It’s the end of the month, and so that sadly brings us to the end of the Mario Bava feature. Don’t fret though, there’s so much more Bava I want to cover. After all there’s still vikings, space vampires, sex comedies, spaghetti westerns, Vincent Price, and still more giallo waiting to be covered. So surely this is not the last we’ll see of Mr. Bava here at the Lair. These four weeks have given me a greater appreciation for a director I knew precious little about other than the Boris Karloff anthologyBlack Sabbath. I have marveled at the skill of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, the mystery of Baron Blood, and the brutality of Twitch of the Death Nerve, but tonight we go back to the beginning and the classic that launched the career of this horror great. You might be thanking god it’s Friday and worried about having a blue Monday, but before you get there you must survive….
Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio) (1960) starring Barbara Steel, Andrea Checchi, John Richardson, Ivo Garrani, and Auturo Dominici. Directed by Mario Bava.
In Moldavia in the early 1600’s, it was not a good time to be a vampire/witch. Asa Vajda (Steel) is finding out the hard way. She gets tied to a stake, branded with a ‘S’ (for Satan), and that’s just for starters. Once the mob really gets going they break out the steel spike lined Mask of the Devil and hammer it in place over her face. Then of course she gets burnt alive. However none of this happens until Asa has a chance to curse the man who has put her to this fate, her brother. She curses him and the line of his house for all eternity.
Two hundred years later, Doctors Kruvajan (Checchi) and Gorobec(Richardson) are passing through Moldavia on their way to a conference. They pay their carriage driver extra to take them on a shortcut though a haunted wood. The road is untraveled and full of holes which causes a wheel to break off the carriage. While the erstwhile driver is fixing it, Kruvajan and Gorobec take some time to explore the ruin of an old chapel. Deep inside they find the tomb of the legendary witch who is kept at bay by her iron mask and a cross resting above her. Kruvajan has a run in with a giant bat and in the process of killing it topples the cross off the tomb. The falling stone shatters the glass above the witch’s head and the nosy Doctor removes the mask to reveal her hollow eyes. He also cuts himself on the glass and bleeds ever so slightly on Asa’s horrific face.
On their way out of the ruin they meet up with Katia Vajda , the daughter of the local Prince and dead ringer for the slain witch. Gorobec is instantly smitten by her beauty, and he hopes to meet with her later. Little do they know that the blood so carelessly spilled on the witch has caused her to rise from the grave once again. She gains strength slowly until he can raise her servant Igor (Dominici) from his grave. She sets in motion a plan to regain everything she lost and the beautiful Katia becomes the key to it all.
–The film was purchased by American International Pictures for American distribution after it was screened in Italian for Forrest Ackerman. AIP paid $100,000 for the rights.
–It is loosely based on a story by Russian writer Nikolai Golgol’s story “Viy”.
–Barbara Steel was petrified of working with the Italian crew. She in fact refused to come to the set once after she had been told that Bava was using special film that could see though clothes.
–This was Mario Bava’s first film of his own. He had previously worked uncredited on several features when the real directors had quit.
–Steel and Dominici were fitted with vampire fangs, but they looked so bad on film they were quickly discarded.
The Bug Speaks
Bava had been working on films since 1939 as a cinematographer. So by the time he had a chance to craft a film all to his own, he already knew his way around the camera. I’ve said it time and time again in these reviews, but seeing as this is the last Feature Presentation, I have to say it again. Light and Shadow. From the very first scenes of torture to the final frame of the film, the balance between light and shadow guides us through the atmosphere of this film.
Every single shot was constructed to frame the actors, their actions, and what they meant. If the same plot had been filmed by a man more inferior with his craft, it could have easily come out as a hokey mess. Instead Bava infuses the movie with an existential dread that seems to creep in from every dark corner and shadowed face.
We are not only drawn into this world of shadow, but revolted by it. Perhaps the unsung talent of Bava was his use of special effects. The scenes where the witch is reconstituting herself are just as powerful, if not more so, than the resurrection scenes in Hellraiser. That they have the same impact in black and white is a testament to his skill. It also bears mentioning that Bava went uncredited for his matte paintings. They gave the film the genuine quality that hearkened both to the source material and to the grand horror films of the 1930’s.
And the horror, yes, the horror. From the moment blood gushes out as the mask is hammered onto Asa’s face, it is clear what we are in for. Bava’s use of gore coupled with sound effects that were perfectly placed heightened the tension and impact of the scenes. By the time the witches tomb explodes around her, the scene is both shocking and totally believable. Also of note is a body that gets burnt in a fire place. I am astonished by how well the effect came off, and sad that modern film makers seem to lack the skill to pull off something like that so effectively. Last but not least, Bava goes for the eye. I don’t know what it is with Italian film makers and their need to put spikes through eyeballs, but I sure as hell always like it.
The performances in the movie are very strong as well with Steel being particularly good in the duel role. She managed to make the two women distinct without being over the top about it. All the other actors seem to acquit themselves well, and a special nod goes to Dominici for his solid and totally believable role are Igor. When Igor and Dr. Gorobec rumble I had no problems at all believing that the mustachioed baddie meant the noble doctor serious bodily harm.
This film is perhaps the foremost modern classic in Bava’s oeuvre of film. It should stand the test of time to be revered not just among fans of genre cinema, but cinema as a whole. In his first film, Bava managed to put on screen not just a wonderful piece of work, but a treatise on the type of director he was. The visual appeal to his films made him a master storyteller. The plot and dialog no longer the only driving force in the film, but each ray of light, each sweep of the camera, each frame of footage, compelling the story onward.