it comes to horror films, it's impossible to overestimate the
importance of Mario Bava's The Mask of Satan, which Arrow have
oddly chosen to release under the US title of Black Sunday. It's
up there with the early Universal horrors and Hammer's Curse of
Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of importance, effectively launching
the whole Italian horror cycle, as well as inspiring pretty much
the whole of the Euro horror explosion in the 1960s (as well as
making a reluctant scream queen out of Barbara Steele). It's quite
a history hanging over the film, and it might seem understandable
if it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment after all that.
So it's all the more impressive that the film not only holds up
remarkably well, but in many ways seems to get better and better.
You know you are in for something special with the pre-credit
sequence, where condemned witch Asa (Steele) is branded and has
a spiked mask hammered into her face – meaty stuff for 1960!
It's perhaps unsurprising that the ever-sensitive BBFC took exception
to the film and banned it for eight years.
Leaping forward two centuries, a couple of travelling doctors
stumble upon her tomb and unwittingly revive her, so she can take
her revenge on her family that she had cursed after her brother
had condemned her to death. Along with revived servant Javuto
(Arturo Dominici), she begins to wreak her vengeance on her descendants
(including Steele again, as Princess Katia)...
Shot in crisp black and white, Black Sunday positively drips with
atmosphere and menace – while Hammer brought full colour
to the gothic horror, Bava here shows that in the right hands,
monochrome is hard to beat when it comes to style. It's no exaggeration
to say that you could pause this film at more or less any point
and frame grab a still image that oozes style. Steele immediately
– and possibly to her regret – makes herself a horror
icon in a dual role that allows her to be both innocent and sinister,
her remarkable appearance (not a conventionally beautiful starlet,
but incredibly striking and hypnotic) bringing a real sense of
evil to Asa. She effortlessly overpowers everyone else, including
John Richardson as a rather ineffectual hero.
direction is pretty flawless – in a wildly inconsistent
career, he made several great films but was probably never quite
this brilliant again. His visual eye is remarkable, giving the
film style to spare, and interestingly, the crude special effects
are remarkably effective – the revival of the decayed Asa
still looks impressively grotesque even now.
A pivotal horror film that remains remarkable viewing even now,
Black Sunday is a masterpiece of gothic horror. And even if you
already own a copy, this new edition is worth the effort of upgrading,
and certainly pulls out all the stops to be the definitive edition
of the film. There is the European edition, The Mask of Satan,
which is the one most widely seen today, and also the re-edited
US version (as Black Sunday) that redubs the characters and replaces
Roberto Nicolosi's score with one by Les Baxter. You can also
watch the Italian language version if you so choose. There's also
a deleted scene that adds nothing of importance, but is good to
see anyway, and an extensive collection of Bava trailers.
The most significant extra is I Vampiri, a 1956 movie directed
by Riccardo Freda and completed by Bava after Freda walked off
the project. This is a much less impressive slice of horror /
science fiction that, despite the title, has few gothic trappings.
Instead, it's a tale of mad scientists and a Duchess searching
for the secret of eternal youth, found through transfusions of
the blood of others. A dull newspaper reporter is on the case,
though no one will believe his suspicions.
Notable for being the first sound-era Italian horror film, I Vampiri
rushes through its story within the first 30 minutes and then
has to pad things out for the next hour, and shows few of the
gothic horror flourishes that both Freda and Bava would display
in later works. It's not awful, but certainly nothing special,
and you can see why it has been relegated to the role of DVD extra
– where it is a very welcome addition – rather than
having a stand-alone release. Still, a nice add-on to an already-essential
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