I'm borrowing my wife's laptop for this write-up, so everybody, shhhhh! Don't tell her. ;)
My recent interest in Italian cinema, specifically the giallo genre, pointed me towards Mario Bava. Once I started looking into his output, I realized I owned the first movie for which he received credit as a director! This is 1960's Black Sunday, which was released on 'disc in a double-bill with Bava's Black Sabbath which he shot a few years later. That's two classic B&W features for the price of one, and I'm glad the me of the past didn't pass up that deal!
Moldavia, the early 1600's. We witness princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and her servant Igor Javuto (Arturo Dominici) sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft and consorting with Satan. Leading the prosecution is Asa's own brother, prince Vajda, who brands her with the mark of a witch, and orders her face encased within the Mask of Satan, a terrifying metal visage with spikes pointing inward. Before the mask can be set, Asa curses her brother, and their entire family lineage, saying that she will one day return to have her revenge on his descendants.
A cruel executioner then pounds the spiked mask into her head with an enormous hammer. Igor is buried in unsanctified ground with other murderers, while Asa is laid to rest within a stone sarcophagus, topped with a heavy cross on the lid, in the family burial crypt. The coffin includes a glass window through which the deceased can have a clear view of the cross for all eternity.
Fast forward two hundred years, to 1800's Moldavia, where Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant, the younger Dr. Andreas Gorobec (John Richardson) are traveling to a medical conference. Their coach throws a wheel while passing by an ancient cemetery, and while their driver works to repair it, the two medical men explore the ruins. It doesn't take long before they discover the crypt where Asa is buried, and descend to have a look. Finding her sarcophagus, the glass window now broken and fragmented due to the ravages of time, Dr. Kruvajan reaches in to inspect a relic buried with her and accidentally scratches the back of his hand on the glass.
It's a small cut, drawing no more than a drop or two of blood, and the doctor is able to satisfy his curiosity. The pair manage to pry the mask off the dead woman's face, and discover to their astonishment that her features are remarkably well preserved for a dead woman. Something odd is going on for certain, but they've no further time to investigate. Hearing the coachman call out that he's repaired the wagon, the pair leave the crypt only to encounter a young, courtly-looking woman walking her two large hunting dogs. She introduces herself as princess Katia Vajda (also Barbara Steele), whose family owns the cemetery. Dr. Gorobec apologizes for the intrusion, explains they were only passing through, and the pair leave for the nearby village of Mirgorod. Back in the crypt, a drop of blood from the broken glass drips on to the dead witch's face and a 200-year-old curse is set back into motion. Princess Asa will have her revenge, and she'll use princess Katia's body to fulfill the promise made centuries earlier...
Black Sunday opens with a great text crawl, announcing to the audience that it is one of the most horrifying films ever made, and contains scenes which aren't intended for immature minds. In 2019, this is downright quaint as nothing which plays out on the screen comes close to equaling the carnage and brutality in evidence with today's modern horror equivalents. Indeed, much of Bava's future output, titles like Blood and Black Lace and Twitch of the Death Nerve, contain far more graphic imagery.
What stands out for me with this movie isn't the violence, of which there is very little thanks to some self-imposed censorship by US distributor American International Pictures (AIP), but rather the tone and the atmosphere. This is gothic horror of the 1930's Universal motif, shot on a minuscule budget with a mixture of European actors and actresses (some of whom only spoke Italian and were later dubbed over). It's black and white, but this works beautifully in its favor: shadows fade into the background, fog pops through the darkness, and the lighting sets the tone for literally every scene.
I had an absolute ball watching Black Sunday. It's a chillingly effective vampire story with old school sentimentality and that uniquely Italian tone of sorrow and oppression washing over everything. Towards the end of the film, there was a moment when I honestly wondered if the young John Richardson would be able to rescue Katia from her ancestor's sinister curse, or if one or both of them would be doomed to failure. That's an amazing feeling to have while watching a piece of cinema, that general unease about how everything will turn out. Knowing Black Sunday was based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol didn't set my mind at ease, since I've read enough Russian literature to know the undercurrent of tragedy and depression which often runs through even less-bleak works.
As to the 'Disc itself, the film is presented in a 1.33:1 standard aspect ratio, which manages to hold almost all of the original 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio in which it was originally shot. Side 1 is CLV format, holding nearly an hour's worth of footage, but side 2 is CAV, offering better picture quality for the feature's final thirty minutes. The transfer looks struck from an original negative, as it maintains an abundance of "flaws" that would today be cleaned up by the digitizing process, but in my mind these give the picture an added character which today's modern, perfectly-touched-up frames lack. It's also a bare-bones release, with no trailers or commentary, just an FBI warning at the opening through which everybody fast-forwards. It does contain both Analog and Digital audio tracks, both of which are the film's original Mono theatrical track, and sound just fine. I swapped back and forth a few times just to see if I could tell a difference, and I honestly couldn't.
All told, Black Sunday is, for me, an absolute treasure. It's not a perfect movie, but damn if it isn't atmospheric as hell and proof that Bava sure knew what he was doing behind the camera. The audio is fine considering the period it's from. The acting is good, the set design is top-notch, and the darkness pervasive. The scene where Asa has the Mask of Satan affixed to her face made me flinch, which is more a testament to the power of allowing the imagination to fill in the blanks than anything else. Bava's command of the medium is immediate, impressive, and immersive, and I look forward to taking in Black Sabbath soon!
So tell me, @janenightshade, have you seen this one? If not, perhaps you fancy a watch...?