Monday, 30 January 2017

I've Just Seen: Black Sunday ( La Maschera del Demonio/ Revenge of the Vampire) (1960)

 Director: Mario Bava

I like my horror films squishy, gooey and fleshy. I also like a bit of gothicness, either romantic or just purely horrifying. Watching Black Sunday, it didn't take long to realise I was going to thoroughly enjoy Bava's film. In the first scene, in 17th century Russia, we meet a crowd of shrouded figures condemning a young woman to death for witchcraft. Before being burned alive, the woman, Princess Asa, has the Mask of Satan - with large spikes on the inside - hammered into her face. It is a great start.

We then move 200 years ahead, and the Vajda family are still living under the shadow of their dead ancestor, especially Katia who bears a striking resemblance to Asa. When two doctors accidently awake Asa from her sleep, all hell threatens to break loose.

Gothic horror often has a campy quality to it. There is some of that in Bava's film, but because his horror goes further than the Hollywood horror films of the period, it never becomes ridiculous. The hammering of the mask is both over-the-top yet also truly gruesome. Princess Asa's regeneration is horribly imaginative. It just takes a drop of blood, and soon her skull is starting to cook up a new set of eyes for her, displacing the spiders that had lived inside her for centuries. The black and white cinematography helps contain the film's excess, as well as enhancing this world of shadows and ruins.

Some parts of the story are slightly confusing: Princess Asa is accused of being a witch, yet is referred to as a vampire as well, despite the lack of fangs (though this was a choice made on the set, as the fake teeth looked terrible on camera). As is often the case, the villians are more interesting than the 'good guys,' : the young naive doctor who takes a fancy to Katia is a bit wet for my taste. However, the film rests on Barbara Steele playing both Asa and Katia, and she is wonderful, giving a performance that distinguishes the two. Her Asa is vengeful and alluring, convincing Dr Kruvajan to give her his life essence, and even hoodwinking Dr Gorobec into thinking she is Katia for a while. Katia is a rather haunted young woman, her beauty acting as a curse.

Bava's film is both fun and horrifying, which is what I want from gothic horror. The end may seem happy, yet Bava leaves us with a sense of discomfort, as the 'modern' characters descend into the barbarity of their ancestors.


  1. God, but I love this film. There's no way it could live up to its opening, but it tries as much as it can. Those first few minutes, though--Barbara Steele screaming about the power of Satan and cursing the family through the ages, the spiked mask, the giant might be my favorite film opening ever, and certainly my favorite opening scenes of a horror movie.

    Italian horror often has story/continuity problems, this one no less than others. Still, there's a hell of a lot to love here.

    1. The special effects are also pretty good for its era: the aging/un-aging scenes are really well done.

      They do say start as you mean to go on in films, and I think most people know after that first scene whether this is for them, or not. I wish there were more modern gothic horror films around. Crimson Peak felt like the most recent, or The Witch.

  2. The problem with modern gothic horror is that they do not go all-in and dare take themselves serious enough. You just do not find a modern Mask of Satan.
    This is also my kind of horror. It completely works. Did you watch the Italian or the dubbed version?

    1. I saw the dubbed version - wish I had watched the Italian, but that's my only quibble with the film. You're right, this wouldn't be made the same way now, a huge shame as I am sure lots of people would love to see more films like this.