The opening scene of “La maschera del demonio” (aka “Black Sunday, 1960) is one of the most striking and atmospheric in all of horror cinema, and encapsulates almost everything you need to know about what makes the unique genre films of Italian maestro Mario Bava so special and so memorable. Viewers who first encountered this film in the 1960s were instantly struck by the bewitching compositions it presented from its earliest moments: a bleak, forbidding forest clearing beset by swirling ground mist, framed by a blackened crown of gnarled and twisted tree branches which poke threateningly out of the carefully composed tableau, each subsequent shot and camera move stoking up an atmosphere that is part enchanted fairy tale and part nightmarish expressionist fantasy -- yet all created on a small, confined studio set out of next to nothing but a master camera technician’s elaborate skill with the manipulation of light and shadow against a luminous cyclorama backdrop and some strategically-placed set dressings, which miraculously conjure a dreamlike enactment of 17th century Moldavia in rich, velvety monochrome photographic textures: this is the context that also provides the setting for the unveiling of the one person, besides Bava himself, most responsible for making this film such an important first step in what was to become known as the golden age of Italian fantasy/horror cinema. That person was Barbara Steele, the feline, Cheshire-born English actress who’s ability to combine, under Bava’s distinctive guidance, an unparalleled portrayal of sexual allure with the necrophiliac’s clammy reek of grave mould for her striking role as the film’s vampire witch and disciple of Satan Princess Aja, turned her into the first great female icon of the horror genre -- although she never quite recaptured the unique combination of attraction and repulsion which was minted by Bava for this, the director’s outstanding debut as a solely credited film director.
Although born on the eve of war in 1914, San Remo, Italy, Mario Bava was nevertheless to grow up in an affluent and comfortably Bourgeois environment where he was accordingly provided with ample opportunity to indulge his love of the fine arts from an early age. He became a skilled painter who loved the classics he studied at university dearly; and yet he was always steeped in cinema due to his father Eugenio being one of Italy’s most admired cameramen and designers of special effects. Both were skills the elder veteran passed on to his son, and they were skills put to good use when the always unambitious Mario was forced to give up his low-paying job as a film production assistant for much more demanding work as a cinematographer in order to be able to sufficiently support his wife and first child. Bava’s great skill for devising in-camera effects developed alongside natural artistic abilities which had most likely been nurtured in him as a result of his artistic background and seemed also to equip him with an aptitude that enabled Bava to go on to help save quite a few ailing film projects; his speed and efficiency as a cameraman was often all that stood between pictures being completed on time or going terribly over budget, or even having to be abandoned completely. These skills first brought him to the attention of director Riccardo Freda, who employed Bava as a camera assistant on his historical period drama “The Sins of Rome” in 1953. When Freda decided to make Italy’s first home-grown horror film since the 1920s after the ban previously imposed by the Fascist regime was finally ended in 1956, he turned to Bava (who had been gainfully employed in the interim as a photographer for films by such luminaries as G. W. Pabst) to help him fulfil the task under the onerous conditions he’d been forced to agree to in order to secure the necessary finances from nervous producers Ermanno Donati and Luigi Carpentieri.
Freda agreed to complete the entire film in only twelve days as part of a bet, thus assuaging some of the fears the two producers had over horror films being an unproven genre in Italy. The film was “I vampiri” (also included on this disc as an extra), a tentative modern day Gothic fantasy horror which also incidentally secured some of the visual iconography of the giallo, as well as amply demonstrating Bava’s skills as an effects artist and photographer. Unfortunately, when ten days of the allotted twelve day shoot was already elapsed, Freda had completed only half of the movie and so walked off the project in a huff when Donati and Carpentieri insisted on honouring the original conditions of the bet. The film was temporarily shut down, leaving Bava to figure out, with the help of screenwriter Piero Regnoli, how to mould the ten days of rushes left by Freda into a usable film with the help of script re-writes that could be filmed with only the remaining two days of production time. Bava was the man in the director’s seat for those two days of shooting -- although it is still felt that the main body of the film is Freda’s, and it is hard to evaluate Bava’s directorial role in the film away from his contribution as a cameraman and effects artist.
“I vampiri” was a flop in anycase. Not because Italian audiences didn’t like horror films, but because at this early stage they still didn’t trust Italian filmmakers to make them! The two men worked together again, though, this time as co-directors on the Italian Quatermass rip-off “Caltiki: The Immortal Monster” (1959), although Freda claims he deliberately abandoned the project after only a few days in order to give Bava more experience as a director in his own right.
