Black Sunday (1961)

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*. Technically, the movie I’ll be talking about here is The Mask of Satan, and the difference between The Mask of Satan and Black Sunday (British and American release titles respectively) is slightly more than a mere matter of alternate titles. A few minutes of gore were removed for the American release, there was a complete re-dubbing of the dialogue (that changed some plot elements), and a new score was added.
*. Yes, the changes make a difference, but the fact is this movie is a bit of a mess anyway. As Bava expert Tim Lucas points out on the DVD commentary, there are various scenes that seem out of order, or as though they were the product of pure improvisation. For a movie made this cheaply, more or less on the fly, it’s possible.
*. It’s a landmark film, and like any landmark it looks forward and back, commanding the territory. In particular it stands at a watershed between Gothic and Neo-Gothic (the “Neo” mainly meaning colour and gore, at least at this point in film history).
*. It looks backward, most obviously, to the Universal horror films of the 1930s. The crypt looks like that in the basement of Dracula’s castle, and there are even some exotic creatures crawling about Asa’s tomb (though I suppose it’s possible there really are scorpions in Moldavia). There are also graveyards decorated with blasted trees, crawling carpets of mist, and angry villagers with torches and pitchforks storming the castle at the end.
*. Lucas flags the image of the mask in the goblet as coming from White Zombie, but I’m not sure if the girl sent out to milk the cow is a reference to Snow White. That scene recalls a similar sequence in The Leopard Man to me.
*. It looks forward to a rush of such films, different only for the fact that most of them were made in colour. Just take the opening sequence of Asa burning at the stake and cursing the villagers. This was to be revisited many times, in films like The She Beast, The Haunted Palace, and The City of the Dead (a.k.a. Horror Hotel). And yet as we get it here, the business with the spiked masks takes it over the top into a realm of tacky gore that was never duplicated.
*. Bava would go on to show what he could do with colour, which was a lot, but in this film (his first credited as director) he is already at or near the top of his game. He has a painterly eye and a terrific sense of space that’s evoked through graceful camera work: pans, dollies, high and low angle shots, a layered depth of field, changes in film speed, and a whole bag of effects tricks (he’s particularly fond here of shooting through things, like eyeholes, fingers, windows, and branches). Despite all of this, however, it’s a movie that never feels visually busy, or as though there is anything out of place. Bava was simply a director who could be counted on to do a lot with a little, though like a lot of directors with this gift he tended to do less when he had more.

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*. Does this mean I agree with Danny Peary, who remarks that “Black Sunday convinced many of us that Mario Bava would be a force to be reckoned with in the horror field for many years to come. Unfortunately, he never made another picture half as good”? No.
*. I think Bava made a number of wonderful films after Black Sunday (my personal favourite is Blood and Black Lace) and at the same time I also think it’s easy to overrate, or perhaps mis-rate Black Sunday. Yes, Bava went on to make a lot of great trash, but great trash is what Black Sunday is too. So I see less of a falling off.
*. You don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. The final reveal of Asa’s rotten corpse was so effective Bava used it again in Planet of the Vampires and at the end of Dario Argento’s Inferno (a film Bava apparently co-directed).

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*. A couple of notes on critters. First, is that the biggest bat in the history of horror cinema? It’s enormous! Second: Tim Lucas identifies the castle hounds as Neapolitan mastiffs. Are they? They look a bit undersize and their heads make them look more like Dobermans. A Neapolitan mastiff is a very odd and distinctive-looking dog.

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*. Barbara Steele. This was her breakout role, which is odd in some ways. She was apparently a total pain in the ass on set and Bava never worked with her again. Nevertheless, she went on to be typecast as a horror queen. The role really works for her, allowing her to be both virgin and whore, the beautiful and pure Katia and the diseased Asa. Pauline Kael thought she made “evil and good all but indistinguishable” (while also saying that “in both roles, she looks like Jaqueline Kennedy in a trance”). Lucas picks up on this as well in his commentary, calling the character of Asa one of the first female movie monsters, a figure that both attracts and repels. I wonder if this is an Italian thing. Note that jeweled crucifix shining out of Katia’s cleavage, or the effect of her face aging so suddenly.
*. The visual effects are excellent. As I said earlier, Bava could do a lot with a little. The brilliant resurrection of Asa reminded me of the creature reassembling itself in Hellraiser, and it was apparently all done with foodstuffs (rice, poached eggs for eyes, etc.). About the only time the effects really misfire is when the Prince falls into the fireplace and there’s a weak double exposure. But perhaps he’s evaporating? Later in the same scene there’s no sign of his body.
*. The script may have been written on the fly, and I don’t think it’s terribly good. As an experiment, I watched the whole movie once with the sound turned off and enjoyed it just as much. The violence still has the power to shock and the whole thing has a pulp craziness to it that has proven timeless. More than fifty years later it continues to speak to us of ends and beginnings.

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