Once every hundred years… the undead demons of Hell terrorize the world in an orgy of stark horror!
So proclaimed one of the posters for Italian maestro Mario Bava’s directorial debut, Black Sunday, aka The Mask of Satan and Revenge of the Vampire, one of the greatest horror classics of all time- and for once, the hyperbole was true.
Bava was the son of Eugenio Bava, a cinematographer working in the earliest days of Italian cinema, notably on 1913’s Quo Vadis?, the first film to be shown on Broadway, and 1914’s Cabiria, which was the first film to be shown at the White House. He was also regarded as the “father of special effects photography” in Italian cinema, so Mario had some pretty big shoes to fill.
He started out as a classically-trained painter, which would serve him well when it came to the colorful palette he would adopt in his later features. Following in his father’s footsteps, Mario became a cinematographer, though he directed a few shorts here and there along the way. By all accounts he took his father’s knack for special effects to the next level, adopting and improving upon the methods his father taught him.
He continued to work as a top cinematographer for years, including projects with the famed Jacques Tourneur, Raoul Walsh, and, notably, Riccardo Freda. Freda is worth mentioning in particular, as he abandoned not one, but two projects Bava worked on- Lust of the Vampire and Caltiki, The immortal Monster– leaving the door open for Bava to finish what he started, thus beginning his directorial work in earnest.
After “saving” both of these films, as well as another by Tourneur (The Giant of Marathon), Bava received substantial critical acclaim for one of them- Vampire, aka The Devil’s Commandment- and was given permission to direct any film he wanted. The film he chose was a loose adaptation of Russian surrealist Nikolai Gogol‘s short story Viy.
Released in 1960- the same year as another seminal classic, Hitchcock’s Psycho– Bava’s opus revolves around a witch… or is it a vampire? Both are referenced in Black Sunday, and tropes of both are included, so perhaps it was intended to be a mix, preconfiguring similar hybrid-type characters used in later works, such as in the “Underworld” series and on TV’s “The Originals.”
In addition, there are corpses rising from the grave, ghostly happenings, a sort of “Fountain of Youth”/”Elizabeth Bathory”-style subplot in which a younger woman’s youth is absorbed by an older woman’s, and some (literally in one case) eye-popping special effects that were decidedly ahead of their time and quite gory for the period. Indeed, Black Sunday was banned in the UK for a time, and heavily censored in the States.
Fortunately, the uncensored version is readily available now, and though the black and white photography mutes some of the gore on hand, it’s still kind of jarring to see something like that in a film so old, pre-dating such horror violence landmarks as H.G. Lewis‘ seminal Blood Feast and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead by several years.
A stake is driven into an eye and blood spurts out, a corpse re-animates from its rotted status, necrophilia is heavily implied, several are burned alive (or in one particularly spectacular case, burned “undead,” as it were, as the victim is already dead), the revived vampire/witch’s rib-cage is exposed (see pic above) and in the notorious opening sequence, a woman is branded and a mask with nails inside is placed onto the accused witch/vampire’s head, spikes down, and hammered into her face. Later on, we see the holes in her and her lover’s faces that remain when the masks are removed as well.
The plot of Black Sunday is fairly simple. In the year 1860, accused witch/vampire Asa (Barbara Steele- improperly credited as “Barbara Steel” here) and her lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici, of 1957’s Hercules) are sentenced to death for sorcery. Before being burned at the stake, the aforementioned spiked masks are hammered into each of their faces.
Asa vows revenge and puts a curse on her brother’s descendants. However, before the burning can commence, a sheet of rain comes down, resulting in Javuto being buried in an unconsecrated grave, and Asa being put into the family tomb, both bodies relatively intact. Well, save for the holes left from the spikes nailed into their faces, of course.
Fast forward two centuries, and we meet two doctors traveling through the same area as the previous sequence took place, in Moldavia. There’s Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) and his assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson, One Million Years B.C. and Torso), who find themselves stranded there on the way to a medical conference, when the wheel of their carriage comes loose, necessitating immediate repair.
Wandering around the area, they come across the ruins of an ancient graveyard, and discover the crypt in which Asa is buried inside, within a tomb with a glass window, allowing one to peer inside. In what is undeniable the film’s weakest effect and most unintentionally laughable sequence, Kruvajan is attacked by a wildly fake bat, which he shoots to death. In doing so, he accidentally breaks the window of the coffin.
Reaching inside to retrieve the death mask she is wearing, he cuts himself and drops of his blood partially revive Asa. This allows her to telepathically communicate with the nearby Javuto, who rises from his grave to aid her in the quest to free herself from her entombment. In the meantime, Kruvajan and Gorobec meet local princess Katia (also Steele), a descendant of Asa’s, who Andre instantly becomes smitten with.
Later on, her father is attacked by Javuto and is able to fend him off with a crucifix, but goes into shock. The family sends for a doctor and Kruvajan comes to Katia’s father’s aid. However, the servant sent is killed by Javuto, who takes his place and leads Kruvajan back to Asa’s crypt via a secret passage within the castle they live in, after he sees to Katia’s father. Asa beckons to Kruvajan and kisses him, turning him into her servant.
He goes back to the castle and kills Katia’s father and leaves. When Andre comes looking for the doctor, he finds out what has happened and agrees to help Katia and her brother get to the bottom of what’s going on. With the help of a local priest, Andre discovers Kruvajan is dead and interred in Javuto’s grave, with Javuto back and on the loose.
Javuto deals with Katia’s brother and then kidnaps Katia, taking her to Asa’s tomb, where, in a still-impressive sequence, Asa feeds on Katia’s youth to restore her own. She is stopped before she can complete the act by a crucifix around Katia’s neck, which keeps her from draining the girl of her blood.