Freda recognised Mario Bava’s potential as a visual stylist and also how his love of, and facility for the creation of, elaborate special effects suited him, in particular, to the genre of fantastic cinema – a genre for which Freda himself had little love or understanding, and only agreed to work in again because it would make a fine training ground for his friend. The film was a modest box office success – largely because Freda and Bava disguised its Italian origins by adopting anglicised pseudonyms in the credits. However it was Bava’s work in completing the abandoned Steve Reeves sword & scandal epic "La Battaglia di Maratona" (aka, "The Giant of Marathon" 1959), bringing it in both on time and under budget after the great Franco-American director Jacques Tourneur left the picture before the action scenes had been shot, which finally gave Bava his first proper opportunity to direct a feature of his own (and one based on a property he himself was allowed to choose, albeit so long as it didn’t cost too much money). After Bava stepped into the breach once again to save the Tourneur film, a grateful producer at Galatea Films, Lionello Santi, decided Bava should finally be rewarded for his methodical and uncomplaining perseverance in applying his great skills and specialities to saving so many faltering productions.
Barbara Steele’s entry into the film industry, meanwhile, started when she was picked up as a contract player by the Rank Organisation after an earlier modelling career she'd embarked on as a teenager. Rank sold her to 20th Century Fox, who dyed her hair blonde and put her in the Elvis Presley vehicle “Flaming Star”. But the mercurial starlet appeared to commit professional suicide by walking off the picture after a row with the film’s director Don Siegel, simultaneously breaching her contract with Fox in the process and vowing never to work in Hollywood again. She flew to Rome, where it just so happened that her casting photograph had already been submitted to Galatea Films in consideration for a role in one of their upcoming biblical epics. When Bava saw the peculiarly large-eyed, enigmatic sultry beauty that radiated from the producer’s photograph of Steele, he knew he’d found the actress capable of embodying the double role of the virginal Princess Katia and her demonic vampire-witch ancestor, for his directorial debut.
“La maschera del demonio” was very loosely based on one of Bava’s favourite stories from classic literature, ‘The Vij’, by the Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol; yet just about the only concept or story idea that survives from the original work in the finished film is that of an old witch hag being seen to become youthful again (and vice versa). Screenwriter Ennio De Concini moulds a fairly traditional Gothic horror story around many familiar elements of Gothic literature and it appears that Bava and his very fine editor Mario Serandrei also changed some of the script while the film was in production (which perhaps helps explain Serandei’s writing credit) leading to quite a few false trails and ambiguities in the resulting narrative.
The film’s undoubtedly striking mise-en-scene, couched in a handsome-looking blend of stylistic approaches that successfully meld the traditional look of old-style black & white Universal horror films from the ‘40s with that of Hammer’s recent Gothic fairy tale revivals of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy (something for everyone here!) with their greater emphasis on blood and gore, is often rightly praised of course, but frequently that praise also forms part of a critique which short changes the film as being an exercise in style over substance. The storyline, on the surface, does indeed appear to be a simplistic one, involving the eventual triumph of good over evil, innocence over corruption and purity over vice -- with the two polarities being unambiguously separated in their representation on the screen by Satan’s emissary the vampire Igor Javutich (brilliantly played by Arturo Dominici) and his witch consort Princess Asa Vajda (Steele) on the evil side of the equation; and by bland heroic medic Dr Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) and the melancholy Princess Katia (also played by Barbara Steele) on the side of innocence and good.
Around this dichotomy a familiar tale is built up from very typical tropes of the Gothic genre: Poe-like family curses seeping ancestral poison down the ages to infect and destroy the current generation; cobweb-shrouded castle crypts and secret passageways; torch-bearing mobs of villagers storming the castle on the hill … the film throws everything into the melting pot, and begins with Javutich and Asa’s execution on the Feast of Saint George, also known as Black Sunday, at the hands of their brother (who is also the Grand Inquisitor of Moldavia) for practicing vampirism and witchcraft. Indeed, the film seems to conflate the two evils and also prefigures future representations of the cinematic zombie, familiar to us today from Hammer’s “The Plague of the Zombies”, George A Romero’s ground-breaking zombie series and Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie 2”, specifically in the later sequence in which Javutich has to literally claw his way out of his grave and initially displays a somewhat somnambulistic gait, familiar from the zombie's modern incarnation. In order to ‘cleanse the earth of these blood devouring assassins’, Asa is first punished by the inquisition by a branding with a red hot iron displaying the mark of Satan, then staked through the eyes with a sadistically heavy bronze spiked mask which is hammered firmly onto her face with a single blow from a mallet. The two children of the devil are then burnt at the stake, as the witch curses the house of Vajda, promising: ‘you will never escape my vengeance, nor that of Satan’s!’ afterwards, Asa’s burnt corpse is buried in the Vajda family crypt and Javutich’s in the unconsecrated ground reserved for murderers and suicides.
