La maschera del demonio (1960)


BLACK SUNDAY (Maschera del demonio, La)

(director/writer: Mario Bava; screenwriters: Ennio De Concini/from the short story The Vij by Nikolai Gogol; cinematographer: Mario Bava/Ubaldo Terzano; editor: Mario Serandrei; music: Les Baxter; cast: Barbara Steele (Katia/Princess Asa), John Richardson (Dr. Andrej Gorobec), Andrea Checchi (Professor Choma Kruvajan), Arturo Dominici (Prince Ivo Javutich), Enrico Olivieri (Prince Constantine), Antonio Pierfederici (The Priest), Ivo Garrani (Prince Vajda), Tino Bianchi (Ivan), Arturo Dominici (Igor Javutich/Javuto); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lou Rusoff; American International Pictures/Sinister Cinema; 1960-Italy-dubbed in English)

“The most influential figure in Italian exploitation horror movies would never again match the success of this venture.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mario Bava (“Black Sabbath”/” Kill, Baby, Kill”), in his film debut as a director, achieved his one masterpiece in his long career. The most influential figure in Italian exploitation horror movies would never again match the success of this venture. It’s taken from the 1835 classic Russian ghost story The Vij by Nikolai Gogol. Bava and screenwriter Ennio De Concini made it into their own story by completely changing the novel. Through the striking visual camerawork by co-cinematographers Bava and Ubaldo Terzano the film achieves a dream-like look and its eerie atmospheric look of drenched decaying landscapes, twilight lighting, shadowy black-and-white images, fog, a creepy baroque castle, a sleepy peasant village, cobwebs in the mausoleum, crypts, dark passageways, trapdoors, and crawling insects. Besides the innovative visuals, it also effectively uses sound. There’s the sinister sound of wind going through the broken pipes of a disused church organ, the sharp sounds of the wind blowing, and dogs howling. Bava is quoted as saying “it was the only one of my films which was really well-done, all shot with a dolly.” He further adds that the “photography in a horror film is 70% of its effectiveness; it creates all the atmosphere.”

The film is also notable for launching the career of Barbara Steele as a horror film icon. It was a role she became famous for and was forever typecast in, which later left her in dismay even though she’s considered the greatest actress in the history of horror films. Here she plays two roles, one of a cruel 16th century witch named Princess Asa who leaves a curse on her persecutors when burned at the stake and as the sweet Princess named Katia, who looks like her but has a different personality though sharing the same body.

The film was never recognized by the critics when released, but soon became a cult hit and opened the door for the Italian Gothic horror film. The film was financially a big box office hit internationally. It also followed Bava’s career-long central theme of “uncertainty.” The characters in all Bava’s films must overcome their uncertainty by using their smarts.

The film opens as a narrator tells us “one day in each century Satan walks among the living, and to the God-fearing believers that day is known as Black Sunday.” On the screen we witness the final moments of Princess Asa and her serf lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici) being burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft and sorcery by black-robed inquisitors. Before being burned to death, a spiked mask of the devil’s face is hammered into both their faces and Asa vows revenge on the family who killed her.

We now jump to two hundred years later, in 1830, and Dr. Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) are traveling across the foggy Moldavian countryside when their coach loses a wheel. Stopping to investigate the strange sounds heard in the area, their attention turns to a banging door and they find themselves descending the mausoleum’s staircase. They discover an unusual coffin and are attacked by a bat, which the doctor shoots and smashes with his cane. That action causes the glass-enclosed cross on the coffin to shatter (it was used so the witch won’t be able to leave the crypt on Black Sunday). Kruvajan cuts his hand when taking off the devil’s mask on Princess Asa’s maggot-covered face and his droplets of blood fall on her, which are enough to revive her. The doctors, on the way to the inn, soon run into the 20-year-old Princess Katia, the daughter of Prince Vaida (Ivo Garrani), out walking her dogs, and remark how much she resembles Princess Asa. Back in the castle, Prince Vaida confides to his loyal family servant Ivan (Tino Bianchi) that he fears today is Black Sunday and worries about the family curse. He tells of the 20-year-old Princess Marcia mysteriously slain a century ago on Black Sunday.

Meanwhile back in the mausoleum Asa gets Javuto to be resurrected while lightning flashes abound, and he enters the castle of Vaida’s through a secret passageway. When Vaida spots him, he fends him off by holding up the Russian Orthodox cross Ivan gave him. Katia and her concerned brother Constantin (Enrico Olivieri) rush into their sickly father’s bedroom to comfort him, and send their servant Boris to get the doctors at the inn. But instead of Boris, Javuto arrives and takes Kruvajan to the secret passageway in the castle that leads back to the crypt. There he’s hypnotized by Asa into embracing her, and she drains him of all his blood to turn him into a vampire in order to gain full life and thereby accomplish her mission of vengeance.

The next morning Andrej goes to the castle to investigate the disappearance of Kruvajan, who left his patient and has been seen since, and is about to put a stake into the one he thinks is Asa but fortunately identifies her as the real Katia by the crucifix she is wearing (which allows her to avoid becoming a vampire) and then tries to fend off Asa’s attempts to suck out his blood. He’s rescued by the local priest, who is leading the charge of the angry villagers. They grab the evil high priestess and burn her to death at the stake. When Asa is dead Katia comes back to life, with the curse removed. The priest has deciphered the Cyrillic message on the icon and therefore knows how to get rid of the evil sorcerers. Javuto gets his when he’s consumed by fire after tossing the now vampire Vaida in the fireplace. The priest also exorcises Boris and burns the now vampire Kruvajan by placing a cross on his forehead.

The film clearly shows Bava’s mastery of the horror film by his perfectly executed images of cruelty and shocking torture sequences. Though the story that started the modern trend in horror films has become too clichéd and formulaic to maintain its original punch, the visuals are still impressive.