One of Italian horror’s most celebrated titles, Mario Bava’s directorial debut still stands as one of the most influential and important post-war genre works and despite its age, stands up well to repeat viewings, even over forty years after its release.
The film opens with Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and her brother Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), being found guilty of witchcraft and conspiring with Satan. As a result they are punished by having a mask of steel spikes hammered into their faces. Centuries later the Princess’ body is disturbed and resurrected to reap revenge on a distant relative (also played by Barbara Steele) and her family.
A mixture of folk-lore, traditional superstition, and genre convention such as the creepy crypt, the fog bound forest, and carriages driven by cloaked strangers, Bava creates a poetic world that reminds the viewer of Universal’s horror films from the thirties and forties and injects it with a streak of sadistic violence and cinematic style that would come to signify Italian horror cinema for the next thirty years. In fact the film still seems pretty shocking today, particularly in the opening scene of the “mask of satan” being hammered onto Barbara Steele’s face.
An established cinematographer who was renowned for making a film look much better than its meagre budget would anticipate, Bava’s sense of the visual really comes to the fore with his crisp use of black and white photography and use of various cinematic tricks such as the dream-like use of slow-motion in the carriage ride sequence. Every frame is carefully composed, with Bava’s smooth use of tracking shots really making the most of what must have been fairly basic sets. In comparison to the fairly static use of camera in early gothics from the same period such as those by Hammer Films or the work of Roger Corman, Black Sunday really stands out as an incredibly modern piece of film-making.
The film also introduced the world to Barbara Steele, an actress who’s gothic black hair and saucer-like dark eyes made her born to play umpteen evil temptress’ in various genre movies of variable quality for the rest of her career. In fact Steele’s performance is easily the best in the movie; With the rest of the cast largely comprised of square-jawed rent-a-hero types, Steele’s eerie grace as she glides around the castle is as much an indelible image as anything in contemporary horror cinema.
While Bava went on to make better films (Blood and Black Lace, Twitch of the Death Nerve), the impact of Black Sunday on the Italian industry should not be underestimated. It made Italian horror a viable financial option that travelled well internationally (although the film was banned in the UK until the late 1960s) and without Black Sunday it’s possible that much of the genre cinema made in Italy since would simply not have existed.
Italian director/writer/cinematographer and one of the few Italian genre film-makers who influenced, rather than imitated. Worked as a cinematographer until the late 1950s, during which time he gained a reputation as a hugely talented director of photography, particularly in the use of optical effects.
Bava made his feature debut in 1960 with Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, a richly-shot black and white Gothic gem. From then on Bava worked in various genres – spaghetti western, sci-fi, action, peplum, sex – but it was in the horror genre that Bava made his legacy. His sumptuously filmed, tightly plotted giallo thrillers (Blood and Black Lace, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Bay of Blood) and supernatural horrors (Lisa and the Devil, Baron Blood, Kill, Baby...Kill!) influenced an entire generation of Italian film-makers (and beyond) – never had horror looked so good. Bava’s penultimate picture was the harrowing thriller Rabid Dogs, while his last film, Shock, was one his very scariest. Died of a heart attack in 1980.