Thus the opening establishes the smoky monochrome expressionist world of classic horror, and at the same time dwells on the more explicit, gory elements now making their way into the genre by way of Terrence Fisher’s trio of Hammer classics. The dark Gothic romanticism continues when the film jumps two centuries into the future and finds two academics, the elder Dr Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young protégé Dr Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson -- who’d starred alongside Steele before, while also a contract player for Rank) on a trip to a medical conference in Moscow, taking a short cut through an fairy tale-like woodland after dismissing the superstitious coachman’s fears about witches. One of their coach wheels slips its socket in a rut outside the now ruined family chapel containing the cobweb-lined crypt of Vajda, and the two discover the remains of Princess Asa in her sarcophagus – a built in window allowing the shadow of the heavy stone cross which adorns it to fall across her eyeless skull, keeping the vampire fixed in its place. When they meet princess Katia nearby (framed amid the remains of the chapel against a brooding matte-painted skyline, with two large mastiff dogs at her side) Gorobec falls for her instantly.
These opening twenty minutes, encompassing the witch’s execution and the bumpy night time coach ride through the woods with the two medics in tow, along with their subsequent exploration of the ancient chapel ruins and crypt complex, together form one of the most visually impressive openings in all of fantasy cinema. Bava’s skill in creating such atmosphere out of very little is consummate: one is fully persuaded of the reality of the miles of enchanted forest and of the two academics’ bumpy coach ride through this dark wonderland when in fact Bava creates the illusion with just a few props and limited effects on a tiny studio set. The bat attack on Dr Kruvajan whilst he examines Princess Asa’s sarcophagus, and which causes him to smash the coffin’s glass inset and cut himself while attempting to beat the creature off in the darkened crypt (providing the droplet of blood which begins Asa’s reanimation) is a sequence the like of which we’ve seen countless times before; but Bava (and his editor) make it a masterclass in how to pull off such a scene convincingly, using flickering silhouettes and only glimpses of the actual bat prop accompanied by screeching sound effects that together contribute to forging a bravura experience.
Bava was also the cameraman on the picture and his black and white lighting is exquisite throughout, creating an enchanted yet forbidding mood with his deployment of diffuse light filtering into the eerie crypt as the camera pans around the marvellously lit set of designer Giorgio Giovannini in a 360 degree rotation, or in the impression of moonlight seen glinting off the rolling studio-created mists. The flickering candle flames and lanterns in the crepuscular vaults of castle Vajda cast a light that licks the heavy shadows in a dance of chiaroscuro patterns and Bava’s matte painted backdrops in the studio interiors (painted by the director himself) help create an otherworldly landscape. He also frequently brings his knowledge of in-camera effects to bear in scenes depicting the supernatural aspects of the reanimated couple, such as Javutich’s materialisation from a darkened corner of the castle and, most impressively, the clever filtered lighting effects used to age Katia when her evil ancestor takes over the young princess’s body (a technique Bava learned from American cameraman Karl Struss and which became much more famous for its use in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 version of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”) . Although clearly dealing in familiar Gothic iconography derived from many sources, Bava weaves it together in unique ways which allow the material to feel fresh again. The stylishness and visual beauty of the film is closely aligned with images of cruelty and suffering that evoke terror and foreboding in a manner unique to Italian horror, despite the easily identifiable elements from which the story is composed and its many borowings from both a heritage of classical horror and contemporary box office successes like Terence Fisher’s “Dracula”. Bava’s trademark use of the dolly and tracking shot is constantly on display here, the budget allowing the director the luxury of being able to use the proper equipment to effect these stylistic trademarks to the film’s full advantage, rather than having to rely on the ‘child’s wagon’ he was forced to resort to on later even smaller budgeted features.
There are many moments in the film when the camera’s elaborate movements become the central defining feature of the sequence, such as when Bava’s camera assumes the POV of an invisible malevolent force sweeping through castle Adja, knocking down suits of armour and chairs; or when the death of one of the main characters is revealed through a vertiginous swooping camera manipulation that starts from above the scene, with the camera made to plunge forward and rotate through 180 degrees in a single flowing movement thanks to a specially made pivot platform devised by Bava’s father Eugenio . This inspired use of the mobile camera contributes towards the creation of a slow, mournful, often processional style, fully suited to the dreamlike ambiance Italian Gothic horror tended to luxuriate in, in contrast to the more upbeat English approach familiar from Hammer productions of the period. This elegance and high-blown romanticism, which some non-Italian audiences found unpalatable (thus accounting for the absence of the rather drippy romantic subplot between Princess Katia and Dr Gorobec in the AIP version of the film, produced under the title “Black Sunday” for North American audiences), and which is a feature that’s often fulsomely accentuated by composer Roberto Nicolosi’s over-ripe romantic music cues, is also an element which some commentators see as a weakness in the picture, since it tends to interrupt the flow of an already uncertain story development. While this criticism is to some extent valid, the themes which would go on to inform much of Bava’s later work in a variety of genres, are also clearly enough signposted here amid some of the director’s most ravishing imagery, to lend the narrative’s languid, sometimes almost stagnated progress towards what appears to be a fairly uncomplicated tale about good’s eventual triumph against evil, more of a pessimistic tone than may at first appear to be the case on initial acquaintance with the film.
