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Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 14 December 1999

Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan)

Image Entertainment
MPAA rating: NR
starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Ivo Garrani, Andrea Checchi, Arturo Dominici, Antonio Pierfederici, Tino Bianchi
release year: 1960
film rating: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Although the title on screen is "The Mask of Satan," this Italian horror film is best known under its original American title, BLACK SUNDAY, and that's the title on the DVD box as well. Moody, atmospheric, sexy and violent, it established the 46-year-old Mario Bava, a cameraman and effects technician, as one of the great horror directors. This DVD is the second in the Image "Mario Bava Collection;" the intention is to present the most complete version of each of Bava's principal films (all of which were cut for American theatrical release), with notes and other supplementary material entrusted to the reliable Tim Lucas, editor of the essential Video Watchdog magazine, and author of a forthcoming book on Mario Bava.

Classic horror films, more than almost any other genre, are defined by their style and approach, not by the story content -- not only because quite a few horror classics are remakes of other horror classics, or otherwise tell familiar stories. So it is with BLACK SUNDAY; there's not very much new in the screenplay by Ennio de Concini and Mario Serandrei, which was loosely based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol.

In 17th century Moldavia, an evil witch/vampire (the film can't seem to make up its mind), Princess Asa (Barbara Steele), is tied to a stake and a spiked bronze mask hammered onto her face. Two centuries later, on their way to a convention, Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) and Dr. Tomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) happen upon Asa's tomb. Kruvajan accidentally drops blood into the empty eye sockets of Asa's face, preserved under the bronze mask, and unknown to them, the witch awakens.

She needs to seize control of the body of her look-alike descendant, Princess Katia (also Steele), and uses her resurrected companion (Arturo Domnici) in her demonic quest for life and power. When Katia's father (Ivo Garrani) and Kruvajan fall victim to Asa, Gorobec, who's fallen in love with Katia, takes a hand.

Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA was a big hit in Italy, a country with almost no horror tradition, prompting production of this film, which often looks like a blending of the styles and themes of the Hammer Horror and the 1930s-40s Universal classics. But it's also entirely Mario Bava's, and one of the most beautiful horror movies ever made; only a handful of films like THE INNOCENTS, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE are more handsome black-and-white horror. Drenched in atmosphere, photographed brilliantly by Ubaldo Terzano, with effects by director Bava himself, BLACK SUNDAY is the absolute realization of a structured nightmare.

The classical opening, of "modern" (early 19th century) outsiders happening upon a sleeping ancient evil, takes place amidst the ruins of a dusty ancient castle, deep in shadows, haunted by killer bats. The stones have a texture so well-rendered its almost tangible; the gothic arches of the tomb frame glowing crypts.

Sometimes in slow motion, coaches thunder through almost surreal forests that reach out at the drivers and passengers. Graveyards are dimensionless, fading off into the fog, which sometimes slithers over the floor of a forest. The movie was shot almost entirely on sound stages, and does have a theatrical look, but that only adds to the baroque beauty of BLACK SUNDAY.

Bava uses sleek camera moves -- there's a bravura 360-degree shot when Richardson and Cecchi first arrive in Asa's tomb -- like drifting thoughts, and employs simple but effective lighting tricks for appearances and disappearances of the vampires. There's a startling shot in which the camera turns over as it passes a prone body. Even the sound is imaginatively done; after Asa's coffin literally blows apart, she drags her fingers along the shattered sides, and you hear only a tiny, distant scraping, as of rat claws within stone walls.

The movie is also memorably gruesome, but in a distinctive way, and the gruesomeness mostly centers on the revival of Asa. (This edition includes a few gruesome shots cut from the original American release.) When the bronze mask is removed, it reveals her face, mostly intact, but perforated by the mask's spikes, and with vast black cavities where the eyes had been. Spiders, scorpions and other vermin scuttle out of the sockets, into which blood soon drops. And later the blank eyes well up in the sockets as the witch revives. Absolutely nothing remotely like this had been seen in movies before.

And nothing like Barbara Steele had been seen before, with her pale face, cloud of black hair, and vast, dark eyes. Her Princess Katia is conventional enough, though she mostly wears black, unusual for a horror heroine. It's Asa who's the stunner, and which made Steele into the most famous female horror star ever. There's an avidity, a lustfulness to Asa that was utterly unheard of in 1960 and which is still disturbing today. Steele's performance as Asa is literally timeless, sexy and horrifying at once.

Image has given BLACK SUNDAY the jewel-like setting this black pearl of a movie fully deserves. Lucas' notes and his commentary fill out the background of the actors, describe how some effects were done, and in general provide virtually everything you'd want to know about the movie. (Technically, though, there's a slight problem: instead of bringing the soundtrack up when Lucas isn't talking, it continues at a low level through these pauses, which has the effect of making the pauses seem much longer.) His biography of Bava is also thorough, and the notes on the box itself are informative without repeating much from the other material.

Image has set a very high standard for themselves with this initial release in the Mario Bava Collection; I hope they live up to it.

more details
sound format:
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Extras include liner notes, biography of director Mario Bava, and audio commentary by Bava expert Tim Lucas
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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