Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio)
black sunday | mario bava | ennio de concini | mario serandrei | barbara steele | john richardson | andrea checchi | witch | italy | vampire | vampires | gothic | history | based on | short story | nikolay gogol | ivo garrani | arturo dominici | enrico olivieri
Film: Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio)
Director: Mario Bava
Writer: Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson and Andrea Checchi
This film was one that I’ll be honest, I never heard until I got the Top 300 Horror Films issue of Fangoria. When I decided to start working through it, this was of course one that I saw very early into that hunt. I’ll be honest, I’ve seen this one twice before where I didn’t really like it all that well. I didn’t hate it, but also didn’t see the love. I decided to give it a rewatch as part of my Journey through the Aughts as well as Italian horror month. The synopsis here is a vengeful witch and her fiendish servant return from the grave and begins a bloody campaign to posses the body of the witch’s beautiful look-alike descendant, with only the girl’s brother and a handsome doctor standing in the way.
This starts with informing us that we’re beginning in the time when Satan roamed the Earth. Helping him are his blood thirsty disciples known as witches. We are at a cleansing for one of them. The narration informs us that it was man’s duty by God to rid the world and that they mixed their laws in it. Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is being prepped to be executed for witchcraft. Nearby is a man that was her accomplice in these black arts as well as her brother, Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici). Both have a mask of Satan nailed to their face as punishment. They go to burn them, but Asa performs a curse on the man in charge. It also rains putting the fires out and forcing them to seek shelter. Asa is buried in the family tomb while Igor in the graveyard for murders and criminals.
We then shift two hundred years into the future. There is a coach with two doctors going to Moscow. There is a professor of Dr. Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson). They are going to the Russian congress for what I believe is a conference. Their coach is driven by Nikita (Mario Passante). He is scared as they are coming to a stretch where the local legend is of the witch. He is convinced to take the harder route by Dr. Kruvajan and they end up crashing. While Nikita fixes the wheel, the other two go into a nearby destroyed church.
There’s a strange noise coming from it and they discover it is wind blowing through organ pipes. They venture farther in to find the tomb of Asa. Dr. Kruvajan explains that she was killed for being a witch. There’s a window on the casket to show Asa a cross to prevent her from returning to life. Andre leaves to help Nikita when a giant bat attacks Dr. Kruvajan. He does kill it, but also breaks the cross along with the glass on the tomb. He cuts his finger taking the mask off Asa corpse, dropping blood onto her. As they go to leave, they meet Asa’s ancestor of Princess Katia (Also Steele). Andre is quite attracted to her.
The two doctors decide to stay at the inn in town while we get to know Katia’s family. She lives with her father of Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani) and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri). Their father is on edge when he hears what sounds like a wolf, just something off about it. There are also two paintings here, one of Asa and the other of Igor. They bother her and it appears the one of Asa, something has moved in it. Prince Vajda also states that he feels a chill from the fireplace.
At the inn, the daughter of Sonya (Germana Dominici) is told to milk the cows. She doesn’t want out of fear, but can’t get out of it. She does as she is told. This takes us to the graveyard, where Igor claws his way out. Asa is alive and has freed Igor to do her bidding, because she isn’t strong enough yet.
Prince Vajda becomes ill when he is attacked by Igor. He uses a cross to ward him away though and this draws his children attention to check on him. They send their butler of Ivan (Tino Bianchi) to get a doctor. Igor shows up and collects Dr. Kruvajan. He is taken to Asa, who turns him into her servant.
From here, Andre tries to find his friend and ends up going to the castle. It is there he tries to help Katia and Constantine. He notices the strange death of Prince Vajda and finds an odd artifact with Dr. Kruvajan’s things. This will lead him to the local priest, who is able to decipher what it says. They’re dealing with supernatural forces that are after Asa and destroying her family.
Now that’s where I want to leave my recap. It is a bit more than I necessarily wanted to give, but as I was writing it, I felt there were a lot of aspects that were important to get you up to speed. This movie has some concepts that I find pretty interesting. The first thing is the witch-hunt that we have to start this movie off with. In case here it is actually real. Asa is a witch with Igor helping her to which they’re both killed. It is interesting with the knowledge that like the Salem Witch Trials, most of them were innocent. Here we know that she is guilty and that she does use her to create the curse along with allowing her body to return if certain things happen.
After having seen this movie, it is borrowing from the short story of Viy. I haven’t gotten around to reading it, but from a bit of research they both have a witch, a man who is helping her with heavy eyebrows and that they have a vampire like creature. I like what Mario Bava is doing here with taking the core of this story and modeling it into what we get. It is also interesting since this is taking place in Eastern Europe, getting close to Russia. It makes sense being this is a Russian story.
What I want to go to next is Vajda family. Asa is part of it, but it appears that her family aside from Igor has turned on her. In the American version they aren’t related, but I definitely remember in the beginning of it that he was said to be her brother. She has vowed that she will destroy the rest of her ancestors, but what I really like is that there’s a daughter that always looks like her. This tells me that she is constantly trying to come back and take over that body, but certain things have to happen. This also makes it easier for the movie having Steele to play both roles.
Just a couple more things to go over before going to something next with the movie and where I will take it is that I love Vajda’s family crest is the griffin. It is just an interesting creature to use there. I like that Katia is scared of the painting of Asa and that when she has some life returned, her painting is different. I think it is interesting that Prince Vajda has a bad feeling that comes from the fireplace, which makes a lot of sense due to the passageways behind it. I also like that we have Andre as our hero. He’s a doctor so we’re mixing more of a modern profession with the superstitions of the past. A priest is needed to help him against the forces of evil. The idea of the mask of Satan to punish them is really good as well.
Despite all of these things that I liked, this movie is still a bit slow for me. I’ll be honest that I do lose interest a bit in the second act before it pulls me back in. This time around I liked it more than I ever have, so it does get better with each viewing for sure. What hurt it though are the inconsistencies. From what they were giving, I knew that Asa was a witch. I get confused as to what Igor and others are when they come back. Once I settle in there, I’m fine.
To get back to the positives, I think that Steele does really well in playing the good Katia and the villain Asa. The latter we don’t get a lot of, but there’s just a presence about her that worked. She is quite attractive as well and it is a shame to hear that she and Bava didn’t work well together. Richardson I think does well as our hero. My gripe there is that he falls in love as fast as he does. I can be a bit forgiving though due to the fact that she’s a princess and it’s Barbara Steele. Checchi is solid along with Garrani and Dominici. I don’t really think there’s a bad performance here. Some of the dubbing doesn’t necessarily work, but that’s just Italian cinema.
I couldn’t get through this without talking about the cinematography and the effects. I found it interesting is that technically, this isn’t black and white, but monochrome. I guess this is just the absence of color which does make the shadows that much darker. That was interesting bit to learn and Bava really just knows how to shoot a movie. That is does very well. For how early this movie came out, it is interesting as the effects are good. We get some transformation stuff that worked. It is pretty brutal as well while still being subdued. That fine line makes it interesting for me. I did cringe at a few spots in a good way. This is really showing what you can do with practical effects.
That is where I want to leave this review. I can say that each time I see this movie, it gets better for me. It feels like one that the more I learn about it, the more it works and I can appreciate what Bava is doing here. It has good acting. The effects and cinematography are really good. If I have any gripes, there are just some inconsistencies with the story for me that cause me wane in interest. I can see that this is a good movie overall for sure. I will warn you that it is dubbed, is monochromatic from 1960 Italy. If that’s an issue, I’d avoid it. If not, it is good one to check out.
My Rating: 8 out of 10