Sunday, September 21, 2008

All about Mario Bava's Black Sunday

By Doug Gibson

Black Sunday, 1960, Italy, 83 minutes, B&W. Directed by Mario Bava. Starring Barbara Steele as Princess Asa Vajda/Katia Vajda, John Richardson as Dr. Adrej Gorobec, Andrea Checchi as Dr. Tomas Kruvajan, Arturo Dominici as Javutich, Ivo Garrani as Prince Vajda. Released in the U.S. by American International Pictures. Schlock-Meter rating: 9 1/2 stars out of 10.

Black Sunday drips in atmosphere, creating a dark, brooding tale of slain advocates of Satan rising from the grave 200 years after being executed in Moldavia and trying to exact revenge on their descendants. Director Bava uses images, sounds and nature to exact mood from his first (and some argue best) chiller. Cobwebs, dark shadows, fog, hanging branches, dense forests, decaying graves, spiked masks being driven into faces, a decayed face infested by bugs, stakes being driven in eyes, death by fire, dark nights with sound trailing away, and always the wind blowing ominously in the background, exploit our senses while watching Black Sunday.

Another example: Bava manages to produce chills by shooting a horse carriage in slow motion and soft focus. It creates a ghostly image. Later, after a hapless doctor is carried in the carriage, it rides faster than is humanly possible, adding a contrast just as creepy as the first glimpse of the carriage.

The plot involves a beautiful princess/witch named Asa (Steele), and her demonic assistant, Javutich (Dominici), who are executed early in the 17th century. Asa utters a curse against her brother (who is overseeing the execution) and his family. Asa and Javutich are executed by having iron, spiked “masks of Satan” driven into their face, a striking image. They are set to be burned, but heavy rain prevents that, and instead Asa is put in a crypt, and Javutich buried.
Two hundred years later, and Asa’s descendants still live on the land. They are a depressed, but still noble lot: Prince Vajda, his son Constantin and beautiful daughter Katia (Steele) who looks just like Asa. The Prince is worried, because it’s Black Sunday, the one day where evil spirits are allowed a chance to wreck havoc. He fears Asa and Javutich will try to avenge themselves on his family. As the plot unfolds, he has good reason to be worried.

Two doctors, one old (Checchi), one young (Richardson) are sidetracked on a journey to a medical convention when their carriage breaks down. They stumble upon the crypt with Asa in it, and the skeptical Checchi tears off her mask, revealing a rotted face infested with bugs. A bat attacks the doctor. Before killing it, he cuts his hand, dripping blood into Asa’s face. That revives her, and she calls Javutich from the grave. The pair then plot the death of the noble family, and Asa is determined to possess Katia’s youth.

This film -- with its gruesome images and tale of disciples of Satan rising from the dead -- must have been quite daring for 1960s audiences. There are still scenes that shock. A couple include Javutich rising from his grave, and a resurrected Asa’s cloak being torn from her body, revealing a decaying skeleton underneath. I was chilled by the scene where Katia’s father, possessed by Satan, matter-of-factly tells her that her being his daughter is of no relevance any more, and his only desire now is to eat her blood! Also, despite that much of the last half of the film takes place in the Vajda castle, Bava doesn’t neglect the countryside or its inhabitants. There are scenes of locals in an inn and another creepily amusing scene of a teenage girl milking a cow. In the final scene, hundreds of locals in pursuit of Asa are led by a priest.

This version is the U.S. American International Pictures release, which reportedly is inferior to the European release. Also, the dubbing by most of the cast is flat and annoying at times. I would love to see the uncut Italian version with English subtitles. Also, the plot development appears a bit thinner in the U.S. version, and some shock scenes last only a split second, which means perhaps AIP censors trimmed the violence and gore a little. Nevertheless, Black Sunday -- in any version -- is an above-average shocker that deserves its cult status.

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