It was an odd coincidence that I screened both Black Sabbath and Black Sunday this year. This one popped up as a Netflix suggestion after I queued up Fulci's Zombie, and I added it days before Cat clued me in to the other Bava flick released three years later, home of the infamous Gritted Teeth Lady. So I had myself a three-movie mini film festival that I'll call "The Roots of Italian Horror." I'm not sure that's accurate, but it feels right.
Released in its home country as The Mask of Satan, this tale is steeped in pure Gothic, both in imagery and story. It feels back-to-the-basics because it is the basics; something that could be viewed as camp but is actually sincere enough to be pre-camp. Watching it fifty years later, I found it struck a superb balance between serious and silly. I'll be teasing this movie, but I also respectfully admit I couldn't help pulling lots of sceenshots, so wonderfully expressive are these images.
Our story begins in 17th century Moldavia, as a local prince and his Inquisition-y buddies hold a sister burning. Accused of a double header of witchcraft and vampirism, princess Asa Vajda and her large henchman Igor Javutich have metal masks nailed to their faces, because the "S" brands just don't say enough.
Defiant to the end, Asa lays a curse whammy on her brother and all his descendants, making her way worse than any aunt with a mustache that you had to kiss as a child. Before they stick the mask on her, she screams "The powers of Satan lie in ambush!" Sure enough, a sudden thunderstorm thwarts the burning, and even though the mask was applied with merely one tap of the hammer, Asa is strangely silent.
As cornball as this movie might get at times, it's got some brief but impressive moments of violence and gore. The mask is jammed on her face offscreen, but then we see the Rancor Keeper's dad here pound it on like he's doing one of those bell things at the carnival. I don't remember if I jumped, but I certainly widened my eyes.
The next shot cracked me up.
It's a perfectly valid story maneuver, but I don't know, I laughed. "Jeez, movie, get to it already." Anyway...
Dr. Thomas Kruvajan and his handsome assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec are on their way to a medical conference when their drunk carriage driver, terrified to be driving through cursed territory, goes too fast and ironically throws a wheel. As he repairs it, the doctors poke around the local ruins and find Asa's tomb. Her mask is visible through a window in the coffin's lid, which enables her to see the cross atop her coffin and thus be held in place by the power of Good. During a moment alone, Kruvajan is attacked by a huge bat that resembles the bats that fly around Sesame Street's Count von Count. He takes down the beast with a pistol shot and several wild thwacks with his cane, managing to destroy the cross and break the window.
Not satisfied with accidental desecration of a grave, he decides to reach inside and very deliberately pull off the Satanic mask, I guess because doctors are allowed to do whatever. Naturally he cuts himself on the glass while admiring the corpse's eyeless but well-preserved face.
On their way out they manage to complete the plot setup by running into Katia Vajda, who is the spitting image of her evil ancestor. She delivers some family history that sounds much like the doomy-doom-doom chatter from the Black Sabbath story "The Wurdalak," although this time the timeframe is hundreds of years instead of one really bad weekend. The specifics are murky, but the Vajda family consider their bloodline cursed.
Also as in "The Wurdalak," the young traveler becomes instantly smitten (nothing like a pretty woman with problems, am I right?), so it's no biggie when the doctors' journey is delayed and they crash at the local inn. When Katia goes home to hang with her dad and brother, dad suddenly freaks out. They have a huge portrait of evil Asa in their living room (of course), and he just noticed that something in the painting changed. Suddenly he realizes that the 200th anniversary of Asa's death is upon them, and mentions the family story from 100 years before. Apparently there was another chick who, like Katia, looked just like Asa (I mean, really, why keep the portrait around?), and she died on the first centennial of that day.
We cut from that scene to watch Asa's muscle Igor Javutich climb out of his grave during a thunderstorm, a drawn-out but beautiful sequence that they probably show you on the first day of Gothic 101.
Igor will proceed to do the heavy lifting while Asa spends the movie lying on a slab. Before she can burst her coffin open with pure evil, however, Igor must lure Dr. Kruvajan into the tomb so Asa can have a go at the rest of his blood. Here follows my favorite shot of the flick, the one which, had I seen this as a kid, would have haunted me to this day.
Finding himself back in the tomb, Kruvajan peers into the window and sees this.
A sudden noise causes him to turn his head for a second, and when he looks again, he sees...
It's too good to goof on with a caption. I watched it over and over, and it's a perfect nugget of chilled horror.
At this point I'm going to stop telling you every little thing, although there are a few screenshots I'd like to showcase.
It's funny to me that most of this atmospheric imagery was totally lost on me when I'd watch this kind of flick on Creature Double Feature. Or perhaps it did affect me, but I didn't notice it. I only thought "castle," or more accurately " *sigh* castle not currently being stepped on by Godzilla."
As a spooky classic, you can't ask for more. With Black Sunday, Mario Bava aims for marks set by Frankenstein's James Whale, and hits them admirably. By now you're probably thinking "but what about a horde of angry villagers?"
Considered too nasty for its time, Black Sunday was banned in Britain for years and certain scenes were cut in the U.S. Nevertheless it was a critical and box office smash, launching the careers of both director Mario Bava and dual-role leading lady Barbara Steele. I don't know anything about her, but from what she accomplishes here she deserved it. As dippy Katia she doesn't have a lot to work with, but as the evil Asa she glows with menace.