Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio)
Directed by Mario Bava.
By Rouven Linz
“I shall return to torment and destroy throughout the night of time.”
Italian director Mario Bava comes from a family deeply rooted within the Italian film industry with his father Eugenio Bava being one of the most sought after cinematographers and special effects technicians with one of his most memorable additions to the career of his son being the iron-spiked mask in Black Sunday. His son would follow in his footsteps working in the same fields and eventually completing many projects whose directors had left them incomplete such as Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (Caltiki il mostro immortale) (1959) or I vampiri two years prior, a film which would mark the first Italian horror film after the genre had officially been forbidden under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Bava would later pass on his love and passion for the medium, especially the horror and giallo genre to his son Lamberto Bava (Demons I and II).
After Mario Bava had proven his abilities in the position of second unit director, within the special effects department and as cinematographer (even though he preferred the less elitist term cameraman) Black Sunday (1960), or The Mask of Satan as was the European title of the film, was going to be his debut, a project which would have his name as sole director. As his experience in the above mentioned fields might indicate Bava had very specific ideas of how the film should look like with the narrative representing something of a hook for the visual opulence its director had planned. As author Matt Bailey states Bava was distinctly against filming in color, unlike Nello Santi, head of production company Galatea film, a visual style made popular through the successful productions of the British Hammer studios. Inspired by horror film of the Universal era of the 1930s, most of all Dracula (1931), but also Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Bava sleeked nothing less than shaping Italian horror by giving it a unique look aware of its pretexts as well as being clearly distinct from US or other European horror productions.
Black Sunday is based on a story by Russian writer Nikolaj Gogol titled Viy, but, according to Bailey, only shares a few superficial features with the film, one of which its tongue-in-cheek assertion of the story being “something passed down orally from generation to generation” imitated in the film through the use of voice-over at the beginning. As a debut it is a film whose financial constraints and revised script disappear among the confidence of Bava's vision, his visual style and sense of atmosphere, qualities which would the director's trademark in films ranging from The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Bay of Blood, Blood and Black Lace and Kill, Baby … Kill!.
On their way to a medical conference in Moscow Doctor Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Andre (John Richardson) are forced to stop at crypt near belonging to the property of the Vajda family. Driven by morbid curiosity both men start to inspect the place, especially a tomb in which they find a corpse wearing an iron mask surrounded by various crucifixes and other Christian symbols. As the doctor cuts himself on a bit of broken glass some drops of his bloods fall on the corpse whose head has been freed from the horrible mask revealing the surprisingly well-preserved face of a woman.
Meanwhile Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani) is restless, unable to calm down. His son Constantine (Enrico Olivieri) and daughter Katia (Barbara Steele) try their best in convincing him otherwise, but he remains wary of something which is about to happen. His suspicions are confirmed as he is visited by the undead Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici) who has been killed by the villagers of the nearby town as well as Vajda's ancestors for worshiping Satan and having committed incest with his sister Asa (Barbara Steele), both of whom with the spiked iron mask nailed to their heads as symbols for their sin.
Now that the mask was removed from Asa's face and she was given blood she is among the living again driven by her thirst for blood and revenge.
It is in the soil, he thinks, the air, the trees, most definitely in the shadows next to the path. Something moving perhaps, making sounds only evil can make. Why did they have to drive through here? The two doctors had paid him handsomely, he had agreed to their terms, their route carrying a foolish smile on his face reflected by the bits of silver in his hand and the vodka before him. Now, the vodka is almost empty, but he feels nothing. He feels the cold steel of fear piercing his bones, much more so than the cold surrounding him.
He wants to stop but the older doctor only laughs telling him to keep following the path. He gives him another coin before his head disappears in the carriage again. He hears booming laughter from inside, no doubt at his cost, but he does not care as long as he can make it to the next inn, somewhere nice and warm. Then, suddenly, a loud crack. The carriage sways to one side and comes to a halt. He knows what has happened, he was afraid of it, but he just could not stop himself. A wheel had gone loose, he had to fix it, he had to be fast. Being slow now could mean something more lasting than any cold.
As we see the opening minutes of Black Sunday, the horrifying torment of Asa as the iron mask is nailed to her face by a henchman and the doctors' carriage heading through the foggy Gothic landscape the footprint of Mario Bava becomes evident. Despite maintaining a particular Gothic surface, a nod to Universal horror film with their stagy, elegant set pieces, the fast-paced editing, use of music and the swift cinematography define Black Sunday as both aware of the aforementioned preceding texts of the genre but also as the work of a director following his own artistic agenda. After the brutal opening Bava's film is able to keep a constant eerie atmosphere, deceiving since its seems predictable given its known ingredients of fog, cobwebs, cemeteries and ancient castles but as events begin to unfold the only certainty is perhaps that anything can happen in a Mario Bava-film.
One example are the monsters themselves. While Asa and her brother are either vampires, Satan worshipers and/or sorcerers in black magic there is not distinct label for what kind of monster they are. As Black Sunday's script was a constant subject of change with new pages of dialogue appearing nearly each day of shooting according to Matt Bailey both of them evadea distinct genre-pattern. In addition, their ability to appear seemingly out of thin air, their unstoppable force and manic drive for revenge makes them indeed scarier, unpredictable and “not conform to natural law” ridiculing any possible scientific explanation or cure represented by the two doctors.
Considering the premise of their incest, the open sexuality of Asa luring men into her traps with her eyes these two can be understood in the more modern reading as the return of the repressed. As the Vajda family under the current leadership of the Prince has ensured to repress all traces of the curse with a portray of Asa as the sole reminder of a past no one should talk about their return re-opens the wound in the bloodline of the family, especially true considering Katia is the exact reflection of Asa (another reminder of the repressed past). Much like the descendants of the House of Usher in Edgar Allen Poe's timeless classic the past will never cease to be, will always be there even haunting those affected by the crimes of the ancestors, those would rather forget in order to finally live in peace.
Bava's insistence on the black-and-white color scheme in his film, an interesting choice for a director who would become famous for his clever, excessive use of these in future films, contributes to the creepy, yet visually attractive design of the film. With the addition of the almost-cliche settings and props each location looks out of time and place, as if the world has stopped turning in order to keep everything the way it was even though a title tells the audience about the 200 years which have passed between Asa's torment and the arrival of the two doctors in town. Especially the interiors of the Vajda property and the inn in where Kruvajan and Andre are staying over night looks as if no time has passed suggesting the long reach of Asa's curse on those who have done her wrong, or rather have failed to extinguish the evil in their midst.
Black Sunday is an impressive debut from a director who feels much at ease within the genre of horror, has a distinct visual style and knows how to establish and maintain a certain atmosphere throughout a film's narrative. In combination with a committed, exaggerated performance by SteeleBlack Sunday marks one of the cornerstones in Italian horror cinema, an event perhaps only weakened in its impact by the films Bava was about to make the following years. Nevertheless, this is a film of a director who has been waiting for a chance to practice his craft, and who is hungry for more.
1) Bailey, Matt (2013) Black Sunday.
2) Waddell, Callum (2013) Steele Crazy. Barbara Steele Remembers Bava, Black Sunday and Beyond...
3) An introduction to Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan by Mario Bava by Alan Jones (2013)