Horror Movie Homework: Black Sunday (1960)

“La Maschera del Demonio [The Mask of the Demon” or “Black Sunday.”
This is the first Mario Bava film I’ve watched. I’ve read and heard a fair amount about the Italian mid-20th century film-maker and cinematographer but if anyone has some more specific titles to recommend — a good biography or critical appreciation, for example — I’d love to have a rec or two dropped in the comments.

There’s a reasonably good plot summary on Wikipedia, so I’m not going to bother with a huge long run-down. As a procedural note for how you may expect these posts to run, I generally find plot point-for-points pretty boring to read unless they’re done very well and I don’t have that much self-confidence to believe I do them really well. Still, spoilers (may) lurk herein. Read At Your Own Risk.

Overall, I didn’t think Sunday had much of a different look than a lot of Corman would-be gorefests like The Undead (1957) (best seen in its MST3K glory as far as I’m concerned: “If she wants a zipper, she can have a zipper, Mike!”) But there was something about the Bava film that did make it slightly easier to overlook the patently cardboard sets and piles of dry ice. The actors were certainly a good notch or two above the absolute best that Corman ever scraped together; the trademark “good doctor” (Checchi as Kruvajan) with his equally trademarked “romantic young companion” (Richardson as Gorobec) are actually rather engaging characters. You do feel a bit genuinely bad when the “good doctor” gets mickey-finned by the undead.

The feel of the movie is vivid, too; the long dresses of the princess, the tapestries in the castle, the heavy bedclothes, all combine to make the cardboard walls and plyboard beds a little easier to overlook.

The opening scene of the condemnation of the witch and her compatriot is genuinely creepy (if lacking a bit in explanation — I found myself wondering if I was watching a dubbed or otherwise edited version that had cut some necessary exposition, voice-over, or visual narration but the metadata on Netflix was so poor I couldn’t find out.) The devil’s mask nailed over the face and the witch’s final curse on her brother for condemning her is uneasy-making. The mask itself is more frightening from the inside than the outside but Bava — or someone on his crew — realised that as soon as the audience could picture to itself the inside of the mask — nails digging into eyes, forehead, cheekbones, mouth — the outside would become that much more horrific.

When the good doctor and his romantic companion discover the witch’s corpse in its sealed coffin in the ruined family vault, the mask is quite disturbing, the cobwebs and dust managing to convey age and abuse even through the black and white film. The destroyed face beneath — when the good doctor removes the mask as we all knew he would — is an even better touch since generally we’d expect a kind of Le Fanu ‘Carmilla’ approach here with the face being perfect and undecayed, the witch having been preserved by her Satanic powers. But, no, apparently Satan doesn’t given bonuses in this world: there she is, mummified, fallen in, and eyes destroyed.

I have to say, I was very impressed with the ‘witch recreating herself in the coffin’ sequence, particularly the regrowth of the eyes. Obviously the sequence had to happen since semi-decayed brides of Satan would be a bit of a giveaway lolloping about the place, but the eyes coming back was really good. Barbara Steele has a lot of fun with the dual role, chewing on every available bit of scenery as the risen witch and practically leaving the odor of sanctity visible in her wake as the young innocent girl.

Bava even makes a genuinely sad ending possible for a few minutes; it seems really likely that the witch has, even in death, triumphed and the young couple will be separated. Of course, we know this isn’t how it ends and those of us with long training in spooky stories know that the rules state that life energy stolen from the victim must be returned upon the death of the thief. But — just for a few minutes as Gorobec and the monk watch the witch burn, it seems possible that won’t happen.