BLACK SUNDAY (1960) Review


aka LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO/THE MASK OF SATAN
Directed by Mario Bava
Written by Nikolai Gogol (based on the short story “The Viy”), Ennio de Concini & Mario Serandrei(screenplay), Mario Bava & Marcello Coscia (screenplay)
Starring Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checci, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici

I can’t say that I am an expert on the work of Mario Bava, but you can’t do a witch-centric column without BLACK SUNDAY, the grandmother of all witchy films. Bava starts out this film in brutal style as the viewer is watches the tail end of a witch trial. A punishment is being enacted upon a so called witch, played by the seductive and deadly looking Barbara Steele. I know us horror fans like to categorize out terrors, but here, Bava blends witchcraft, Satanism, and vampirism all into one gorgeous villainess with Steele’s Princess Asa Vajda. Steele’s cold stare is but one of many mesmerizing aspects of this film, but without Steele’s performance, I doubt as many folks would have seen BLACK SUNDAY.

After a very brutal execution, the narrative skips to 200 years later as a traveling professor’s carriage loosens a wheel by an old cemetery. The professor manages to bumble together a perfect storm of resurrection when he battles a larger than life bat (hokey-looking, but effective), accidentally destroys the cross keeping the witch in check for all of these years, removes the mask nailing her corpse down, then cuts himself dripping blood into her scorpion infected eye sockets. Is it much of a surprise the villainess rises and seeks out her look-a-like descendant to embody her so her reign of terror can begin anew?

Though the story is somewhat hokey horror, Bava amps up the atmosphere and makes every scene ooze with fog, shadows, spires, sculptures, spooky sounds and ominous piano scores. BLACK SUNDAY is somewhat of a perfect bridge between the classic gothic horror movies of old (from Universal and even Hammer) to the more modern horror ushered in by Bava and other Italian filmmakers toward the late sixties and seventies with a more palpable sense of violence and terror. The bloody opening sequence, albeit in black and white, still packs a wallop as the executioner slams a spiked mask over the face of the witch with a large mallet. That’s a level of intensity only hinted at in FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, but one Bava doesn’t shy away from. So while this may look like a Universal film, Bava immediately lets you know this is something much more gruesome with that opening scene.

BLACK SUNDAY is a perfect example of Bava’s talents as a director. One scene in particular reeks with tension as a farm girl is milking a cow in a barn. Outside is a storm and a cemetery. The little girl hears the thunder and moves to the window. Bava follows her to the window then back again to the cow, then Bava leaves the girl to her work and returns to the window to show the same scene, but this time the dirt over the grave is lifting. It’s already been established that the girl is afraid of the dark. Now Bava shows us that there really is a reason to be afraid (even though the body when risen and the devil’s mask is taken off looks a cross between Danny Trejo and Richard Mulligan from EMPTY NEST). It’s a great little sequence that is filled with imposing chills and thrills. BLACK SUNDAY is filled with little moments of brilliance like this.

The hokey gets a bit hokier as the film progresses. Lots of faux battles with the dead, races against time, and evil leerings toward the camera. But by now, you’re sucked in by Bava’s amazing gifts behind the camera. BLACK SUNDAY doesn’t have the most thrilling story, but it looks spookily fantastic and with the eyes of Barbara Steele staring into your soul, it’s a film that sticks with you long after the credits.

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