October 1, 2014

Movie Review: Black Sunday (1960)

As I have said before, and will likely repeat for a long time, I was very late getting into the deep end of the horror genre. Even having dived in head first, there is a lot of ground to cover and I am not likely to ever fully catch up to where I should be had I gotten in at a more logical age. With that said, one of the directors with whom I have had very little experience is Mario Bava. It is a name I here time and again when it comes to quality horror fare with an eye for the artistic. I figured I should probably watch some of his films. To that end, I have dove in and watched Black Sunday, also known as Mask of the Devil.

While the story does not feel exactly new, it is not really the originality of the tale that makes it work so well. And when I say it works well, believe me. Black Sunday is a gorgeous film filled with haunting atmosphere the will send chills up your spine. This is what gothic horror is all about, foreboding castles, creepy crypts, spooky forests, and evil vampire witches. It is classic Universal horror funneled through Russian inspiration with Italian sensibilities (the tale is a loose adaptation of Gogol's short story “Viy”).

As the movie opens, we witness the execution of a witch, Asa (Barbara Steele), and her lover, Javuto (Arturo Dominici). Also, it just so happens that the executioner is her brother. That family has some issues, don't you think? Anyway, as the executioners go to affix a mask with a bunch of spikes on the inside to her face, she swears to have revenge on her brother's descendants. They are killed and buried and the movie jumps forward two centuries.

We pick up with a doctor, Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi), and his assistant, Gorobec (John Richardson), as they travel to a conference. As they ride their coach through the spooky forest, a loose wheel causes them to stop. While waiting for the coachman to fix it, they take a look inside an old crypt where they find Asa's tomb. Kruvajan explains why there is a window into the casket, and then accidentally breaks everything open, cutting himself in the process. It turns out this is all you need to resurrect a witch.

Conveniently, they run into Katja (also Barbara Steele) who tells them that she lives in a nearby haunted castle with her brother and father. Well, not to bore you with the details or rather, I will leave you to discover them for yourself. Just trust me when I tell you that you will want to watch it.

Black Sunday was the first official directorial credit for Mario Bava, after stepping in to save some troubled productions where he had been working as cinematographer. Well, he really showed the world what he was made of with this film. Each frame is a gorgeous photograph on its own, the way the camera moves, the lighting, the use of the black and white, is simply atmospheric and beautiful. To top that, Barbara Steele, making her first lead role, makes an impression, she is creepy and beautiful at the same time. It is a sight to behold.

Highly Recommended.

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