A Movie A Day: Quint on BLACK SUNDAY (1960) You have no reason to fear the dead. They sleep very soundly.
Published at: Sept. 6, 2008, 1:04 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today we catch Mario Bava’s first film, BLACK SUNDAY (aka THE MASK OF SATAN), a benchmark in the horror genre.
I loved yesterday’s Bava flick, BLACK SABBATH, wholeheartedly. That one really worked for me as a film fan, as a genre fan and a human being creeped the fuck out. So, I was a very excited geek popping this one in.
The opening of BLACK SUNDAY is fucking incredible. It’s a witch’s damnation scene that looks amazing in black and white. The smoke hangs in the air, the blacks deep and menacing as black robed men surround a beautiful Barbara Steele tied to a stake.
I thought maybe I understood… this will be an inquisition movie, but wrong. The inquisitors were the good guys and Steele was a witch, caught doing Satan’s bidding with Arturo Dominici.
The main Inquisitor passes sentence, saying she is to be burned to ashes after having the Mask of Satan placed upon her (a mask I’m sure Mario’s son, Lamberto, was referencing in one of my favorites, DEMONS). She fires back a curse on him and his family before the black-hooded dude walks up with the mask, a bronze monstrocity with giant spikes.
The escalation here was what won me over. He slowly, slowly, slowly walks up with the mask, we see it from Steele’s POV, we see the Hooded Man holding it up… Then it goes over her face… But that’s not the end.
Suddenly the hooded man pops up again with a giant hammer with a damn tree-trunk for the hammer part. He raises it and swings, hitting the mask like the head on a nail, sending it sinking into the post Steele is tied to with a scream an a torrent of blood erupting behind the mask, like a water balloon.
Awesome, awesome opening.
I think I might catch a little shit for this one, though, because I honestly wasn’t all that taken with the rest of the movie. Maybe I need to give it some time and revisit it, but the dubbing was so awful that I found it hard to get involved with the characters.
That fault is hard to lay at Bava’s feet, but what I can take issue with is the writing. You have characters doing some stupid shit, like accidentally breaking the cross protecting the witch from returning during a fight with a giant bat after telling us why that cross was there 3 minutes before.
Now that’s not to say a good horror movie can’t have their characters doing stupid shit. Look at HALLOWEEN, for instance. Brilliant movie. Still holds up. Great, great film, but how many goddamned times does Laurie Strode drop her weapon after supposedly killing The Shape?
I accept a certain amount of suspension of disbelief in horror and even that didn’t derail the movie for me. I still liked BLACK SUNDAY, but it wasn’t the genre-defining movie I was expecting.
And coming off of BLACK SABBATH didn’t help. The dubbing in SABBATH wasn’t too good either, but at least it was Italian dubbing, with English subtitles so if there was over-acting it was hard for me to discern it, letting me focus on technical filmmaking and craftsmanship on the screen.
SABBATH seemed fresh to me and SUNDAY felt like I had to make excuses for it. I had to consider the time-period it was made to overlook some poor script choices and some uninteresting characterwork.
That said, the visuals of the movie are impressive. The gothic setting is fantastic, the photography beautiful. Bava did his own cinematography and make-up here, which is all to be applauded. For a first film (even first credited film as Bava did some uncredited work on a couple of pictures before this), it is incredibly well done, just not the life-changing genre cornerstone I was expecting.
Steele is very pleasant to watch and seems to be giving it her all in the dual role of the witch Katia Vajda and her innocent descendant Princess Asa. John Richardson and Andrea Checchi play doctors who unwittingly awaken the witch while investigating her burial chamber and get caught up in the family’s struggle with their dark history.
Of course Richardson falls in love with Steele after three sentences, but I guess that’s not any more unrealistic than Mark Damon falling for Susie Anderson after knowing her for 20 seconds in the Wurdalak episode of yesterday’s BLACK SABBATH.
The main villain of the second half is Arturo Dominici as Igor Javutich, the witch’s lover newly resurrected by the witch as she slowly regains her power after an awful lot of convenient things happen in a row (the cross on her tomb destroyed, the glass broken, her Satan mask removed and one of the doctors cutting himself enough for a few drops of his blood to fall into her corpse mouth).
And I shit you not, the resurrected Javutich looks like Danny Trejo. He has some corpse skin, so you have pocked cheeks, the thick mustache, the long hair… I saw Danny Trejo every time that character was onscreen being a huge bastard.
Final Thoughts: It’s not a bad movie by any means, it just relies too much on convenience and gets very, very dull after an exciting opening. The atmosphere, set design and cinematography are almost enough to make me ignore that, but I just couldn’t. I appreciate this movie and what it meant for the genre, how it gave horror an edge when it was released, how it pushed the envelope. I respect it a lot more than I enjoyed it I think is what I’m trying to say. There’s definitely reason to seek this out, especially if you’re a genre fan, but Bava’s BLACK SABBATH worked on it’s own terms for me 45 years after it was made and I had to put BLACK SUNDAY into the context of its release to really appreciate it.