Black Sunday is worth a watch both as a solid little screamer and as a piece of horror history.
The streaming service Shudder has proven itself to be a hidden treasure, providing both an abundance of current horror – both mainstream and indie – yet also finding older gems such as Ken Russell’s The Devils, which it featured last year, and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Black Sunday, Italian director Bava’s 1960 horror masterpiece, has been either completely missing or only available in severely edited form for many of the years since its release. So to find it relatively unblemished on such a platform is cause for celebration.
Black Sunday, also known as The Mask of Satan and Revenge of the Vampire, is loosely based on the 1835 Nikolai Gogol short story “Viy” and tells the tale of 17th century witch Asa Vajda (played by wide-eyed American scream queen Barbara Steele), who in the film’s opening moments is sentenced to death in one of cinema’s more horrific scenes. Condemned for Satan worship, Asa is tied to a stake and has a white-hot, spike-laden mask hammered into her face by an executioner. Censors at the time of the film’s release went made, either eliminating the scene or reducing it to a whisper of its original horror. But, restored, this horror not only serves the story but also shows the ways in which Bava’s film paved the way for later Italian giallo films, which were defined by their almost unbearable levels of graphic horror.
Centuries after Asa’s execution, her tomb is happened upon by two doctors on their way to a medical conference. They unwittingly unleash her spirit upon her ancestors, and literal Hell breaks loose. While Steele oozes star quality – and her uncanny resemblance to contemporary actress Krysten Ritter (Netflix’s “Jessica Jones”) raises hope for a modern remake – the rest of the performances are laughably wooden. Yet Bava’s gothic sensibilities and the film’s commitment to all-out Satanic horror make it unnerving even today.
Bava would go on to direct a number of influential films including Kill, Baby, Kill and Planet of the Vampires. However, for a director so known for his use of lurid color, his skill in creating the black-and-white Black Sunday shows that his abilities extend far beyond the ornamental. What is particularly astonishing is how well Black Sunday’s special effects hold up today, a testament to Bava’s lauded cinematography career and his general ingenuity.
Yet, even though it is a cornerstone of the giallo subgenre, Black Sunday doesn’t hold up as well as many of its successors, particularly the films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, because it adheres too much to its gothic inspirations. Black Sunday is so beholden to the past, particularly to gothic films like Murnau’s Nosferatu, Ulmer’s Black Cat and Hitchcock’s Rebecca, that it forgets to carve out its own distinct voice. Its violent excess inspired later films, yet its allegiance to its own forbears holds it back significantly.
However, if you’re going to stumble upon something in the increasingly infinite array of streaming options, Black Sunday is worth a watch both as a solid little screamer and as a piece of horror history. Bava’s résumé alone should attract horror fans, while fans of the giallo subgenre should start here when looking for its foundations.