Until the ban on horror movies in Italy was lifted in the mid-fifties, the only access to anything remotely fantastic with a horror element attached to it that Italian audiences would have been able to familiarise themselves with, was the 1937 Walt Disney version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, a fact which explains the prevalence here of fairy tale imagery and the pitting of innocence against evil in the form of black witches that covet beauty and youth – a theme that can be found in both Bava’s debut and in Freda’s “I vampiri”. Along these lines, perhaps the film’s most magical sequence, and the one that hints the most at the influence exerted by Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête” (1946) on Bava’s mise-en-scene, is the episode in which the recently re-animated Javutich arrives outside the inn at which Drs Kruvajan and Gorobec have been staying the night, posing as the coachman from Castle Vajda who’s been sent to bring Kruvajan to tend to Katia’s father, the ailing Prince (Ivo Garrani). The subsequent slow motion coach ride through unearthly billowing mist, observed by the servant girl on her way back through the forest after milking the family cow in a markedly Lewton-esque sequence, forms a majestically fantastical surrealist tableau which, at the same time, blatantly references the famous scene from Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” in which Jonathan Harker is led to castle Dracula by a spectral coach driver who later turns out to be the Count himself.
The association is made more explicit still by Arturo Dominici’s performance as the satanic Javutich during this segment, which seems modelled on Christopher Lee’s aristocratic imperiousness in the role of Count Dracula as depicted for Terrence Fisher’s film (Bava almost certainly saw the Hammer version of “Dracula” before beginning work on “La maschera del demonio”). Dominici’s bearing strikes at a similarly bold, dashing image of evil, with his long dark cape trailing in his wake as he leads the unsuspecting medic through darkened secret stone passageways into the castle, eventually leading him out into the adjoining chapel crypt and into the vampire clutches of Javutich’s consort, Princess Aja -- who is still at this moment in need of more of Kruvajan’s blood in order to complete her rejuvenation. The film’s depiction of vampirism and its somewhat sketchy conflation of vampirism and witchcraft are unusual anomalies, but form part of the narrative’s depiction of female beauty as a disguise that conceals corruptness and evil. In fact it is Asa’s beauty which is the true ‘Mask of Satan’ of the film’s title, rather than the bronze face-piece hammered onto the skulls of both Asa and Javutich in the opening sequence.
A running theme through most of Bava’s later work would be the deceptiveness of appearances but “La maschera del demonio” frequently juxtaposes its images of horror and beauty in a much more elaborate matrix of associations than almost any other film of its type. Barbara Steele’s ability to embody both repulsiveness and attractiveness simultaneously, leads to many stand-out moments, such as the set-piece in which her sarcophagus explodes in an outpouring of psychic energy which could well be primarily sexual in origin, and which reveals her still half-cadaverous body, the wide-eyed face still punctured with the suppurating wounds from the spiked masked of two centuries ago: in this sequence the incompletely revived witch then mesmerises Kruvajan into allowing him-self to be drained of the rest of his blood in order to give Asa more power to bring about her full reincarnation. Steele’s heaving bosom, hypnotic stare and silky words of enticement contrast with her deathly corpselike aspect, in the process suggesting the unwholesome association with necrophilia that was to make AIP’s producer Sam Arkoff uncomfortable enough to cause him to edit the end of this sequence from the US version of the film – for Princess Asa drains Kruvajan’s life force not by a traditional bloodsucking bite to the neck, but with a long passionate kiss on the lips, completed whilst still reclining in her dank, cobwebby place of rest!
