A sepulchral coach waits on the outskirts of a village for its passenger. The ride will be his last. An ageing lord trembles as he reaches for his decanter of brandy, tormented by terrors he’s kept to himself for so long. An urbane son of the enlightenment must confront dark forces and wield faith as his weapon at the very edge of civilised Europe. A cold wind sweeps through the forgotten corridors and passageways of an ancient fortress, a gilded cage for pricelings held prisoner by superstition.
Even if you haven’t seen Black Sunday or know precious little about the 1960 chiller, you’ve certainly seen the long tendrils of its influence creep in through the curtains and into the imaginations of Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola as they transplanted scenes wholesale into Sleepy Hollow and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and into the technical repertoire of Roger Corman on his run of decadent Technicolor melodramas cribbed from the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
It kickstarted the career of future scream queen Barbara Steele (The Pit And The Pendulum, Piranha) and Hammer regular John Richardson (She, One Million Years BC), and cemented its director, Mario Bava, as the founding father of Italian horror cinema – “the Italian Hitchcock” – whose influence on everything from sleazy giallo pictures to gloomy gothic horror to the modern slasher movie would become utterly indisputable.
Released in Italy in 1960 under the name La Maschera Del Demonio (The Mask Of Satan), technically Bava’s fifth film as director, but given the circumstances behind his prior movies – often called in to replace an original director bruised in a spat with the studio – Black Sunday is perhaps best thought of as Mario Bava’s debut, certainly the first project he chose, and the first project he saw through from beginning to end. Fittingly for a man whose reputation would become so lionised both in his homeland and by horror archivists worldwide, Black Sunday is from all angles possible the perfect gothic horror movie.
Filmed partly on location in a crumbling Italian castle, and in expansive, evocative studio sets that made similarly toned Hammer or Amicus flicks from the same period look like a Halloween-themed broadcasts from Andi Peters’ broom cupboard, from its opening sequence – a prologue in which Steele’s eyerolling sorceress Asa Vajda and her loyal agent Javuto (Arturo Dominici) are sentenced to death by a hooded figure for witchcraft – we’re not only shown an incredible evocative world, instantly thrown into the cancerous black heart of the story, but then also literally placed within it as the camera follows a spiked devil mask through its iron eye slots as it is taken on a funeral march toward Vajda’s screaming, contorted face, the barbs piercing her flesh in a scene so shocking it was excised from many international cuts.
It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the 33-year-old Lucio Fulci shifting in his cinema stall, his trousers tightening and his face hot with the thought of the voyeuristic, eyeball-rupturing possibilities his future might hold. We feel for anyone sat nearby when one vampire gets a stake through the eyeball, and pray and time was indeed the ultimate healer.
With Vajda howling a curse on her family line, we then cut to a pair of doctors two centuries later, Dr Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr Andre Gorobec (Richardson), passing through Moldavia (now part of eastern Romania, then part of the Russian Empire) en route to a conference in Russia. In the immortal tradition of horror movie protagonists everywhere they decide to take a shortcut through a cursed forest, their cart throws a wheel, and while the panicked, superstitious coachman makes his repairs, the two doctors investigate a nearby crypt, chancing upon the sarcophagus of Asa Vajda, the glass panel showing her devilish death mask beneath. A (slightly unconvincing) bat launches out of the shadows, Kruvajan accidentally shatters the pane. He lifts the mask, gashing his hand on the broken glass and droplets of blood splash onto the perfectly preserved face of the witch beneath – her skin puckered and pockmarked by the iron spikes.
It’s a very simple set-up, and what unfolds is hardly unpredictable for anyone familiar with the tropes of vampire fiction, but where Hammer made its way through similar territory with gore, cleavage and a tendency toward mechanical plotting to advance things towards a set-piece final battle, Bava relies on a sort of operatic sophistication and striking, dark and light visuals that lodge in the memory like the shadowplay of Nosferatu, as the witch reanimates her lover and minion Javuto, turns Kruvajan, and begins her vengeance on her unsuspecting descendants. Barbara Steele is incredible, her unconventional beauty and lip-curled intensity a triumph as both the eyerolling ghoul writhing on her slab, and the Princess Katia, the aloof, virginal love interest of Gorobec, whose place she plots to take.
The Blu-ray transfer adds to the crispness of the shadow, and the depth of the images on screen where many old movies become flatter and more stagey under the scrutiny of high definition. As HD makes more classic movies available again for discovery and rediscovery, and more thorough reassessment than every before, the traditional league tables drawn up in the great consensual horror hierarchy could easily see Black Sunday, and indeed many of the works of Mario Bava – atmospheric anthology Black Sabbath, the intense and transgressive The Whip And The Flesh, and the voyeuristic Blood And Black Lace, among others – celebrated and adored by not just genre obsessives, but by movie fans of all stripe.