Halloween Endurance Test: Black Sunday (1960)

It’s amazing the effect one director can have. Tonight I watched Mario Bava’s Black Sunday a/k/a the Mask of Satan, a viewing that caused me to become a major Bava fanboy. The same fanboy-dom is what caused me to gush so much over The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace. More significantly, it also shows what a director can do with his cast. As here, in Bava’s hands, horror movie starlet Barbara Steele’s fame is somewhat explained.

Now, when we last saw Ms. Steele, she was starring in Roger Corman’s horrid Nightmare Castle. A film I couldn’t stand when I was 12, and, almost two decades later, one I still can’t stand. From what I remember (having blocked most of it out), Steele played a double-role, same as she does here. Only here, clearly sensing my indifference/antagonism towards Steele, Bava starts the film by burning her at the stake. After locking some kind of iron maiden mask on her. (The titular “mask of Satan.”)

Why a mask with inverted spikes, along with flames? Well, the spikes play an important part in the plot when her tomb is later defiled. The grave-digging doctor cuts his hand on one of the spikes, and his blood resurrects the surprisingly well preserved witch.

(Funny, as the doctor is knowledgable about witch-lore, so you’d think he’d take appropriate safety precautions against resurrecting her.)

This movie’s a lot more fun than it should be. It’s a traditional haunting story, transposed over the sets of Dracula. (Watch for the first time Steele’s tomb is visited. The intruders are attacked by a horrible, giant bat! A “(d)effect” that’s so bad it could’ve been directed by Todd Browning!) The vampire connection runs deep throughout the movie, as we’ll find out these witches are vulnerable to crucifixes (also tying in the “Satan” connection), and can only be killed with a wooden stake driven through the heart into the eye socket.

Beautiful lighting, however, (courtesy of [look up cinematographers name]), as well as clever editing (love the part where, as we’re watching the witches eyes slowly reform in her skull, Bava jump cuts into the camera pulling out of the circular opening of a tuba) keeps the film from becoming too derivative.

Foreshadowing his classic Planet of the Vampires, Bava breaks out what would become his otherworldly graveyard set here. Just a normal graveyard set, really, with a backlit, grayish/blank backdrop giving the set an asteroid/outer space feel. A feel that’s then multiplied when the cursed warlock rises from the grave.

For when he arises. the Prince/warlock is wearing (obviously) a mask of satan and a shirt bearing an unusual dragon crest on it. A dragon crest that makes him look like a (Francis Ford Coppola) Dracula stand-in, while the mask makes him look more like an illithid. Creating an overall effect of a mind flayer patrolling the moon.

Again, the genius of Bava. No one will ever know exactly what the reasoning behind the dress was, and, at this point, it doesn’t matter. England, Transylvania, the Moon, it won’t matter to you, the viewer. All you’ll care about is that wherever it is, it’s clearly haunted.

Similarly, the story itself might not make much, if any, sense, but you won’t even notice it. Every shot is either beautiful, or so well staged that it’s already been incorporated in the cinema of your mind by modern directors who have ripped it off in their own movies.

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