Black Sunday has all the makings of a classic Gothic nightmare; creaking staircases, mysterious figures looming in amongst paintings and, of course, the heaving bosom of screen queen extraordinaire Barbara Steele. Scattered amongst velvety shadows and the spine-tingling howls of wind lie grotesque acts of violence and innovative scares. The film is often referred as a pioneer of the horror genre and although the gore is distributed scarcely throughout, when delivered the visuals are stomach churning. It is no wonder the film was initially banned from UK release.
Italian director and ‘Master of Macabre’ Mario Bava wastes no time in the opening scene. We watch the hammering of a grotesque spiked mask, known as the Mask of Satan, into the angelic face of accused witch Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) in bleak seventeenth century Moldavia. Her last words are that of revenge, swearing death and misery to all that forsaken her. Asa’s body is placed in her families tomb, Mask of Satan still present, alongside her lover Javutich (Arturo Dominici) who was also killed and buried in the nearby cemetery. Two hundred years later, Professor Thomas Kruvajan and Dr. Andre Gorobec are travelling to a medical conference and stumble upon the witches final resting place.They foolishly disturb Asa’s eternal slumber by tampering with her grave, removing the grotesque mask and thus awakening the witch to carry out her unfinished business.
Rather fantastically Steele’s characters manage to retain her doe-eyed sex kitten Sixties makeup throughout which jars fantastically alongside Bava’s barbarous aesthetic. Overt eroticism runs throughout with brazen close-ups of Steele’s décolletage taking up almost as much screen time as the Mask of Satan itself! There are some gnarly visual shockers in this film with fantastically creative practical effects and makeup. The gore is selective and still effectively stands up for a contemporary horror audience. Truthfully the plot falls thin at times but it is Bava’s baroque cinematography and dense atmosphere, heavy with death and decay that really projects this film to be an early masterpiece of its kind.
by Casci Ritchie
Casci Ritchie is an independent dress historian specialising in fashion, film and consumer cultures. Her true great loves – film and fashion – began when she watched her first film noir, The Big Sleep, as a teenager and fell in love Bacall and Bogie hook line and sinker. Some of her favourite films include Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Beetlejuice, Double Indemnity and Cry Baby. You can find her over on Twitter at @CasciTRitchie & her blog www.casciritchie.com.
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