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BLACK SUNDAY
(Mario Bava)

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Andrea Checchi
Director: Mario Bava
Audio: English (dubbed) mono
Subtitles: None
Video: Black & white, widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: Image
Features: Commentary, Bava biography, filmographies, photo and poster gallery, essay
Length: 87 minutes
Release Date: December 14, 1999

"Come, kiss me; my lips will transform you.  You will be dead to men, but you will be alive in death."

Film *** 1/2

Before 1960, horror films generally came in two styles.  There was the classic Universal style, with its gothic romance overtures and expressionistic, black & white cinematography.  Then, there was the new Hammer style, with its splashy colors, overt sexuality, and healthy dose of blood and violence.  However, in the 1960's, an Italian director, Mario Bava, began to merge the two styles together.  In the process, he revolutionized the European horror film industry and successfully introduced a new style of Italian horror film.

Mario Bava was not originally a director, though.  During his early years in the Italian film industry, he was content to hone his skills as a cinematographer.  His visual talent attracted the attention of several prominent European directors of the day, including Roberto Rossellini and G.W. Pabst, who recruited him as their director of photography.  By the mid-1950's, Bava was also directing small portions of such films as I Vampiri (1956) and Hercules (1957) in addition to serving as cinematographer.  His big break came during production of Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959).  Director Riccardo Freda deliberately abandoned the film after just two days, forcing Bava to complete the film for him.  As a result, Caltiki's grateful production company rewarded him with his choice of any film for his solo directorial debut.  Bava chose to loosely adapt a Russian ghost story, The Vij (1835), by Nokolai Gogol, and the result was 1960's La maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan).

The following year, representatives from AIP (American International Pictures) came across a print of this remarkable film.  At the time, AIP, along with Hammer and Amicus, was among the leading international distributors of horror films.  The AIP representatives were very impressed by the visual style of Bava's film, which harkened back to the glory days of the old Universal horror films while adding a contemporary Hammer dash of violence and sensuality.  AIP quickly bought distribution rights for the film, and Bava re-submitted an English cut of his film, which AIP subsequently re-dubbed, re-scored, and re-named for an American release as Black Sunday.  AIP had deemed Bava's cut as too erotic and disturbing for American audiences and so had trimmed roughly three minutes' worth of film.  In spite of its missing footage, American audiences were none the wiser, and Black Sunday easily became AIP's biggest success at the time.  British audiences, on the other hand, were denied access to this film altogether, as the British censors had completely banned the film (for eight years) due to its disturbing images!

Despite Black Sunday's success, Bava's original cut (The Mask of Satan) has never been seen in America...until recently.  Thanks to Image Entertainment, Black Sunday is now featured as part of the Mario Bava Collection on DVD.  Don't let the title fool you, however - this version is actually Mario Bava's original cut with the missing footage restored!  As such, it should be a great treat to all fans of the horror genre!

Black Sunday starred Barbara Steele as the film's villainess...and its heroine!  From different camera angles, her facial features could appear equally beautiful or ugly.  She could be sensual or sinister, simultaneously!  For this reason, she was well-suited to her dual roles in Bava's film.  Black Sunday catapulted Steele to international stardom, and afterwards she appeared in the films of several high-profile directors, often bringing an exciting, exotic allure to her film roles.  Over the years, those directors included the likes of Louis Malle, Jonathan Demme, David Cronenberg, and even Frederico Fellini, who featured her in his masterpiece 8 1/2.  Since the majority of Steele's films tended to be of the horror variety, she quickly became known as the "Queen of Horror."

Black Sunday has a lot to do with Steele's reputation.  The film's fantastic opening sequence, a gory seventeenth-century execution of a witch and a warlock, leaves an indelible image of Barbara Steele on the minds of viewing audiences.  Steele plays Princess Asa Vajda, a woman condemned for devil worship along with Prince Igor Javutich (Dominici), a mysterious nobleman and her lover.  It is unclear exactly as to the precise evil nature of Princess Asa; she is alternately referred to as a witch, devil worshiper, or a vampiress throughout the film.  The same applies to Javutich (Dominici), who in addition is a bit zombie-like as well.  There are some suggestions that Javutich is Asa's first brother, so one must throw the suggestion of incest into the mix as well.

Nevertheless, the two lovers are wholly evil and therefore must die.  So sayest an inquisition of holy men and judges, led by Asa's second brother, who repudiates his siblings.  In the swirling mists of the twilight moor, these men carry out the gruesome task at hand, which concludes with one of the film's most shocking images - a spiked mask, the Mask of Satan, is placed over Asa's face and then hammered into place (to great, blood-splattering effect) as she screams horrifically.

Asa's body is placed in a mausoleum, guarded by holy relics and crosses designed to prevent her from ever raising from the dead.  Javutich, too, is impaled, and his body is thrown into a grave of unconsecrated earth not far away.