Andre arrives and Asa, now strong enough to move of her own accord, imitates Katia, but Andre sees through this by noticing the crucifix around the “real” Katia’s neck, just before he is about to stake what he thinks is Asa.
Enter a crowd of angry villagers, who abscond with Asa and finish what their ancestors started, this time burning her to death for real- or burning her to un-life, as it were, given that she was already dead, technically. Katia is revived and returns to normal and all’s well that ends well.
In addition to Bava’s impressive cinematography and incredible-for-the-time special effects, Black Sunday is aided enormously by an excellent pair of performances from then-future scream queen extraordinaire Barbara Steele. Really showing her range, Steele, in a breakout turn that made her an overnight star, plays both the evil witch/vampire and the damsel in distress to excellent effect. That said, her voice was dubbed by another actress in both the International and American versions, as it was felt she didn’t sound “regal” enough!
Interestingly, Steele’s turn would have never happened in the first place if she hadn’t broken her contract with 20th Century Fox, walking off the set of an Elvis Presley flick, Flaming Star, in which she was to play his blonde love interest! In effect exiled from American filmmaking at the moment, she turned to Italian cinema, where she landed the lead in Bava’s directorial debut.
Black Sunday’s American distributor, American International Pictures, were so impressed by her, they immediately cast her in Roger Corman’s classic Poe adaptation, The Pit and the Pendulum, another big hit. Though Steele would go on to appear in the likes of Federico Fellini’s classic 8 ½, she was already being typecast as a horror actress, and, much to her chagrin, that became her bread and butter for the most part over the years, in such films as The Ghost, The Long Hair of Death, Castle of Blood, Nightmare Castle, The She-Beast and An Angel for Satan.
Steele eventually came to terms with her Scream Queen status, and embraced it later on, appearing in such cult classics as Piranha, Shivers, Silent Scream, and the TV mini-series revival of Dark Shadows. Her affiliation with Shadows director Dan Curtis also led her to the more mainstream acceptance she craved, as the two worked on the award-winning TV mini-series The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance, for which she won an Emmy as one of the executive producers.
More recently, she has appeared in actor Ryan Gosling’s oddball directorial debut Lost River and the interesting indie horror flick The Butterfly Room, featuring a host of horror favorites, including Heather Langenkamp (the Nightmare on Elm Street series), P.J. Soles (Carrie, Halloween), Adrienne King (the first two Friday the 13th films), Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave), and Erica Leerhsen (the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, Wrong Turn 2).
She also made the cut for- shameless plug alert!- my recent all-time favorite Scream Queens list, clocking in at number three. I love Steele’s intriguing combination of evil and beauty, which is all laid out right here from the start in Black Sunday. As such, Steele was able to play both the heroine and the villain at any turn, managing to be equally effective in both.Though her looks are unconventional, there is no denying those mesmerizing eyes, which bring to mind the likes of Bette Davis, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci and Amanda Seyfried. As with those actresses, she seems like a fairy tale vixen come to life- but one never knows which side of the fence she might be playing on, good… or evil? (Or perhaps even a little of both.)
Bava, of course, went onto to become a much-beloved horror maestro, directing such influential and classic films as Blood and Black Lace (a huge influence on the “giallo” subgenre), Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood, a huge influence on the early Friday the 13th films), Planet of the Vampires (a huge influence on Alien and Pitch Black) and Kill, Baby Kill (a big influence on David Lynch, particularly Twin Peaks).
Black Sunday has been cited as one of the greatest horror films of all-time by a wide variety of critics, making the list of “1001 Films You Must See Before You Die” by Steven Schneider, and garnering positive reviews in the likes of Time, Variety, and the Motion Picture Herald. Tim Burton declared it his all-time favorite horror movie and paid direct homage to it in his Sleepy Hollow adaptation.
Other films that cribbed from the movie include The Brainiac, Terror in the Crypt, Bloody Pit of Horror, The She-Beast (also with Steele), and Francis Ford Coppola’s remake of Dracula, which lifted entire scenes wholesale from the film. In addition, Mario Bava’s son Lamberto paid homage to the film in his own Demons series, particularly the first Demons (note the mask that sets the action into motion in the beginning) and fifth entries, with the fifth entry, The Devil’s Veil, also serving as a loose remake of Black Sunday.
Black Sunday was a massive hit worldwide, with the AIP version garnering the highest grosses of that company’s output ever at the time. Although Bava’s original cut is far superior, from the special effects to the soundtrack score by Roberto Nicolosi (Les Baxter did the honors for the AIP version, which is more readily available on CD and not bad), the AIP version is worth seeing, if only to compare and contrast with the original. It’s also worth mentioning that the AIP version is the one many Americans grew up with, so it might be a sentimental favorite for some for that reason.
I myself only own the uncut version, featured as part of the excellent “Bava Box,” from Anchor Bay, though the film has subsequently been released on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber. Both versions feature the same bonus content, however, including a fantastic, informative commentary by fave cult genre critic Tim Lucas; various trailers and a cool still/poster gallery. It would be nice to get a new version, featuring both cuts of the film and perhaps with a commentary and/or interview with Steele. The film’s sixtieth anniversary is coming up in 2020- just saying.
Whatever the case, Black Sunday remains one of the greatest horror films ever, and certainly one of the greatest Italian films, period, of any genre. If you haven’t yet seen it, you really need to do yourself a favor and check it out. Just beware the eyes of Barbara Steele… lest they paralyze you with fright!