Review by Steve D. Stones
If someone were to ask me what I thought the top ten scariest horror films of all time are, I would definitely list the 1960 classic Black Sunday in the top five. The film certainly deserves to rank as the best horror film of the 1960s. If ever there was a film that fits the title “Gothic Horror,” Black Sunday is it.
Italian director Mario Bava is masterful at creating an eerie atmosphere of old world decay. Black Sunday marks his directorial debut and was also a first for the beautiful raven-haired English born actress Barbara Steele. After the success of Black Sunday, Steele went on to star in a number of 1960s European horror classics, such as Nightmare Castle, Terror Creatures From The Grave, Castle of Blood, The Long Hair of Death, and the Roger Corman classic The Pit & The Pendulum.
Steele plays a Russian princess named Asa living in 17th century Moldavia. Asa and her companion Javutich are accused of witchcraft and making a pact with the devil. Both are executed at the stake with a spiked demon mask hammered into their faces. Before their deaths, Asa vows to return from the dead and seek revenge on all her descendants.
The film then takes us into the future to the nineteenth century. Dr. Choma and his young assistant Dr. Gorobec are traveling through Moldavia in a coach when one of the wheels breaks. The two stop to rest as the driver attempts to fix the wheel. They wander into an old crypt filled with bats and lots of thick, creepy fog. Choma is immediately drawn to a coffin with a glass window. The coffin is of witch Asa executed two hundred years ago.
Dr. Choma accidentally breaks the glass with his cane while trying to hit a flying bat. He reaches into the coffin to remove Asa’s demon mask and cuts his hand. Large scorpions crawl out of the empty eye sockets of the dead Asa. Her skin also reveals the spike punctures from the mask. This is one of the creepiest sequences in the entire film. Choma’s blood drips onto the face of Asa, bringing her back to life.
Another frightening sequence shows a young Russian girl strolling through the dark woods at night to fetch a pail of milk. While milking a cow next to an old cemetery, she witnesses Javutich crawl out of his two hundred year old grave as Asa summons him. He removes his demon mask to reveal a pasty, shriveled complexion covered in cobwebs. This scene makes my skin crawl with goose bumps every time I see it.
What follows for the rest of the film are attempts by Asa and Javutich to murder Asa’s descendants. One of the descendants is the beautiful Katia, also played by Steele, who resembles Asa perfectly.
Black Sunday was also known in European markets as La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of The Demon), House of Fright and Revenge of The Vampire. Sinister Cinema in Medford, Oregon sells a beautiful widescreen print with scenes cut from the American release. The film was banned for nine years in England because of some of the intense, graphic scenes of horror and violence. Director Bava went on to direct many less effective cult horror classics, such as Planet of The Vampires, Kill Baby Kill, Blood & Black Lace and Baron Blood. None of these films achieve the stylish gothic horror atmosphere that makes Black Sunday such a great classic of the horror genre.
Black Sunday is a film I would highly recommend as part of your Halloween festivities this season. Happy viewing and Happy (upcoming) Halloween!