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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Black Sunday (1960) review


Barbara Steele (Katia Vajda/Asa Vajda), John Richardson (Dr. Andre Gorobec), Arturo Dominici (Igor Javutich), Andrea Checchi (Dr. Thomas Kruvajan)

Directed by Mario Bava

The Short Version: Stunning canvas worthy horror film is the equivalent of a celebrated portrait of evil by a noted artist. Mario Bava's debut of wicked curses and creatures of the night is an incredible achievement and one of the most superb examples of B/W photography in creating an incredibly dark mood of impending dread and horror. Deserving to be on any list of the greatest horror movies ever made, it surpasses so many other more widely known Gothic terror pictures. Not only is a story told here, but this is a visual feast first and foremost.

In the 17th century, an evil witch and her vile lover, Javutich are condemned to death for sorcery, vampirism and murder by her own family. Before her death, the wicked Asa Vadja curses her lineage and future descendants. 200 years later, two doctors on their way to a medical convention are stranded near a dilapidated and eerie crypt. Investigating, Dr. Kruvajan inadvertently resurrects the evil Asa who plans to enact her centuries old vendetta which includes possessing the body of Katia Vajda, who bears a remarkably similar countenance.

While Mario Bava has been noted as an influence on a flurry of filmmakers over the years, his catalog of fear is rarely spoken in the same breadth of Hammer's more vocally attributed works. It's a shame, really, as his films capture a Gothically evil fairy tale quality that's missing from the best of the British company that dripped blood. Having worked on, or finished movies for other established directors, Bava cuts his teeth and sinks them into the throats of screaming movie goers everywhere with this phantasmagorical assault on the visual senses. BLACK SUNDAY is a (blood) feast for the eyes overflowing with an endless array of expertly constructed set pieces showing just how "colorful" black and white photography can be in the hands of a master proficient in fantasy and the macabre.

Bava is the kid and his camera is the candy store and he loads up on as much cinematic calories as he can fit within the films 87 minute time. Nearly every frame is a feast for the eyes and the exemplary lighting scheme adds greatly to this all you can eat sight and sound smorgasbord of superlativeness guided by the supreme hand of Italy's premiere purveyor of plutonian putrefaction. Riccardo Freda may have laid the groundwork, but Bava built these monolithically morbid skyscrapers rife with supernatural scenarios drenched in ghoulish ambiance.

BLACK SUNDAY is Bava's landmark achievement that towers over so many similar chillers of old. It's Italy's DRACULA (1931), or FRANKENSTEIN (1931). While Hammer gets the limelight when it comes to color saturated oldeworld horrors, Bava's work frequently surpasses those British terror tales with his trademark brand of Gothic mood. What makes his mark so distinctive and immeasurable is that even in a monochromatic arena, the richness and stark use of light and darkness brings out a depth that is just as joltingly effective as any color feature. Having shown signs of brilliance to come from his participation on other peoples movies, Bava lets his creative juices cascade like the falls of the Cascate delle Marmore. It's here in BLACK SUNDAY that many of the filmmakers recognizably sinister touches are branded.

Bava's use of fog almost becomes a character in itself wrapping around crumbling edifices, castles and people. This menacing cloud accentuates many of the movies best scenes. This being the most vital ingredient of any film bearing Gothic trappings, the Euro horrors attained a disparate stature that was mirrored in many of the best B/W Mexi-horrors of the same time period. The director seemed fond of featuring outstretched, clutching, evil hands reaching out to grasp an object or a victims throat. Javutich rising from the grave is preceded by his muddy, gnarled hand reaching skyward as he exits the cold, wet earth. This device, also seen in many a DRACULA movie, was put to use in Bava's BLACK SABBATH (1963) and again in KILL, BABY...KILL (1966).

Mario Bava also succinctly touches on the theme of science versus the supernatural--a subject he would broach less subtley in KILL, BABY...KILL (1966). Both Gorobec and Kruvajan are men of modern science, yet these inquisitive seekers of truth unwittingly unleash evil onto the world after stumbling upon the dilapidated mausoleum that houses the tomb of Asa Vadjan. The presentation and liquidation of the vampires is a bit different from the classical interpretation from countless movies. The cross is still a viable weapon, but the means of destruction is not the same. Whereas a stake through the heart is the most popular method for dispatching a bloodsucker, here it's piercing the eye that sends the creatures back to hell.

