A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Mario Bava’s first credited directorial debut is a masterpiece of Gothic horror cinema, illustrating a world in transition.
1960 was a pivotal year in horror history. Horror movies were getting nastier, more bloodthirsty, more real. In America, Alfred Hitchcock was preparing to stun the world with his seminal tale of madness, isolation, and murder that is Psycho. In England, a new shade of video nasties was about to emerge with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom while Hammer Studios were just beginning to segue from a low-budget thriller factory to a vivid, lurid fever dream, as they shocked movie-goers with rivers of Technicolor gore. Horror was beginning to turn its manic, bloodshot gaze on the world it inhabits, horrifying audiences with the madness and mania lurking next door. Horror, and horror audiences, weren’t prepared for what’s to come, and neither would ever be the same again.
This is the scene by which Mario Bava, patron saint and godfather of giallo, was to make quite a splash, establishing Italy with its own distinctive horror identity. And yet, Black Sunday is far removed from the lysergic visions Italy would soon become known for, including Bava himself, in just a few years. Instead, Black Sunday seems more like a throwback to the classic Horror of the ’30s and ’40s, the cardboard crypts and grayscale graveyards of Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and the Universal Studios dreamscape. It makes Black Sunday a unique creature, a bizarre missing link between Silver Screen and Video Nasty. It’s got an old fashioned sensibility but with a modern bloodlust. It’s exquisite.
It makes Black Sunday a unique creature, a bizarre missing link between Silver Screen and Video Nasty. It’s got an old fashioned sensibility but with a modern bloodlust.
Black Sunday: Synopsis
The year is 1630. In the principality of Moldavia, Princess Asa (Barbara Steele) of the House of Vajda, and her accomplice Javuto, have each been condemned to die as vampires and for consorting with Satan.
Asa, in her very last moments, curses the bloodline of the Grand Inquisitor (and her older brother) Griabe, warning that one day she will return from beyond the grave to exact revenge. Griabe commands the executioner to hammer the Mask of Satan on to Asa’s face. He then gives the go-ahead for the stake to be lit. A thunderstorm suddenly rages and Asa’s body is unable to be burned. The crowd scatters.
Two hundred years later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his colleague Dr. Andreas Gorobec (John Richardson) are passing through Moldavia on their way to a medical conference. Kruvajan orders the driver to take a short cut through the forest road and to stop for the night at the village of Mirgorod. A wheel of the carriage comes off on the old and unpaved lane. Waiting for their superstitious driver to fix it, they wander to a nearby set of chapel ruins – attracted by a whistling noise – and inspect the crypt, where Kruvajan relates the story of the cursed Vajdas. They discover the well-preserved corpse of Asa lying in her tomb. Kruvajan unwisely removes the Mask of Satan. A giant bat attacks the older man, which he shoots with a revolver and beats with his cane. Gorobec notices the older doctor has cut his hand. Droplets of blood drip onto the waxen skin and into the eye sockets of Asa.
Walking back through the ruins, the carriage now fixed and waiting, Kruvajan and Gorobec meet Princess Katia and her two large hounds. She is the exact image of her wicked ancestor killed two centuries ago. Gorobec appears instantly smitten with the princess.
Meanwhile, Kruvajan’s blood has acted as a reviving agent to Asa’s corpse and she calls out to Javuto, who stirs from his slumber in a nearby graveyard to set about their diabolical plan/promise made two hundred years ago. Javuto goes to the castle and terrifies Prince Vajda. The troubled prince attempts to ward the vampire off with a crucifix before succumbing to a state of catatonia.
Kruvajan, resting in Mirgorod village inn, is called to the castle by Katia and her brother Constantin, but the messenger, Boris, is intercepted and murdered by Javuto. Kruvajan is taken to see Asa instead, who has not yet been restored to full power. She turns the poor doctor into a vampire’s consort. Asa’s plot is to drain the lifeforce of Katia and walk free again upon the earth. Kruvajan, now one of the undead, is sent to the castle to turn Prince Vajda into a bloodsucking fiend.
The innkeeper’s daughter, who witnessed Asa’s demon helper take away Kruvajan, informs Gorobec of what she saw. A priest recognises, too, that Javuto has returned from the grave and must be stopped. The priest and Gorobec search the local graveyard and discover the sleeping body of Kruvajan. The priest thrusts a stake into the man’s eye, killing him.
At the castle, Javuto has located Katia and taken her by force to meet Asa. Gorobec enters the crypt and finds Asa pretending to be Katia. The real Katia is sleeping on the coffin. She informs the love-struck hero to stake the vampire whilst he still has the chance! Asa gives herself away because Katia is wearing a small silver crucifix around the neck, something the witch would find intolerable, given her allegiance to Satan. Asa’s ruse is called out. She opens her robe to reveal a skeletal form. In the nick of time, the priest and villagers turn up to save the day and Asa is tied to a stake (again) and set alight. She is killed (again). Like Sleeping Beauty, Katia awakes.
So, does Black Sunday live up to the hype? Does it hold up or is it merely coasting on its reputation and the reputation of its creators?
Black Sunday holds up beautifully, in my opinion. First and foremost, is Bava’s style. Before Black Sunday (which is also known as The Mask Of Satan), Bava had worked as a cinematographer, and it shows. Mario Bava really makes the most of each set – the cobwebbed crypt, the damned graveyard, the ancestral castle – which are made all the more beautiful in crisp, sharp black and white. It gives Black Sunday more of a classic horror feel that helps sell it. Some of the tropes, such as the giant bat that attacks Dr. Kruvajan would probably look beyond hokey in Technicolor. And yet, there’s a precedent for bats on wires in black and white horror, a la Todd Browning’s Dracula, that turns what could’ve been a gag into a charming moment of Silver Screen horror.
Combine stunning cinematography with the presence of Barbara Steele, who lights up the screen and steals every scene she’s in, it’s almost impossible for Black Sunday not to real. She really brings some malevolent weight to the performance with deliciously campy lines like, “Now, you will know a delicious life, full of evil and hatred.” She’s a great witch, but she’s just as good as her virginal double.
Black Sunday is lean and mean, too, clocking in at only 85 minutes. If you’re looking for a classic horror movie that doesn’t take too much time and attention, you should consider Black Sunday.
Black Sunday is based on the short story Viy by Nikolai Gogol, which we’ll also cover as part of Witch Week!
Black Sunday is a truly auspicious start to Mario Bava’s career. It’s a wonderful dose of classic Gothic cinema, made even more compelling as much of the rest of the world were turning their sights to more Modern terrors. It’s a great introduction to Bava’s work, if yr new to the Italian auteur. It’d make a fine double feature with Mario Bava’s other masterpiece of Black cinema, Black Sabbath.
All in all, i’m giving Mario Bava’s Black Sunday four skulls, for style, charm, excellent performances, and historical significance.💀💀💀💀
What do you think of Black Sunday? Any fans? Any haters?
If you’d like to hear a more in-depth discussion of Black Sunday, check out the episode from the excellent Evolution Of Horror podcast from the series they did on Occult Horror a few years ago!
Welcome to 31 Days Of Horror! Each day this month, i’ll be reviewing and recommending horror movies, in addition to other media, art, and culture relating to the Horror genre. Make sure to check back as this site’s about to run red with more delicious horror madness than you could shake a stake at.
We’ve got a pretty stacked queue already, but am always open to suggestions, recommendations, and just knowing what y’all would like to see on this site. And what are y’all watching, reading, and listening to, this Season of the Witch?
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