Images of decay, rottenness and putrefaction are prominently situated throughout, alongside the exquisitely crafted dark Gothic beauty of the film’s mise-en-scene, just as Asa’s beauty is mixed inextricably in with images of death, torture and suffering like the painful hot branding of the witch’s back that’s conducted in the opening sequence, and the shot of the heavy mask being forcefully hammered onto her face, which causes a veritable fountain of blood to erupt from the eye holes to the accompaniment of Asa’s screams. Such an act seems calculated by the witch’s army of male persecutors to bring about the destruction of the female pulchritude that’s been assumed and co-opted by demonic evil as its false mask of deception. Mario Bava’s father Eugenio was responsible for many of the film’s goriest practical special effects (starting a family tradition that was to see Mario’s own son Lamberto work on many of his father’s films as an assistant director and culminating in both father and son then working alongside each other on Dario Argento’s “Inferno” years later) and crafts many a hideous image using some often ingenious means. The first discovery of Asa’s decayed corpse reveals a skull-like visage, sculpted from wax by Eugenio, with what appear to be tiny crawling scorpions scurrying out of its eye sockets; later, the beginnings of Asa’s rejuvenation are accompanied by unpleasant squidgy sound effects on the soundtrack as congealed blood infested with maggots bubbles up around her skull’s eyeless sockets, and the eyeballs start to take shape in the cavities – an effect achieved by Eugenio using jelly and rice as a bed for two poached eggs! The bloody corpse of the stable groom earlier murdered by the re-animated Javutich is eventually found by children washed up by the riverbank, his skull smashed in and plastered in dripping gore. When Prince Vajda rises zombie-like from his coffin to prey on his own daughter, and is promptly violently destroyed by the undead Javutich (since Katia has to be preserved as the host body for the revived Asa) by being thrust into the castle’s vast ornamental fire-grate, the camera dwells lingeringly on the wax dummy head of the Prince as it melts amid the flames. This latter scene is another one, incidentally, that blatantly references Terrence Fisher’s “Dracula” in depicting Javutich's vengeful attitude towards one of his own servants.
The initial reanimation of Javutich and the later destruction of the vampirised Dr Kruvajan (when he’s found by his young colleague Gorobec and the village priest, resting in Javutich’s now vacated grave), are both scenes that make explicit the film’s unusual preoccupation with the imagery of degeneration, defilement and corruption: in another key sequence depicting Igor Javutich’s rise from his muddy grave under Asa’s spell, as a thunderstorm lashes the un-consecrated ground in which he was interred two centuries earlier, the film emphasises the Bava vampire’s association with the decay of the grave, when Javutich’s countenance is finally revealed in full -- while lit by bolts of lightning -- to be a peeling, disfigured mask of scarred flesh; Bava’s amended vampire lore states that the undead corpse rots again in its grave come morning, and has to go through the whole gruesome business of rejuvenation before it can leave its resting place once more the following night. Before they stake him through his left eye (another amendment to vampire lore used to differentiate Bava’s vampire-witch-zombie hybrid from the norm, and which was cut from the US version) Kruvajan has become a ghostly mesmerised white-haired undead being under the witch’s control, after earlier being preyed on by Princess Asa; he is ‘a slave of the Devil: dead during the day but alive by night so that he can carry out Satan’s nefarious orders’. When tracked down by Dr Gorobec, the medic finds his former mentor has become a desiccated, eyeless corpse, awaiting his next calling from the grave. Such imagery further underlines the film’s unusual admixture of vampire and zombie and witch attributes, which come together to make a dark work of fantasy that couches its dreamy Gothic fairy tale ambiance in a veritable mire of necrophiliac associations.
But with its sweeping, Gothic-tinged, good-verses-evil fantasy scenario and a subplot which effects a somewhat old-fashioned romantic outcome between the good Princess Katia and her young suitor Dr Gorobec, “La maschera del demonio” appears on the surface of things to represent a much inferior precursor to the more transparently fatalistic and cynical portrait of human nature which has come to be associated with Mario Bava’s later masterpieces such as” I tre volti della paura” (aka “Black Sabbath”), “6 donne per l’ assassino” (aka “Blood and Black Lace”) and “Twitch of the Death Nerve”. Even more obviously lesser works like “5 Bambole per la luna d’agosto” (“Five Dolls for an August Moon”) or the wonderful pop art comic strip extravaganza that is “Danger: Diabolik” seem infused with a much harder, bittersweet outlook on life than this black and white fable, wrapped in its attractive other-worldly bow of expressionist storybook imagery.
But a closer inspection of Bava’s debut reveals it is almost equally as pessimistic and ambivalent in its attitudes towards a host of familiar Bava themes (although this ambivalence is heavily disguised with the romantic clichés of Gothic melodrama), themes such as the untrustworthiness of and the blinding qualities inherent to feelings of romantic attraction and the deceptive, cannibalistic and perishable nature of extended family relationships (families always being central to Italian culture). The Vajda clan is – literally! – the family from Hell, suffering a curse that starts in the 17th century with the suggestion that incestuous acts may have taken place between Asa and Javutich. For although it’s never explicitly stated that they are brother and sister, Javutich’s robe prominently displays the image of a griffin on its chest and this is later shown to be the Vajda family’s heraldic emblem, which appears in family portraits (and signals the rejuvenation of the two vampire/witches when it supernaturally changes position in a painting of the evil male ancestor -- a particularly MR James touch) and is also visible as a carving, displayed behind the huge ornate fireplace dominating castle Vajda’s drawing room (which is itself a hidden gateway to Asa’s current resting place).
