Classic Musings: Black Sunday (1960)

Billowing torches and fire pits, shadows cast by knotted trees, and an eerie voiceover describing the ritualistic "cleansing" of satanic sympathizers adorn the first minutes of Black Sunday (also known as The Mask of Satan, or La maschera del demonio), the debut feature film from Italian horror icon Mario Bava. Setting the tone for what's to come in an ominous tale of family curses and demonic enchantment, the scenes that follow drip in gothic atmosphere that not only fixates on unsettling images, but also tells a story almost as clearly as the context itself -- as they should, given Bava's experience behind the camera. Not until a statuesque, ghostly figure emerges in the crumbled ruins of a church does this classic truly take flight, though, where Barbara Steele's mesmerizing presence reveals the form of what'll become one of the finest, earliest examples of an effective female villainess in horror's annals. The appeal cannot be easily denied, where her presence among the obscure, antiquated atmosphere of dark silhouettes and craggy crypts still mesmerizes with every frame.

Loosely adapting the ideas and structure from a Russian short story, Nikolai Gogol's Viy, Black Sunday revolves around a family curse that dates back centuries before the events that transpire in the film's central 19th-Century setting. Just before being burned at the stake by her brother for practicing sorcery, Asa Vajda (Steele) puts a curse on their family, swearing revenge for her death and that of her lover and co-practitioner, Javuto (Ivo Garrani). Jump ahead two centuries, where Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant, Dr. Gorbarec (John Richardson), explore the ruins of a cathedral while waiting for their carriage to be repaired. While there, they stumble onto the crypt of Asa Vajda, whose body -- aside from some decay and critters crawling through her skull -- appears remarkably preserved underneath the death mask stapled to her head. Yet when they exit the crypt, and after Dr. Kruvajan accidentally drips blood onto the corpse's face, they're greeted by a stunningly woman: Katia, who perfectly resembles the witch-vampire Asa from head to toe.

Time kind of stands still once Barbara Steele emerges underneath the gloomy clouds and crumbled ruins -- partly because of the curiosity about her doppelganger likeness to Asa, but mostly because of how exquisitely the actress wears the shadows and stones around her. Black Sunday exudes this ominous mood around the two manifestations of the character that Steele embodies; Katia's haunted, innocent gazes leave one unnerved by the girl's place in the ancient curse of her ancestor, while the grotesque, mangled visages of Asa in her crypt -- and outside of it -- create their own intimidating presence. Bava relishes the look in her eyes, a consistent visual motif in the film, where the desperation and unease in one filters into the fiendish, ancient concentration in the other. The villainous side of Steele transformed her into one of the key faces of horror in the '60s, as her ability to titillate and revile becomes one of the earliest expressions of a beguiling, disturbing female antagonist.

The visual tempo Bava wraps around Barbara Steele is what drives Black Sunday, a distinctive black-and-white infusion of modern gore with nods to German Expressionism and Hammer Films' productions of the '50s. Gargoyles, gnarled stone walls, gloomy paintings and obscuring shadows blanket every scene, shot in and around an Italian castle to capture a properly antiquated aesthetic around the accursed Vajda family. The exposition-heavy script -- well, all the pieces of the script, written day-by-day -- forces out stories of vampirism, the curse's history, and Katia's desire to separate from her family, but the evocative images Bava orchestrates invoke so much bleak, brooding life that the context almost seems redundant at times. Human interaction isn't the film's strong suit, where forced dialogue elucidates certain elements, but the bleak aura clouding the castle, misty swamplands, and ominous graveyards engulfs the senses to such a profound degree that the blunt-force frankness is almost a welcome wake-up call from that gloomy trance.

Bava gradually allows the mysteries of Black Sunday to emerge from those shadows, and as he pulls the curtain back on its curios, the images he concocts evoke more and more of a nightmarish vibe. This isn't a film designed for overt scares, where images of fraught carriages trips through the night, scorpions and maggots crawling in and on faces, and the piercing eyes adorning a face of rotting flesh slowly curdle the blood instead of provoke punchy terror. Instead, it lures those watching into this inventive crescendo of macabre revelations about what the horrors of the Vajda curse truly entail, one that alludes to the artful terrors of '30s horror cinema as Katia and Asa's connection comes full-circle. Audiences' thresholds have been vigorously tested since the '60s by shocking displays of violence and gore, yet those final images of Barbara Steele -- wide-eyed, scheming, and alarming -- entwined in satanic schemes and surrounded by the gothic structures of Bava's vision still have the enormously uncanny ability of sending shivers down the spine.

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