It is quite an audacious beginning for the film and signals some of Bava's stylistic flourishes, which we will see quite often throughout the film.  But for now, the storyline leaps forward two centuries to a tale of two travelers.  One is a Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi), and the other is his junior associate, Andre Gorobec (John Richardson).  Both are traveling through Moldavia to a medical convention when their coach unexpectedly breaks down near the site of Asa's crypt.  As the coachman tends to his repairs, the two doctors decide to pass the time by exploring the curious mausoleum, now decrepit and overgrown with weeds.

Inevitably, the doctors soon come across the very tomb holding Asa's body.  Unfortunately, Dr. Kruvajan, for an intellectual, is pretty stupid.  Not only does he clumsily disrupt the protective wards holding Asa in her tomb, but he also cuts his hand on her coffin as he reaches inside it...in curiosity!  And he removes her mask as well...also in curiosity!  Naturally, the blood from his cut drops upon her exposed skull, and as everyone knows, it's not a good idea to provide blood to a vampiress, even a supposedly dead one.

Naturally, Asa will return to life soon enough.  Some of the later bubbling flesh and maggot scenes which depict her transformation from skeletal remains to awakening ghast are very disturbing.  In fact, portions of these transformation scenes and the film's opening execution sequence were censored by AIP, which sought to shield such images from sensitive American audiences.

Later on, our witless doctor will also return to Asa's tomb again.  By that time, Asa is sufficiently revived to permanently cure the doctor of his uselessly stupid existence.  Let's just say...Kruvajan is no Van Helsing!

For the meantime, the two doctors leave the now-desecrated tomb and encounter Katia Vajda (Steele again) in the process.  She is the living embodiment of Asa's former beauty and her direct descendant as well, but where Asa was evil, Katia is innocent and sweet.  Andre Gorobec fancies her immediately and hopes to see her again.

The two doctors then depart for the local inn, and the film shifts towards the Vajda castle estate.  Bava introduces the family in an evocative tracking shot, starting from Katia playing at the piano, gliding pass her brother as he cleans a hunting rifle, and finally settling upon her father, gloomy and deep in thought as he is silhouetted by a blazing glow from the fireplace.  The father senses a disturbance in the air and recounts of a similar night, one century ago, when Asa did raise from her grave to kill a young member of the Vajda family.  The father fears that something akin to this will soon transpire...and not without reason!

That very evening, Asa's resurrection begins, though she is at yet too weak to leave her tomb.  Instead, from her coffin, she summons forth the spirit of her dead lover, Javutich, commanding him to rise from his earthen burial.  Javutich's subsequent undead emergence from the grave, his hand grasping skyward from beneath the un-consecrated earth, is one of the film's many highlights.  Under a moonlit night, Javutich claws his way out the moist, steamy soil with a dual purpose - to kill the descendants of Asa Vajda and to retrieve fresh blood to complete her revival.

Thus, the film begins a descent into a dark nightmare that ensnarls not only the members of Katia's family but soon also the two passing doctors.  Dr. Kruvajan is secretly drawn to his dreary, fateful second encounter with Asa.  Afterwards, as a living dead, he wanders amongst the living without their knowledge and wracks havoc upon the lives of the Vajda family.  As more and more people begin to die or disappear, it soon becomes apparent that supernatural forces have awakened.

Asa needs only one thing to finalize her resurrection - she will assume the body and guise of Katia and walk the earth once more as flesh and blood.  The remainder of the film becomes a tense race against the clock.  Will Andre Gorobec, the young doctor, realize the true nature of his former associate?  Can he end Javutich and Dr. Kruvajan's realm of terror?  Will Asa be stopped in time or will she claim her final victim in Katia?  Bava keeps the audience in suspense until the very end of the film!

Undoubtedly, Black Sunday is a hugely atmospheric and visually-appealing horror film.  But, if there is one flaw in Black Sunday, it is probably in the acting, which is a little hammy.  Most of the performances are not particularly memorable.  The romance scenes between Andre and Katia are sometimes particularly painful to watch.  However, since the film is dubbed, it is difficult to fairly judge the performances.  Consequently, Bava's film fares best in scenes free of dialogue, and since Bava was originally a cinematographer, he has filled his film with many such sequences that rely purely on imagery to convey the story.  Among the actors, I should like at least to single out Arturo Dominici, who has but a single line in the entire film yet is completely convincing as Javutich, a creature of pure evil.  He's quite good.  In addition, although Barbara Steele was never a great actress, she had wonderful screen presence, and Bava, being a veteran cinematographer, knew exactly how to photograph her facial features to emphasize either her beauty or her ugliness, depending on her role.