The prominence of these symbols and portraits, with their domination of the cold, isolated ancestral castle setting, becomes a signifier of the family’s enslavement to its infamous past, germinating a tainted atmosphere of fatalism and despondency within the household which the current generation, made up of Prince Vajda and his two children, Princess Katia and Prince Constantine (Enrico Olivieri), must endeavour to live with. The devotion with which the two siblings attend to their nervous father is offset by the bleakness of their surroundings; Kaytia’s first appearance amid the forbidding ruins of the family chapel, which has been allowed to decay and crumble over the last two centuries, suggests an idea that is made more explicit later in the movie during Gorobec’s conversation with the Princess near the fountain in the grounds of the castle: that she is held in a kind of moribund limbo or stasis associated with death and decay as much by these family ties as by the curse that implicates her personally with the inescapable fact that the beauty which makes her an object of romantic interest for Dr Gorobec is itself a central factor in the family’s ultimate ruination -- part of the curse handed down from generation to generation with the ultimate aim of destroying the Vajda family both in name and number.
We learn that Asa’s looks have been passed down the female ancestral line and reoccur with each generation: every one hundred years a Vajda female is born who embodies the evil witch Asa’s raven-haired feline beauty, despite the sadistic attempts of Katia’s inquisitor forbearers to eradicate it with spiked bronze mask nailed onto the face of the witch and then a burning at the stake, with the skeletal remains interned under the sign of a heavy stone cross. Katia is the film’s embodiment of wholesome, virginal goodness – yet she is visually defined by a beauty which the film also couples with the notion of corruption and evil. Prince Vajda is haunted by a sense of doom at the start of the film because he knows the second hundred year anniversary of Asa’s and Javutich’s joint death at the stake approaches, and that the last such anniversary brought with it disaster when the princess who at that time shared Asa’s looks and who came of age on that previous occasion one hundred years ago, died soon after an earthquake shook the witch’s resting place and ruined the family chapel. ‘It is as if the witch torments her victims with her own beauty before killing them,’ bemoans Prince Vajda at one point, and indeed, not only does Asa’s beauty signify an association between female sexual attractiveness and inherent evil, corruption and decay, but Asa herself is portrayed as what writer Troy Howarth, in his 2002 survey of Barva’s filmography “The Haunted World of Mario Bava” (FAB Press) calls ‘the prototypical, cannibalistic wicked stepmother who feeds off her own children to replenish her fading youth.’
The climax of the movie rests on Gorobec being canny enough to distinguish the evil Asa, now reborn in the stolen youthful body of Princess Katia, from the aged crone he discovers in Asa’s former resting place, who is in reality Katia herself, recently drained of her vital forces by the vampiric witch. By this stage, the satanic creature’s plan to destroy the Vajda family has apparently been fulfilled as both the blameless prince Constantine and Prince Vajda have been cruelly killed. Indeed, the vengeance exacted upon the patriarchal prince is twofold: first he is murdered in his bed by Javutich, despite the protection of a large crucifix; then, as a distraught Princess Katia prays to her deceased father’s spirit for help and fortitude in her hour of need, the prince himself becomes a vampire creature of the night who rises from his coffin (a brilliant scene orchestrated seemingly from Katia’s viewpoint as she peers out from between her fingers while the Prince’s eyes flick open and dart from left to right as they search her out) to reject his daughter’s prayers and instead makes to drain her of her blood in a recapitulation of the incestuous theme, before being thwarted in his endeavours by Javutich. The last minute arrival of a mob of torch bearing villagers, led by a bearded priest who is the only person able to translate the cryillic inscriptions found on an icon near Asa’s tomb that tell how to defeat the curse, feels like rather an unconvincing last minute cop out employed for the purposes of a glib happy ending at first -- reversing the apparent defeat for the forces of good at a stroke by having the dead, aged body of Katia conveniently restored to its former youthful vigour as the witch who assumed her appearance perishes once more, amid the flames of a bonfire presided over by the people of the village.
