Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan) is one of the very great directorial debuts – in some ways almost the Citizen Kane of horror films (or at least of Italian horror films) – although unlike Welles, Bava would go on to even greater films. It wasn’t actually his first ever stab at direction, having done plenty of directing on films he had photographed during the sixties, such as I, Vampiri, and Hercules. It was, however, his first full-length solo effort, and the first time he received the credit. It’s a very important film, that somehow manages to unite the classic look and feel of the great early black and white horror films (particularly those made at Universal), with the more graphic content of contemporary films (such as the Hammer Dracula), whilst simultaneously taking a huge leap forward in terms of sheer intensity and the blurring of the lines between sensuality and horror. Which is all very well, but that maybe matters little today now that later films have gone even further. Amazingly, even though it may no longer have the power to traumatise a generation, it stands up very well today as a terrifically atmospheric and often unnerving film that makes for fantastic viewing.
In 17th Century Moldavia on the feast of St. George, the evil 21-year-old Princess Asa and her brother Prince Javutich are executed by their brother for witchcraft and vampirism. Before she dies, Asa puts a curse on her family and vows to return from the grave and have her vengeance. Exactly 100 years later, the chapel was destroyed in an earthquake, and the young Princess, also aged 21 and the living image of Asa, died mysteriously. It’s now exactly 100 years later and Princess Katia is 21, and also the very twin of Asa. Two doctors on their way to a medical convention accidentally discover Asa's crypt, and the cycle of horror is set to begin again…
Very loosely based upon "The Vij" by Nikolai Gogol, Bavas' film takes in as many classic horror elements as you could possible want, including witches, vampirism, secret passages, ruined crypts, a spectral carriage, burning at the stake, a priest with a huge beard, a horde of torch-carrying villagers, bodies rising from the grave, floating lanterns, trap doors over huge spikes, creaky door opening on their own, a hand slowly reaching out from behind from a curtain, and more. Bava gorgeously lit the film in black and white himself, and it is very well edited by Mario Serandrei, who also receives scripting credit on certain prints of the film. It’s always great to look at, and features several highly impressive special effects (also done by Bava himself) that hold up surprisingly well even today – indeed some are very easily not noticed as being effects at all. There’s also some great performances, notably Arturo Dominici as villain Javutich, and Andrea Checci as the elder of the two doctors – a performance apparently modelled upon the director himself.
The best performance, however, comes from Barbara Steele. One of the principal reasons for the success of the film, her contribution is second only to that of Bava. She has a sublime, otherworldly beauty that works very well as the innocent Katia. It is, however, as the demonic Asa that Steele really excels, Steele making Asa both repellent and nightmarishly evil - and yet simultaneously seductively arousing. There’s a key sequence in which she has to convince Checci’s character to come to her so she can take his blood to aid her resurrection. It’s a scene that could easily have fallen flat, but with Steele’s performance – "Look into my eyes. Come. Kiss me. My lips will transform you. You will be dead to men but you will be alive in death!" she pants, huge eyes mesmeric, her right hand scratching along the edge of the caterwaul – not to mention Bava’s incomparable realisation of the scene, it’s entirely convincing. More than that, with its dangerously on the edge, borderline necrophilic, mixing of horror and eroticism it’s arguably the finest scene in the film, and a genuine highlight in the career of both star and director.
The film is not quite perfect, however. The dialogue is rather ropy, and often delivered stoically flat – something that is perhaps a result of the translation and dubbing. It’s worth noting that this is the first release of the English dub prepared by the Italians, and is thus seems to have slightly different dialogue and voice actors to the American version that so many people grew up with. I can easily overlook the dubbing problems, but others may not be quite so forgiving. The biggest problem is perhaps that it’s too good. That is, the first 50 minutes are extremely good (with the 20 minutes or so starting with the Snow White-esque trip of a young girl through the woods to milk a cow through to the discovery f a body by a river being almost impossibly great – they should be imprinted on the mind of every horror movie lover) that the second half, fine though it undoubtedly is, can’t quite match it. Regardless, this is a genuinely great film, an essential for every serious horror fan, and one that seems to improve with each repeat viewing.