If you’re a long-time Journeys in Classic Film follower you know I’ve watched many a Mario Bava film courtesy of Kino Classics’ Mario Bava collection. I would never tout myself as an expert on the Italian gorehound’s work, but after watching Black Sunday everything I presumed to know was shattered. In spite Bava’s confusion on whether to depict vampires or witches, Black Sunday aka The Mask of Satan plays like Bava at his most serious, right down to filming it in black and white. The atmospherics, make-up effects, and luminous Barbara Steele, concoct a charming throwback to the golden era of cinema and retaining Bava’s over-the-top pathos.
Princess Asa (Steele) is entombed with a mask of Satan nailed into her face after being accused of witchcraft. Seeking vengeance on the future generations of the Vajda line, of which she was the daughter, Princess Asa rises from the grave intent on possessing the latest Vajda female, Katia (also Steele).
Princess Asa is about as far removed from the vengeful but playful Jennifer of I Married a Witch as you can get. The opening and closing are pure Bava with a reliance on theatricality and subtle violence, whether it’s the nailing of the mask into Asa’s face before the credits are announced, or the the burning of the resurrected Princess Asa at the stake. With such magnanimous sequences bookending, it’s not surprising the rest of the movie struggles to be worthy.
Black Sunday certainly succeeds where The Dunwich Horror – both films were released through American International Pictures stateside – failed at. The seriousness of The Dunwich Horror was comical because of how serious it took itself. The scripts’ stupid writing made the actors look serious in spite of how hard they were working to elevate thin material. The plot of Black Sunday is thin and unestablished (are we dealing with vampires or witches?), but the nature of Bava’s work makes the seriousness expected, and it helps that the script isn’t particularly comical. In fact, where Black Sunday is let down the most is in the dubbing, a problem I have with several of Bava’s works. Italian horror films dubbed everyone, regardless of whether they already spoke English or not. This is one of those works where you have to ignore how mismatched the voices are with the actors, as well as how the mouths aren’t matching, or risk hating the film outright.
Bava’s past work certainly is a pastiche cobbled from classic films of yore, and Black Sunday enters into the world of classic film, full-tilt. If you look at past outings like Black Sabbath, there’s elements set in traditional times, but Bava’s overly gorgeous and buxom women prevail. With Black Sunday, he downplays everything. Gone are the random shots of boobtastic women – Steele worried about how much skin she was going to have to show – and instead we get a generational tale of revenge. Unfortunately, the narrative peters out a bit before Princess Asa arrives and there’s lengthy scenes of the boring hero whose name I couldn’t recall. With all the characters fearing Asa’s return, the real Asa only has a couple minutes of screentime before the movie’s conclusion, leading to an unbalanced lack of momentum overall.
Black Sunday isn’t my favorite of Bava’s work, but Barbara Steele is a fantastic scream queen, the production design is exquisite, and Bava tries his damndest at creating a respectable film hearkening back to respected horror directors of the 1930s. Had he established a bit more of the creature element, as well as found a stronger means of keeping Asa in our minds instead of telling us, the story would have worked better.
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