In fact the ‘happiness’ of this ending could be read as being rather more subversive and complicated than it at first appears to be, enabling the film to function as a much more ambiguous treatment of the duality of good and evil than is generally found in Hammer’s output, for instance, where the dividing line between light and dark is often a lot more clear cut and the general message more optimistic in nature, as the two realms are more easily separated and understood in Hammer's world. Earlier in the film Katia had appeared rather melancholy and sad, constricted by her life in the dark and isolated castle, with only her brother and father for male company and surrounded by a landscape of dead trees and swirling mist. If it had not been for the deaths of her two remaining family members at the hands of her vampire ancestors during the course of the film, she probably never would’ve left the castle grounds and would never have severed the family ties that were holding her in a perpetual limbo, bound forever to a stultifying past. One might see a parallel with Asa and Javutich themselves, who had rejected their family in their unholy devotion to each other (and Satan) and were made to pay the ultimate price as a consequence. But with her father and brother both dead thanks to the curse, Katia is ironically now free to pursue the romantic union with Andrej Gorobec suggested by the subplot at the end of the film and portrayed, with a swelling of romantic music, as an unambiguously happy ending – the bloody deaths of the two people she’d loved the most notwithstanding. But there is an extra twist to the tale, for with the restoration of Katia’s youth there also comes the resurrection of Princess Asa’s beauty by implication. For, even though Asa might have stolen Katia’s body, the looks themselves originally stemmed from the evil vampire-witch as part of the curse and they are looks which the film has endeavoured throughout to associate with the corruption and deception of the evil ancestor, hence the concentration on emphasising the original placement of the bronze mask on Asa’s face during the film’s introduction. Despite everything, Asa’s image continues to live on at the end of the film, and with it comes the possibility that the divide between good and evil cannot be so clearly defined. Perhaps it is even necessary as part of Katia’s transition to womanhood, despite how the torch-bearing villagers and religious authorities who appear to triumph in the end would wish to have it.
“La maschera del demonio” certainly lives on with this dual format deluxe Blu-ray/DVD combo edition from Arrow Video, which provides what is likely to be the definitive presentation of the film in all its variants, under the selling title “Black Sunday”.
The original Italian cut of the movie, familiar from previous DVD releases, still has its occasional speckles and flecks present and the contrast sometimes bleaches out detail in longer shots just as before, but there is still considerably more detail discernible in this high definition (1080p) presentation than we’ve been subject to previously. The textures of Giorgio Giovannini’s magical sets and the exquisite precision of Bava’s lighting is now more evident than ever, undoubtedly increasing one’s overall enjoyment and appreciation for the film’s Gothic fairy tale ambiance. Furthermore, thanks to the inclusion of English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, non-Italian-speaking viewers now have the option of viewing the film with the Italian soundtrack as well as the original English dub provided by the Italian producers for the full-strength version that was provided for export when the film was sold to AIP under its original English translation title of “The Mask of Satan”. This Italian cut is still the preferred version, whether one would rather watch with the English or the Italian dub playing (and neither language option fully syncs with the on-screen movement of the actors’ lips thanks to the Italian method of post-syncing all sound afterwards, to the extent that some of the script probably wasn’t actually even written at the time of shooting!). But Arrow come up trumps once more by also providing an extra treat, here, that makes this release a required purchase for the true Mario Bava fanatic. Also included on the disc, and also being made available in a high definition print, is the re-edited and re-scored version of the film created by Sam Arkoff for release as “Black Sunday” in the US in 1961. The gorier scenes, such as the undead Kruvajan’s eye staking in the graveyard, were cut out in this version; as were the more suggestive scenes in which Steele’s performance mixes eroticism and sexual allure with a corpselike repulsiveness to give a morbid necrophiliac flavour to her seduction of the good doctor. AIP also changed the opening credit sequence, altered details in the script during the re-dubbing and replaced composer Roberto Nicolosi’s cues with a completely different score by Les Baxter. Nevertheless, this is the version that older Bava fans will doubtless remember seeing at the theatre or on TV. Baxter’s score is much more strident and conventional in comparison to the more idiosyncratic and often sentimental music originally supplied for the Italian version. The original score lends the film its unique dreamy character, but it’s interesting to view Bava’s classic with its alternative music cues as well. Baxter’s music seems to take an approach that's more in line with that of Hammer’s composer James Bernard, and the film’s Hammer-esque qualities are certainly more evident in the US version, which is more dynamic and runs about three minutes shorter than the Italian cut since most of the sentimental scenes between Gorobec and Katia were also cut out by AIP. When AIP decided to buy the rights to the film for $10,000, it meant that the picture recouped its production costs almost immediately and “Black Sunday” went on to outperform all of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations at the box office, while leading to Barbara Steele being cast in the second of them, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, thus cementing her reputation as the Queen of Horror. This deluxe version marks the first time the AIP cut has received a home viewing release.
Arrow Video isn’t content to rest with that coup though. Also included here (but not in a high definition transfer) is Riccardo Freda’s “I vampire”, the film that kick-started the whole boom in Italian horror, pre-dating Hammer’s “The Curse of Frankenstein” by one year. Mario Bava's cinematography perfectly captures the amazingly elaborate art direction of Beni Montresor in this fairly low budget offering which nevertheless drips with classiness: particularly striking are the interior scenes in the Du Grand castle with its carefully cultivated look of antiquated decay. Bava's camera lovingly prowls among the castle’s spacious hallways, which are lined with oddly distracting translucent veils billowing eerily in the background of almost every scene in which they appear. The look of Italian Gothic horror was defined by Bava for years to come with this first film in the genre and it is notable that many of the elements that came to be associated with the giallo (also, of course, a genre pioneered by Bava) appear here as well, probably for the first time: the amateur detective attempting to solve a crime without police help and the involvement of a black gloved assailant in the murders, seen here rifling through a filing cabinet for files on the victims, for instance.
