Mario Bava’s debut abounds with hypnotic visuals and nightmarish themes. A former painter and cameraman, it took a turn in the director’s chair to fully realize the horror maestro’s cold and harrowing vision. Clearly Black Sunday was a source of artistic liberation for the aspiring filmmaker.
The picture commences in brutally disturbing fashion. Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and her illicit lover Javutich (Arturo Dominici) are branded disciples of the devil and sentenced to death. Spiked masks are hammered onto their faces by imposing men with swelling muscles and black hoods. Dark liquid pops from their mouths and eye holes and soaks into the cloth of their tattered clothes.
Two centuries later, a pair of doctors en route to a medical conference accidentally resurrect the evil witch who plans to use the body of her beautiful descendant Katia to gain revenge against her family.
The crisp black-and-white photography and marvelous set pieces evoke the creature features of the 1930s. Moonlit woods and baronial crypts conjure images of Universal’s mist-shrouded forests and bold castles. Gnarled trees fight against sodden Earth; cold stone stretches toward the radiant moonlight and disappears into black. Barbara Steele’s dark and mysterious look and regal voice recall the exotic performers that occupied Universal’s famed monster flicks.
Bava’s background as a cinematographer is evident throughout. He captures the sinister terrain and gothic atmosphere with a supreme emotional cadence and compositional beauty. From the ghastly murder that opens the film and the magnificent camera moves that transform the ancient, grey walls of the crypt into a striking work of art to the liberating dolly shot around Katia at the piano and toward her father in front of the fire place (a symbol of the generative power of life), Black Sunday exemplifies Bava’s mastery of the medium.
Black Sunday’s black-and-white design further reinforces the film’s enduring theme of evil hiding behind a mask of beauty. Audiences are enchanted by Asa’s physical beauty, but the darkness of her soul shines through her black eyes. The dark belly and stagnant air of the crypt are shielded behind a heavy, white door. Javutich’s mangled and battered corpse rises from a grave that had been dormant for years; a baroque mask cloaking his sallow skin and empty eyes. Katia’s father claims that a painting of Asa is “hiding something…like a flame that can’t escape.” He goes on to suggest a chilliness is lurking behind the white flames of the fire.
Fans of Bava’s work will recognize in Black Sunday themes regarding Catholicism and devotion that permeate his later works. Religion proves an effective deterrent against evil before its perceived strength is undermined. Asa is confined to her cement resting place by a stone cross that peers at her through a glass window in her coffin. The steadfast symbol of good offers the promise of eternal strength but is smashed to bits by a clumsy doctor and his walking stick.
Audiences are confounded at the start of the picture. A beautiful woman with strong, seductive features is bound to a wooden pole. A narrator speaks of people’s “frantic attempt[s] to purify Earth of blood-devouring assassins.” Who is this woman? What has she done to deserve this treatment? Hooded men sear the symbol of Satan into the soft flesh of her back. Her executioner speaks. It is her brother. She responds by cursing him for all eternity.
Bava draws inspiration from the gore-and-gazingas filled Hammer movies of the late 1950s. Black Sunday drips with the same ghoulish atmosphere and offers the same visual ingenuity as those classic films. Compositions read like paintings. Their images are bold and precise and often rendered in deep focus. In one scene, Dr.Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) stands beside a pond. He tosses a pebble into the languid body of water. The rippled surface dissolves to the image of a revived Asa, brought back to life by a drip of Kruvajan’s blood.
The resurrection of Javutich is captured in quick cuts from skewed angles creating a sense of disorientation and frantic desperation in viewers. It is photographed through the broken window of a barn, the aperture working as an eye focused on the grave in anticipation of Javutich’s return.
Characters dwell in ominous locations for extended periods of time, which leads to feelings of frustration and anxiety in audiences. Dr. Kruvajan travels by carriage through a forest dominated by fog. Naked branches perforate the monochrome landscape and separate the doctor from the ashen sky above.
The image of a child moving cautiously through a dreary section of woods feels pulled from the pages of a fairytale. The skeletal trees and grey skies create a bewitching combination that lend the scene a nightmarish quality.
Bava uses familiar horror motifs to induce emotional responses in fans of the macabre then pushes them into new bloodcurdling territory. One of his greatest strengths is his ability to use the look of his movies to act on the feelings of viewers. The stillness of his sets sends shivers down their spines, the crumbling tomb generates a sense of hopelessness. A character in the film comments that Asa’s dead eyes seem to be looking at him. In the same way, Bava seems to be playing directly with his audience.
Though banned in parts of the world, Black Sunday was overall well-received upon its release in 1960. Now, 60 years later, it continues to disturb audiences with its daunting imagery and alluring set pieces that provide a frightening, organic visual experience that today’s digitally-effected worlds can’t equal.
SINCE ITS RELEASE: Mario Bava went on to achieve great success in horror and is today considered one of the masters of the genre. His influence on future filmmakers like Argento, Coppola (who recreated sequences from Black Sunday for his film, Dracula), Scorsese, and Burton cannot be overstated. The picture is available on blu ray in the states through Kino Lorber and in the UK through Arrow Films. Both versions are laden with extras, though the Arrow release also includes the re-edited AIP version of the picture and a copy of I Vampiri, the first Italian horror flick of the sound era.