Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Mario Bava's 1960 directorial debut Black Sunday was a film that, probably along with Hitchcock's Psycho from the same year, more or less set the stage for subsequent horror films. This notion is somewhat surprising considering Bava's work largely draws from the old-time horror films, and is much more effective for its inventive cinematography and atmosphere-detailing directorial techniques than for anything particularly surprising about its storyline or for being obviously “scary”. It's instantly apparent when viewing this film just how much of a talent the former painter, camera operator, and special effects designer Bava actually was, as this film looks positively stunning, and may be the most impressive-looking film I've ever seen that was filmed nearly entirely in a studio. With an unyielding creative eye for the cinema, Bava defies the audience to believe that this film was made indoors for a scant $100,000.
The basic story of the film really offers nothing too much out of the ordinary, but in the hands of a gifted film maker and capable cast, becomes much more than the sum of its parts. In the early 1600s, a young woman, princess Asa Vadja, and her lover, Javutich, following what is implied to have been an incestuous relationship, have been condemned as witches and heretics, their faces adorned with the spike-filled mask of Satan for eternity. Before she is burned, however, Asa declares that she will return to strike down the future relatives of her brother, who carries out her execution. Some two hundred years later, a pair of scientists, a young man named Andre and his older mentor Professor Kruvajan, are traveling the Moldavian countryside on the way to a medical convention when they happen upon the crypt of princess Asa. After unknowingly awakening the deceased witch from her slumber, the two doctors head off, but the witch's curse begins to plague her relatives exactly as she had described. Needing blood and the essence of living beings to fully realize her resurrection, Asa summons the also reborn Javutich to initiate a plan to offer Asa's young relative Princess Katia as the sacrifice that will complete Asa's return to life. As the Vadja family slowly succumbs to paranoia and the torments of the damned, young Andre, smitten with Katia, is forced to try and stop the demonic entities before they destroy the household completely and reign supreme on Earth.
The script for the film by director Bava, Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei, and Marcello Coscia loosely based on a Russian fairy tale seems to throw elements of the occult and witchcraft in with popular symbolism of vampirism. Asa seems to suck the life force from her victims much like a vampire would, but does so without the transmission of bodily fluids, and there are numerous other scenes that hold similarities to vampiric legends, including Asa's fear of religious iconography and the fact that the witch and her minions can be killed by piercing their eye sockets with a spike. Much of the details of the story, however, are mere trivialities, an excuse to have Bava turn in gloriously creepy sequences, and while the story seems occasionally confused, it’s certainly workable material and in visualizing it, Black Sunday delivers memorable results.
A master of lighting concepts, Bava (as cinematographer) frames his scenes in the midst of prominent shadows and jagged architecture or scenery, often creating eerie moods simply in the way his scene composition works. His lighting highlights precise sections of the screen while the rest of the shot exists in total darkness, which allows for several remarkable scenes in which characters seem to appear out of thin air simply due to changing up the lighting scheme in mid-sequence. Many of the film’s most memorable scenes offer up chills without resorting to cheap jolt-inducing elements or, for that matter, anything particularly, obviously scary. One scene, in which a young girl witnesses a spectral carriage thundering along a forest path illustrates this point perfectly. There's nothing blatantly disturbing about the elements of the scene, but it's shot in slow motion, creating a dreamlike feel, and the moody lighting and prevalent fog in the shot make the whole thing seem not quite right. Bava's skill at making seemingly ordinary events like this take on sinister implications are much of what makes this film work; he makes the most of the film's miniscule budget and achieves subtle terrors that, in the end, are way more terrifying than several startlingly graphic scenes of violence that appear in the film.
The one and only Barbara Steele, an actress who could simultaneously be the most seductive and yet genuinely creepy figure imaginable, stars in the dual role of Asa the witch and the innocent Princess Katia. Steele's unbelievably expressive eyes are really the star of the movie, creating some of the film's most unnerving sequences (the literally “eye-opening” scene that has Steele in a coffin is, for my money, the best scene in the film). As Katia, Steele is the perfect ingenue, seeming unwilling and unable to come to terms with her romantic feelings for the young Andre and unnerved by the recent events affecting her family. Conversely, Steele in the role of Asa the witch is the very definition of femme fatale, seeming to hypnotize us as an audience and the various characters in the film as well with her dangerously suggestive posturing and expressions. This film catapulted Steele to stardom, instantly positioning the young actress as the next scream queen, and it's easy to see why when considering her performance in this film. It's one of the most captivating and eye-catching performances in the history of horror cinema.
As Steele's love interest in the film, we have John Richardson who hits appropriate notes as the heroic male lead, but seems positively dull and generally forgettable. Italian actors Andrea Checchi (as Kruvajan) and Arturo Dominici (as Javutich) fare somewhat better, Dominici coming across as particularly diabolical in his rigid portrayal of the undead heretic. Checchi has a somewhat more intriguing role here, as his character starts out as a kindly professor, but eventually becomes a minion of Asa after being seduced by her dark charms. The major problem with the film with regard to acting is that the performances are somewhat negated by a shoddy dubbing job in the print featured on Anchor Bay's DVD. This dubbing is noticeably out of sync, and the overall quality of the voice acting seems mediocre at best, distracting from the film when one is watching it.
On the other hand, Roberto Nicolosi’s polished, orchestral music score compliments the action magnificently, adding significantly to the scare scenes with accented instrumental parts punctuating the shocks. Nicolosi’s expressive, romantic themes are similarly excellent, helping establish the characters and the romance between Andre and Katia. I can’t say that this relationship ever rises above a level of phoniness, but I have to say that I can’t blame Andre for falling for the troubled young princess. Bava’s special effects are superb, utilizing simple but very effective techniques, with several unique visuals created by imaginative use of paintings. One highlight effect has Steele appearing to age on camera in a continuous shot while having her life drained out of her. The illusion, achieved by applying specific colors of make-up combined with different shades of lighting to make certain colors appear and disappear out of nowhere, is, frankly, astounding since it occurs in real time on camera. Additionally, there are several quite graphic (for 1960) gore effects that are appropriately jarring and quite nasty actually.
I really can’t say enough about how great this film really is; it’s a masterpiece of creative film making, a testament to the singular talents of director Mario Bava and even more impressive considering this was his debut film. Wearing several hats at one time, Bava combines stunning set and artistic design, imaginative camerawork and special effects, a fabulous music score and an intriguing story into one of the most influential horror films of its day, a film whose look would inspire scores of film makers from the time it was made until today. It’s somewhat of a shame that the dubbing of the film is substandard, as it takes away from what really is one of the finest horror films ever produced. This flick probably wouldn’t be appreciated by new-school horror movie fans, as to them it would likely come across as slowly-paced and unexciting. However, to the crowd versed in the older, more expressionistic horror efforts of the 1920s and ‘30s, Black Sunday would be a welcome addition to and improvement on that style of genre cinema. I’d give it a high recommendation in spite of some problem areas.
DVD Details: Decent – Very informative commentary track with Bava biographer Tim Lucas, photo gallery, trailers, bios. Film print is widescreen, English-dubbed International version, nice quality.
Blood & Guts = Some shocking gore for 1960, but Barbara Steele’s eyes alone are enough to chill you to the bone
Profanity = The dubbing job is rather infuriating
Fap Factor = Barbara Steele looking longingly into the camera while panting heavily...well...AHEM...that about wraps it up for me
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older