Adding to this already fervid mix Freda and Bava include mad scientists concocting youth-restoring serums from the vaults of secret castle laboratories, and yet another imperious but fatally glamorous female who selfishly preys upon the youthfulness of young women for her own advancement. The storyline has the city of Paris being terrorised by a vampire killer who drains the blood of his/her victims then dumps them in the River Seine. As the blood-drained body of yet another young girl is dredged from the river, intrepid news reporter Pierre Lantin (Dario Michaelis) is on the case, much to the annoyance of the police department (who resent his meddling) and of his photographer colleague who would much rather cover the frivolous activities of a glamorous aristocratic Parisian socialite called Gisele du Grand. When a pupil at a dance school is abducted by a black-gloved assailant, Lantin goes to interview one of her friends, a young girl called Lorette (Wandisa Guida), who mentions that she and the missing girl had previously believed that they were being followed. Lantin soon notices that Lorette is still being shadowed by a mysterious man and when the journalist confronts him, he turns out to be a drug addict called Joseph Signoret (Paul Muller). Panicked by the unexpected attention, Signoret seeks out the person responsible for forcing him to kidnap the missing women (in return for supplying him with his cocaine) and threatens to go to the police if he is not paid off. Meanwhile, Lantin is being romantically pursued by Giselle Du Grand (Gianna Maria Canale), who is the niece of the Duchess Margherita Du Grand. Lantin is not too keen on her despite the fact that she is widely believed to be the most beautiful woman in Paris, mainly because his father was destroyed by a scandal caused by the Duchess Du Grand's romantic interest in him.
What Lantin doesn't know, of course, is that Giselle IS the Duchess! Her brother, Julien Du Grand, is a scientist who has developed a youth serum that can help the aged Duchess become young again for short periods of time. However, the serum requires human blood and out of crazed devotion to the crone-like Duchess, Julien has been employing Signoret to kidnap girls in order to use their life forces in his secret work. Even here, the fairy tale themes are transparent, but lurking behind the traditional elements of this contemporary set Gothic tale there also lies a critique of the glamorous but vapid social elite and the media that promotes it, as well as of the aristocracy’s exploitation of the masses -- all this several years before “La Dolce Vita”, but disguised by Freda by his setting the film in Paris in order to remove any taint the horror genre might cast over Italy! Bava’s craftsmanship is already apparent in this first feature to extensively incorporate his full talents as a cameraman, an effects artist and, briefly, as a director. It’s a fitting and extremely worthwhile extra to have alongside the main feature.
Also on the disc are a bevy of extras including an authoritative audio commentary by Bava expert and author of “Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark” which was originally provided for the Italian cut of the movie and recorded for the 1999 DVD release of the film by Image. There’s a short introduction to the movie by genre critic Alan Jones, filmed for the 2007 box set release by Anchor Bay, and an eight minute interview with Barbara Steele. The one deleted scene, discovered only in the last decade, plus notes on it by Tim Lucas which discuss where it was originally intended to slot into the film and why it might have been taken out, is also included along with a US trailer (which comes with a producer’s warning stating that the film might be harmful to young and impressionable minds), an international trailer and a TV spot. A trailer for “I vampire” also appears in a sub menu for that film and there is a lengthy trailer reel of Mario Bava titles which comes with a high definition presentation, affording us our first tantalising glimpse of “Blood and Black Lace” and “La frusta e il corpo (“The Whip and the Body”) in the HD format. Let’s hope that Arrow Video can get hold of the rights to release these two much neglected classics as part of this Bava Blu-ray series at some point, as well.
The package comes with a reversible sleeve featuring original artwork by Graham Humphreys and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Matt Bailey and Alan Jones, as well as a statement by Riccardo Freda on “I vampire” and Bava, translated from the original Italian for the first time and illustrated with original archive stills and posters.
A Limited edition slipbox version (only 1000 will be made) is also to be made available exclusively from the Arrow store at www.Arrowfilms.co.uk
Bava’s first full-length film as a credited director remains an important, ground-breaking and immensely bold first step in the development of Italian horror and has had an incalculable influence on almost everyone who first saw it and then went on to pick up a camera, from Argento to Tim Burton. This release is a fine tribute to the genius that was Mario Bava and is highly recommended.
Read More from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!