the eastern European princiapality of Moldavia, where Princess Asa (Barbara Steele) and her lover Javuto are sentenced to death for witchcraft and vampirism. In one of the movie's most shocking scenes, and one that's still pretty grim today, Asa's head is forced into an Iron Maiden, which is smashed into place by a sledgehammer. She is buried in a crypt beneath a chapel and a cross is erected above her coffin. As long as the cross remains looking over her corpse, Asa can never return.

Fast forward two hundred years, and Dr Kruvajan and his assistant Dr Gorovek are passing through the area to get to a medical conference in Moscow when their carriage is damaged and requires repair. Leaving the driver to take care of it, Dr Kruvajan and Dr Gorovek investigate the surroundings and come across the chapel under which Asa was entombed. After a gripping duel with a rogue bat, Dr Kruvajan smashes the cross and cuts his hand, doing two things: a), a drop of blood falls on Asa, allowing her to return to life and b), the absence of the cross enables her to return above-ground and summon her old boyfriend to do some dirty work.

The two doctors meet Princess Katia (also played by Steele), who lives in a nearby castle with her brother and father. She tells the story of unusual happenings that take place every century that have led generations of villagers to believe the place is haunted. Kruvajan and Gorovek pay little mind, but none of them realise that Asa is about to exact her revenge on those who killed her, intending to possess Princess Katia (a distant descendant and lookalike) and use the good doctors and her newly-risen vampiric servant-cum-lover as a means to the end.

Black Sunday's screenplay, written by Ennio De Concini (Four of the Apocalypse), Mario Serandrei and Bava, was an adaptation of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol's 1835 short story Viy. The similarities between the story and the script are very vague ones though, basically beginning and ending with the reincarnation of a long-dead witch who's now out for revenge. The film was quite successful in Italy, recouping the majority of its production costs of around US$100,000 during its national release in August. However, it was a mainstay on the Grindhouse and drive-in circuit after Samuel Z Arkoff picked it up to play second fiddle on some AIP double-bills. It was cut down severely for its American run, which began in February 1961, but introduced Bava and his brand of Gothic horror cinema to the B-movie crowds in the States – Arkoff would later give Baron Blood similar treatment, and films like Blood and Black Lace and Twitch of the Death Nerve did exceptionally well on the Deuce.

There's no doubting the influence of Black Sunday on modern horror and it established Bava as a phenomenally talented visual stylist. A cinematographer since the 1940s, Bava was peerless at creating the sort of Gothic atmosphere that he claimed as his own with films such as this, Kill Baby... Kill! and Baron Blood. But like those two movies, Bava has virtually negligible grip on story. To compare those two films and this one, which are structurally similar, Bava starts off strong; the plot then wanders, then meanders aimlessly, then is lost, then is scrapped after about an hour. We're expected to be content with Bava's command of the screen, dazzling to a point, but age has rendered it tedious in great doses.

In any case, Black Sunday's legacy cannot be disputed – one only needs to look at the broody Gothic horror of Hammer, Amicus, Roger Corman and Tim Burton, among many, many others, to see Bava's influence. Critically, it's also been revered. Black Sunday is certainly an important film and visually it's quite remarkable, but it can be so incoherent not even Bava's technical hand can save it.
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement. It looks pretty good for a film of its age and calibre.
One English audio track, presented in Dolby 2.0. The dubbing is pretty appalling though, after a complete language re-recording was done at Arkoff and AIP co-chief James H Nicholson's request. This English language version actually censors certain plot points, including the fact that Asa and Javuto are siblings and maintained an incestuous relationship.

The music of Black Sunday was also redone after Roberto Nicolosi's score was deemed unacceptable, and Les Baxter recorded the replacement. Baxter drew certain elements from Nicolosi's score, and he went on to compose the music for a number of Italian and American B-horror movies.
Extra Features
Not a great deal – biographies and filmographies for Bava and Steele, a gallery and theatrical trailers for this and other Bava films in the Umbrella catalogue. For fans, there is a terrific R0 2-disc release in Italy, but perhaps more accessible is the R1 Anchor Bay, found in the 5-disc "Mario Bava Collection (Volume 1)".
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Long on style, non-existent on substance, Black Sunday isn't, all in all, a terribly good film. It's clear why Bava is such a well-lauded horror filmmaker and at creating a certain atmosphere he can't be beat. I don't mind a film that has style over substance (case in point: Argento's tremendous gialli), but there has to be some proportion – for one to almost totally outweigh the other just doesn't translate to good entertainment.

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