Ultimately, Black Sunday succeeds because of Bava's vision.  Visually (the sets, the costumes, the editing, etc.), everything looks fantastic.  The entire film is saturated with atmosphere and one marvelous image after another - a ferociously nightmarish coach ride through fog and clutching tree branches; Asa, her face still scarred by the puncture wounds of the Mask of Satan and her bosom heaving, as though she were gasping for air in her new-found life; a corpse suddenly awakening, its eyes rolling about in a seize while he otherwise lies perfectly still; Andre Gorobec tearing open Asa's robe to reveal, to his horror, a corpse-like body of bones, not flesh.

Many of Bava's effect shots were also done entirely in-camera.  For instance, there is a scene of Javutich's materialization out of nothingness through a real wall of flames in a chimney!  Re-watching on slow forward, we can see how the trick (not a double exposure!) was accomplished, but the first time around, viewers are likely to be quite surprised at this sly-of-hand.  In fact, Bava uses numerous such tricks throughout the film, and the cumulative effect is a film loaded with great tension, suspense, and uncertainty.  We never quite know what else to expect!

My favorite effect shot involves Katia's fateful encounter with the vampiric Princess Asa.  As Katia's life drains away, her face transforms from healthy flesh into darkened, taut skin with sunken eyes.  This effect was again created in one continuous shot with no cuts, edits, or post-production tinkering!  It is astoundingly effective (and the disc's commentary reveals how Bava accomplished this stunning shot).  It is a shot that could not have been filmed in color but was possible due to the unique qualities of black & white film.  To this end, Black Sunday firmly established Mario Bava as a master of black & white horror.

Despite his late start in directing, Bava continued to direct and experiment with the horror genre into the late 1970's.  He even anticipated the slasher sub-genre by several years in his 1971 film A Bay of Blood, featuring thirteen guests and thirteen deaths.  And, towards the end of his career, he even contributed to a film by Dario Argento, thereby passing the torch to the new generation of Italian horror film directors.

But, Mario Bava remains arguably the finest of the Italian horror directors.  If your interest in horror films leans towards the European old-school horror style (but with a twist of Hammer), there is no better place to start than with Black Sunday!

Video *** 1/2

Years of craftsmanship as a cinematographer taught Mario Bava well.  Even on the films which he directed, he nearly always served as director of photography as well, and he used the wealth of his experience to make Black Sunday look great.  The film is presented in its original black & white photography.  The transfer is widescreen and looks very nice indeed, with sharp images, clear details, and superb contrast levels.  Considering that smoke and fog can be quite difficult to render successfully on DVDs, and considering that the film is almost entirely comprised of night scenes filled with smoke and fog, the folks at Image did a great job on this disc.

The only flaws are dust and debris particles which are minimally pervasive throughout the film.  Otherwise, this is really a top-notch job which splendidly reproduces the creepy quality of Bava's cinematography.

Audio **

Like most Italian productions of the time, Black Sunday was filmed silently with the soundtrack post-dubbed afterwards.  This particular DVD provides the English language version of the soundtrack.  As with all dubbed foreign soundtracks, the lip-synching is amusing at best.  This is further confounded by the fact that several of the actors were clearly speaking English during filming, while others were speaking Italian.  So, sometimes the audio approximately matches the lip-synching and sometimes it doesn't.  It is somewhat sloppy as well that the dubbed English isn't always in synch even with the English actors!

An Italian language version of the soundtrack exists somewhere, but Image does not include it here.  If nothing else, it would have made for an interesting comparison, though the lip-synching issue would still apply, except in reverse.

At any rate, this English audio is a monaural track.  The sound is a bit on the shrill side and lack much definition.  Creaks, shrieks, and booms sound thin.  In other words, it sounds like what it is - a monaural track from an old film.  Don't expect too much here, and you'll enjoy the film just fine.

Features ** 1/2

Black Sunday comes packaged in a cardboard case similar to those favored by Warner Brothers, except that this one folds out.  On the inside cover, you will find a detailed article by Video Watchdog editor/publisher Tim Lucas about the film.  It provides a lot of background history on the film and is definitely worth reading!

On the disc itself, Tim Lucas offers a couple more contributions.  First, there is a biography section on Mario Bava; it is quite extensive and offers a great overview of his career.  However, the best feature is an audio commentary by Lucas, during which he divulges many details about the film, its background, and its history.  Listening to this commentary, it is clear that Lucas is an enthusiastic fan of Mario Bava films and in particular knows a lot about this cult classic.

Rounding out the remaining extras, there are filmographies for Mario Bava and Barbara Steele, a theatrical trailer (for The Mask of Satan), and a photo and poster gallery.

Lastly, as a bonus, there are a few pages recreating the dialogue from a scene not included in the film.  This was a garden scene between Katia and her father.  It had apparently existed in some early La maschera del demonio prints but had been subsequently cut from export prints.  The notes in this bonus section explain the history of this scene and its original location in the film's continuity.  Apparently a publicity still related to this scene is included somewhere on the DVD, but I never found it.

Summary:

A splendidly atmospheric film, Black Sunday is probably the best film by Italy's master horror director, Mario Bava.  Horror film fans should absolutely check out this film!