It’s one of the most striking openings in cinema history: A burly, shirtless man in a black hood stokes a brazier, heating up a branding tool which will be used to sear the letter “S” into the flesh of accused vampire Princess Asa Vadja, who is being executed for her crimes alongside her lover and accomplice, Igor Javutich. We’re in 17th-century Moldavia, a time and place where (according to the narration) “Satan was abroad on the Earth,” and those who consort with him are dealt with harshly by the high court of the Inquisition. After receiving the brand of Satan in queasy close-up, Asa is condemned to death and repudiated by her brother, the Grand Inquisitor, who then orders his men to “Cover her face with the Mask of Satan,” adding the chilling command “Nail it down!” As the mask is carried toward the camera, the shadows of the spikes on its inside dance in the firelight, emphasizing their lethality. Then, as it is placed over Asa’s immobilized face, another hooded man steps forward with a giant mallet…
So begins Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio, which was released in Italy on August 12, 1960, and renamed Black Sunday when AIP brought it to the U.S. six months later. What it depicts (in moodily evocative black and white) was strong stuff for audiences in 1960, a watershed year for horror that also saw the release of Hitchcock’s Psycho, Powell’s Peeping Tom, Vadim’s Blood and Roses, Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, and Corman’s House of Usher. Each has its squirm-inducing moments, but in terms of sheer gruesomeness, only the face removal in Eyes matches the sickening effect of the Mask of Satan being hammered into place, putting an end to Asa’s bloodthirsty ways – but not before she places a curse on her brother and his descendants that will haunt them for the next two centuries.
“I shall return to torment and destroy throughout the nights of time!”
By the time Mario Bava received his first feature-directing credit, he was already in his mid-40s and had done the job in an unofficial capacity for five films on which he was the cinematographer of record. 1957’s I Vampiri (the first Italian horror film of the sound era), 1958’s The Day the Sky Exploded, and 1959’s Hercules Unchained, The Giant of Marathon, and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, all benefited from his mastery behind the camera, and his efforts did not go unnoticed. After two decades honing his skills as a cinematographer and creator of special effects (his true love, according to biographer Tim Lucas), Bava was eager to make his mark when the opportunity arose.
Using a story by Russian author Nikolay Gogol as their basis, Bava and his co-writers fashioned the quintessential Gothic horror tale, set in a foreboding castle surrounded by a perpetually fog-enshrouded forest. He also had an ace up his sleeve in the form of English actress Barbara Steele, who became a horror icon on the strength of her dual performance as Princess Asa and her doomed doppelganger, Katja. With her piercing stare and otherworldly presence, Steele was frequently called upon in the years to come to play seductive villains, but she followed her turn as the innocent Katja with the occasional sympathetic role as well. When Katja is introduced, though, she’s dressed completely in black and seen silhouetted in the distance with two ferocious-looking dogs at her heels, so even her “good” character in Black Sunday appears to have a dark side.
It is this dark side that Bava emphasizes with his ominous compositions (abetted by his frequent camera operator, Ubaldo Terzano). All but about 25 minutes of the film’s running time takes place at night, and many of the daytime scenes are set inside the Vadja clan’s desolate castle, which is riddled with secret, cobwebbed passages, so the number of brightly lit scenes can still be counted on one hand. (So all-encompassing is the gloomy atmosphere, the first daytime exterior comes as a shock to the viewer, a violation of the natural order on par with the film’s blood-drinking servants of Satan.)
“It’s all so strange, so mysterious here.”
“Everything is going to ruin.”
After its evocative prologue, which ends with Javutich buried in unconsecrated ground and Asa entombed in the family crypt like a dirty secret, the action skips forward two centuries, when two doctors on their way to a medical congress in Moscow unwittingly facilitate Asa’s dreaded return. Then again, even without the intervention of Drs. Kruvajan (older, jaded) and Gorobec (his handsome protégé and Katja’s love interest), Asa would have likely found someone else to break the seal on her tomb and remove her mask to reveal her mysteriously undecomposed visage. “Those empty eyes seems to be looking at us,” Kruvajan says, but in time and the deployment of some goopy effects (courtesy of Bava’s father, Eugenio), Asa regains her sight and, finding her voice, calls out to Javutich to rise as well. This is the cue for the mist to creep in and the winds to blow as the ground parts to disgorge her lover, who staggers around until he can remove his own mask and go to work on her behalf.
While it’s possible these scenes would have worked just fine in color (though an in-camera effect in the film’s finale wouldn’t), the fact that they are in black and white lends them a poetic beauty they might otherwise lack. This is not to suggest Bava was incapable of creating beautifully horrific imagery in his later films. Black Sabbath (a three-part anthology hosted by Boris Karloff), Blood and Black Lace (an early giallo), and the Gothic horrors The Whip and the Body and Kill, Baby… Kill! all attest to his ability in this regard. Still, it’s a pity he abandoned black and white so early in his directing career, only returning to it once more, for the seminal 1963 giallo The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
The girl in question is Nora, an American tourist in Rome who witnesses the aftermath of a murder late one night (the first of many bravura set-pieces the film has to offer) and is unable to get the police to believe her story. While conducting her own investigation (a soon-to-be go-to giallo plot), Nora sets a trap for the killer in the apartment where she’s staying by winding a ball of string around the furniture and fixtures to create a spider web of sorts. When a menacing, backlit figure appears outside her window, Nora screams, believing her paranoia to be completely founded, but she only ensnares the handsome Italian doctor (played by John Saxon) trying to protect her – from herself, if need be. The sequence works like gangbusters, showing Bava’s masterful command of light and shadow to create a sense of unease and mounting terror, and further illustrates what got left by the wayside when he permanently made the switch to color. Our loss.
“Black Sunday” is currently streaming on Tubi.