Barbara Steele made a huge name for herself in Europe during the 1960s after taking the dual role in Bava's macabre masterpiece. Appearing in over a dozen horror films (including THE PIT & THE PENDULUM, CASTLE OF BLOOD, THE SHE BEAST and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH) with most of them being of the Italian variety, Steele carved an indelible image in those days that would be akin to what came to be termed as a 'Scream Queen' in the coming years. There may have been Fay Wray before her, but the exotic allure of this British born beauty adorned many of the best examples of international terror cinema.

Arturo Dominici had a face that suited him perfectly in villain roles. His demonic visage graced the screen many times and not just in horror movies, but in many other styles of film, too. His penchant for villainy came in handy for many classic and fun Sword & Sandal motion pictures such as his deviously evil turn as a barbarian in GOLIATH & THE BARBARIANS (1959) and his Richelieu like villain in HERCULES & THE MASKED RIDER (1963). Curiously enough, Dominici played good guys on occasion such as his turn as Achilles in THE TROJAN HORSE (1961). Dominici also had a large role in the Bavaesque CASTLE OF BLOOD (1964), which reunited him with his BLACK SUNDAY co-star, Barbara Steele.

This auspicious debut from one of Italian cinemas best loved icons was a milestone for Italian horror. There had been numerous similar movies emerging from Britain, Mexico and America before and after, but BLACK SUNDAY represented a new visual style that hadn't been seen before. So many shots look like they've been stripped straight from a macabre painting--the opening of the movie; shots of Katia at the entrance of the mausoleum; the first appearance of Asa and Javutich at the lake are among so many elaborate, painterly and provocative moments that mesmerize the viewer in a way not unlike the vampires in the film. BLACK SUNDAY is hypnotically surreal nightmare horror at its finest.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD


Samuel Wilson said...

venom, Bava's is definitely one of the highlights of that extended annus mirabilis et horribilis of 1959-60, when Hammer's breakthroughs of recent years were answered around the world with an outbreak of masterpieces, many of which surpassed their British inspiration. I can't help thinking that Bava isn't fully Bava until he works in color, but his mastery of black & white and of gothic mood is indisputable.

A hero never dies said...

Great review again Brian of an amazing movie, the photography is just incredible. I really can't wait to see the blu ray of this. Are you planning on covering more Bava's?

venoms5 said...

BLACK SUNDAY is one of those movies that I feel benefits from B/W. I think if it were ever colorized, that would be a crime. It has this feel about it, at least to me, that it's entirely suited for that format.

That shot of the moon breaking through the clouds and resonating on the pillar of that castle is pure genius. No doubt Bava's love of painting aided him immensely in a lot of his movies. I can't think of another Italian director who shared this striking visual sensibility.

There is one minor flub, though. When Javutich opens the door of the carriage to let Kruvajan inside, you can see what I presume is Bava in the reflection of the glass.

His 70s movies aren't quite as good as his earlier stuff, in my opinion, but still have an occasional flourish. Thanks for stopping by, Sam!

venoms5 said...

@ Martin: I wasn't aware a Blu Ray was coming, but I surely would be anxious to buy one! Actually, I've got two other Bava horror reviews plus one western--NEBRASKA JIM--he did some work on. It's a rare movie and sometimes he's credited as director and others say he did uncredited second unit work.

J. Astro said...

I actually find the plot/story of this one fairly dull... but whenever I wanna throw something in on a chilly autumn evening that just plain oozes atmosphere, this is one of my go-to pics. Good stuff, m'man.

Movies on my Mind said...

Solid review man. These movies are pretty hard to get hold of though.

venoms5 said...

@ J: Yeah, the story of vengeance from a centuries old curse was a dime a dozen at the time, but as you said, the atmosphere is all over the place here and at least the vampire mythos is interesting. If only those 17th century guys put spikes where the eye holes were, there'd of been no movie!

@ Movies: You should still be able to get either the single disc or the box set rather cheaply from amazon sellers brand new. Under $20 and it was more than that when it first came out. Thanks for the kind remarks!

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

A fine review Sir! I agree with one of you previous commenters about Bava's relationship to colour. However it is the black and white photography that certainly made this stand out at the time. The decision to shoot in monochrome immediately differentiated it from Hammer's saturated hues. The key symbolic moment here is the the hammering of the mask onto Steele's face, an early example of ocular trauma that has resonated throughout Italian horror cinema. An important film, much more important than I VAMPIRI, which is often cited as the first Italian neo-gothic horror film.

venoms5 said...

Oddly enough, the mask itself doesn't have spikes to penetrate the eyes, just about the face. If it had, I guess we'd of had no movie. I do like how they altered the vampire mythology in that the only way to free the souls is through penetrating the eyes.

Thanks for stopping by, Shaun! I take it you're enjoying those books you've been reading. I fell out of reading novels some years ago, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Love this shit.

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