Review by Ed Nguyen
Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Andrea Checchi
Director: Mario Bava
Audio: English (dubbed) mono
Video: Black & white, widescreen 1.66:1
Features: Commentary, Bava biography, filmographies, photo and poster gallery, essay
Length: 87 minutes
Release Date: December 14, 1999
kiss me; my lips will transform you. You
will be dead to men, but you will be alive in death."
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.
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
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
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!
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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!
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.
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
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!
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.