#139: Black Sunday (1960)
Mario Bava’s directorial debut shows why he’s a legend in giallo circles
Initial release: August 11, 1960
Director: Mario Bava
Mario Bava was a god damn genius and the world is a little worse for his modern-day obscurity. While he’s made a hell of a lot of movies over his 40-year career in film, none are so important as his gothic horror masterpiece Black Sunday.
Bava had worked for years as a cinematographer and this film, his debut as sole director after a few collaborations, would benefit greatly from this experience. While on its surface it has the chintzy aesthetic of many a Roger Corman film, Bava’s touch elevates it to sheer art. Corman makes a lot of fun movies; some, like The Terror, approach the level of genius. But many of his films, especially in the 60s at the height of his career, are lacking in things like compelling cinematography and lighting (and sometimes whole-ass scripts.) Bava, despite superficial similarities in style, was overall a much defter hand at the things most conducive to good horror, namely lighting and camera work. In short, he was a more talented, Italian Roger Corman. What more could you ask for?
The story: in the 1600s, a witch and her servant are burned to death by her brother. Shortly before a spiked mask with the visage of Satan is hammered on her face, she curses her brother and all the family’s descendants, and vows to rise again. 200 years later she does just that.
While it’s an extremely loose adaptation of the little-known Russian gothic horror tale Viy, other than a few elements borrowed from it it has almost nothing to do with the original tale. Instead we get a starkly lit and beautifully shot tale of vampires and family curses. The most important role of this movie goes to Barbara Steele, who would become, thanks to this film, an iconic “scream queen,” later starring in Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (among other, worse films.) She pulls double duty in this film as Asa the witch and her young relative Katya. Throughout the film, Bava pays special attention to Steele’s face, especially her eyes. She was strikingly beautiful, even unconventionally so, and it’s a testament to her talent that she manages to sell that face as the sweet maiden and as the sinister vampire witch. It’s bava’s focus on her face that really sells Asa’s evil plot to steal Katya’s youth and possibly even her body (the film isn’t clear on that)— there are some aging (and reverse-aging) effects that look absolutely fantastic for 1960, and I’m wondering how they pulled it off.
It’s hard to overstate just how important and influential this movie was. Shot in sharp, high-contrast black and white, it hearkened back to the old gothic horror films of the 1930s while inspiring an entirely new generation (including Bava’s later 1966 film Kill, Baby, Kill!) This film’s influence shows in everything from Corman’s Poe films (in spite of Corman’s technical shortcomings, he knew how to build and use a set) to Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (In fact, several scenes from Coppola’s Dracula were lifted from this film!) Like a lot of the more lasting horror titles, there’s a subversive quality to this film that offended the censors. Exceptionally gory and charged with eroticism by late 50s standards, about three minutes were cut for American audiences. In spite of this, the film was a cult hit.
(Side note: this censored version is the one that’s on Amazon Prime for streaming. American International Pictures also stripped out the original score for a new one; the new one isn’t bad, for what it is, lots of nice creepy piano, but it’s a tad more generic. There are some other elements of censorship too, namely a few lines rewritten. The entire movie was re-dubbed as well, regardless of the fact that most of the cast, Steele included, were speaking English. And no, Steele didn’t get to voice herself due to Italian dub union rules.)
If you like the kind of horror that bridged the oldest of the old-school to the newer, more subversive sensibilities that would define the cult hits of the 1960s like Night of the Living Dead and Witchfinder General, you owe it to yourself to see this film.