Sunday 18 September 2011

Black Sunday (aka La maschera del demonio aka The Mask Of Satan aka Revenge Of The Vampire)

Way A-Bava Average

Black Sunday 1960 Italy
aka La Maschera Del Demonio
aka The Mask Of Satan
aka Revenge Of The Vampire
Directed by Mario Bava

Screening as part of a combined presentation of the Classic Horror Campaign and Scala Forever at the Roxy Screen and Bar on September 4th

Black Sunday is a fine film directed by one of the great directors of Italian cinema, Mario Bava. So, when I learned that the Classic Horror Campaign to bring back horror movie double bills to BBC2 were going to be screening it (check out their website here), I jumped at the chance to rewatch this masterpiece on a larger screen than just the TV set at home I was so used to seeing it on. It was first up in a double bill showing with an outrageous little movie I’d not seen before called Horror Hospital (more on that in my sequel review to this one... as yet still unwritten).

If you’ve not seen a Mario Bava film in your life and you claim to be a fan of cinema then you really need to see some of his classic movies as he was hugely appreciated by his peers and hugely influential on them and on both Italian and International cinema to this day. I can’t watch a movie like Almodovar’s new film The Skin I Live In, for example, and look at the mise-en-scene in a movie like that (and many others) without realising how much of a debt they owe to the great Mario Bava in terms of camera work and beautiful coloured gel lighting etc.

The leading exponent of the giallo genre, he was hugely influential on “giallo darling” Dario Argento and while Argento certainly popularised the giallo with his debut feature The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, it was Bava who lay the roots for this and other classics with his own genre creations such as The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Blood And Black Lace and Five Dolls For An August Moon (indeed, towards the end of his life he joined his son, future director Lamberto Bava who was Argento’s AD for many of his movies before moving on to his own career as a director, and helped Argento create the special effects for the second of his Three Mothers Trilogy Inferno).

Black Sunday is an unusual film for Bava because one of the standout key signatures of Bava is, as I’ve mentioned here and on many reviews of other movies before, his fantastic psychedelic use of surreal colouring which relies on psychological atmosphere rather than whether these colours would really pertain to a real life environment or situation (Argento also uses this tactic in his movies) - so purples and reds and greens all in bright, tranluscent tones and mixing it up on screen to give an absolutely amazing, rich visual palette to behold. Black Sunday, however, is filmed in black and white and one wonders if this is because one of the key effects scenes, which is very effective, could only be done by the use of "colour" photographed in black and white? I’ll come back to that a little later.

Loosely adapted (and uncredited as such) from Nikolai Gogol’s short story Viy (much adapted and/or referenced in many a horror film) the story is of a witch played iconically by scream queen Barbara Steele who, after having a spiked, metal mask hammered onto her face (see the blood flow in grim black in what would be a fairly edgy sequence in modern cinema, let alone for a black and white movie just out of the starting block of the sixties), curses a family before being burnt alive at the stake... cue the credits sequence and we’re left with a witchy/vampiric, coming-back-from-the-dead tale which is not disimilar to many Hammer films of the time but which certainly beats them in terms of all that is at stake in these kinds of movies. Bava was pretty much a genius of an artist... not many directors had his understanding of photography (which he acquired from his “famous movie star” photographer father) and you can see that in every movie he ever made... even the hundred or more which he helped out on uncredited.

Even in black and white as it is here, the crisp and clear compositions that strike you in any Bava picture are clearly present in every frame of film. I think it was Cameron Mitchell who I saw being interviewed on an extra on a Reigon 1 DVD of one or other of Bava’s Viking tales Knives Of The Avenger or Eric The Conqueror who said, and quite rightly so, that if you take any frame of film from a Mario Bava movie you will find yourself with an absolutely perfectly framed still photograph. He really was that good and the striking compositions of Black Sunday just help hammer the point home that, although Bava is best known for his colour work, he was an equally potent force when it comes to black and white photography. And I do mean black and white... it seems a shame to refer to his work here as being in mono or greyscale because it’s real chiaroscuro on display here. The blacks are real dark and the highlights are real bright.

Another brilliant Bava trait is the sense of depth you get out of the shots. Everything seems to be shot through or around something (often a Mario Bava trademark matte painting on a glass slide, although the trompe l'oeil effect is quite astonishing, if you could ever have a chance to notice them for what they are... the illusion is that good). It seems to me that Roger Corman picked up a lot of influence from these “credited” opening salvos from the creative mind of Bava (I believe he’s gone on record as admitting this and, after all, Bava’s films in the US were often distributed by AFI) and you can certainly see that influence on some of Corman’s genuine artistic directorial works, the obvious ones being his Poe films such as House of Usher and Pit And The Pendulum. I’ll bet stylish directorial masterpieces like Sidney J. Furie's The IPCRESS File wouldn’t have been made like they were either without at least some kind of knock on effect from Bava’s movies.

The special effects are excellent here too. Barbara Steele has a dual role in the film and as the old corpse slowly comes back to life in her coffin over the course of the movie, her eye sockets start to slowly grow squidgy eyes and I don’t think that the censors would let Hammer get away with something that icky back in the day. Indeed, I believe that Black Sunday was banned in the UK until about 1968 and even then it was shown in a slightly censored form. Actually, though, this review perhaps gives a false impression of the film in some ways because, asides from a couple of small scenes, it really isn’t gory or disturbing by today’s standards. The atmosphere is still quite palpable in this one though.

And Bava also makes use of a very old but very effective trick which he pinched wholesale from the Rouben Mamoulian 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and this again involves the subtle de-aging of one of the characters played by Barbara Steele. Using red make up on her to make her look old he films her thus and then slowly shifts over to filming it with a red filter on the camera, which has the effect of slowly making the “old crone” make-up invisible and basically “younging up” Ms. Steele before your very eyes. I suspect that the choice to present this movie in black and white would have had a lot to do with the presentation of this special effect.

So there you have it... this edition of the Classic Horror Campaign started off with a well known and much loved classic. Things could only get worse... or could they. I was also wiped out in a completely different way by their screening of a film I’d not seen before called Horror Hospital... but more on that in a future review. Coming soon!

The Classic Horror Campiagn website is here...

The organisers can be found on Twitter here...!/cyberschizoid and here...!/ScareSarah

And if you want to look into the cinema of Bava more closely with probably one of the best written and produced books on film ever produced, Tim Lucas' expensive (but worth very penny) and absolutely amazing book on Bava can be found here...


  1. I've seen Horror Hospital - it's a hippy horror zombie movie - and if that doesn't entice you to watch it, nothing will. Superb write-up, many thanks.

  2. Hi James,

    Yeah, I also saw Horror Hospital at the same event. It was hilariously terrible.

    Let me know what you think about Black Sunday (not to be confused with the 70s US thriller of the same name) but please remember... it's all about mise-en-scene... the acting's pretty terrible a lot of the time.

    Thanks very much for stopping by.

  3. Hey man, I don't mind bad acting if the intent is honest, infact I really love honest bad acting. What I hate is phoniness. Yes, Horror Hospital is appalling, right from the opening shot. But I'll definitely let you know when I've seen the Bava film. Thanks for the response.