Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

I don't imagine that Black Sunday - to give the film its standard English title, though strictly speaking that name only appears on the version released by American International Pictures in the 1960s, now thoroughly superseded - needs any help from me in getting the word out, but as I have elected to spend some time investigating key works by the biggest names in Italian horror, it can hardly be denied its place in that conversation. For it's the official directorial debut of Mario Bava (who'd already directed huge portions of two movies credited to Riccardo Freda, on which Bava served as cinematographer), perhaps the preeminent name in the genre. It's also one of the very best genre films ever made in Italy, while being significantly different from most of the big-name films to follow it in enough ways that it stands out, more than half a century later, as one of the most unique films of its era - pulling inspiration from a number of different sources without directly replicating any of them. It's a Gothic horror film superficially resembling the work that Hammer Films was riding to such great success at the same time in the United Kingdom, with black-and-white imagery positively drowning in deep black shadows that go far beyond the Expressionism-influenced horror and noir in America over the preceding decades. There's an emphasis on the impact of imagery-over-narrative that's pure Bava, though at the same time it has a coherent, tight screenplay like nothing else in that director's career, nor those of his countrymen. For this reason, it probably serves as the best gateway drug for Italian horror that I've ever seen, fully justifying its traditional position as the effective starting point for the history of that genre after the embryonic I vampiri and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster.

In fine Gothic ghost story tradition, the movie's plot begins in the 17th Century, at a witch burning. The Moldavian princess Asa (Barbara Steele) has been found guilty of consorting with the agents of the devil, in the form of Javuto (Arturo Dominici), and the both of them are set to be burned to death, after having spiked masks nailed to their faces in the tradition of that region. The ritual is forestalled when a freak storm puts out the flames, but the witches are both dead enough thanks to the Mask of Satan that the locals bury them anyway, making extra-certain to keep Asa's body kept safely contained in the wake of her vow to come back to wreak revenge on the descendants of her brother, overseeing her execution.

Cut to: 200 years later, though not, quite at this second, to those descendants. First, we meet a pair of doctors, Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), traveling through the countryside. Hoping to cut some time off their journey to a conference, Kruvajan demands that their coachman takes a little-used road through the woods, which of course leads to the coach being scuttled on a pothole; as they wait to get moving again, the doctors are taken by curiosity to investigate an ancient cemetery nearby. Here they find Asa's curiously-interred remains, and also Asa's very spitting image, Princess Katia Vajda (Steele), the youngest member of the dwindling royal family living in a decaying castle nearby. The doctors then head off to the local village to sleep the night, not at any point having realised that Kruvajan, in fending off a bat, accidentally managed to spill a few drops of blood into Asa's casket. And we all know what that means.

Black Sunday is hardly the most innovative story imaginable, though it tells its tale of revived vampire witches, beautiful young innocents being made the vessel of a malevolent ancestor, and terrified villagers speaking whispered rumors of local horrors with elegant simplicity and clarity; it's basically a folkloric story, and Bava and screenwriters Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei treat it with exactly the right amount of archetypal distance: the characters are simple stock figures, but not boring clichés, the situations familiar but sufficiently distinctive enough to be memorable (the Moravian setting takes care of that all by itself, bringing with it an ability for the Italian filmmakers to depict a presumably made-up form of Christian observance that reads as fantastically "other", and have it not seem stupid or impossible). It's a ghost story, above and beyond everything else, but a really good one, where even an ability to get ahead of the storytellers doesn't significantly affect how one responds to the crawling creepiness as the characters get tangled up in things.

What really makes Black Sunday a top-tier horror film and spooky campfire story, though, are the visuals, as you'd pretty much have to expect given that it was directed and shot by Bava, among the most visually distinctive filmmakers in the history of any country, and any genre. Black Sunday is especially unique in his career even in that regard, as one of the few black-and-white films he made (surely I'm not the only Bava fan whose first thoughts of his style are the florid colors in Blood and Black Lace and the like), and certainly the most phenomenally chiaroscuro-addicted of those I've seen. The cemetery, the rotting castle, the crypt, and so on - all of these are already richly-designed spaces, courtesy of Giorgio Giovannini, but it's the otherworldly lighting and gloom that makes them come to life as the best sort of place to host a ghost story, looking far more authentic than their obvious "movie set" qualities should allow for.

And it's not just lighting and sets - the images are throughout of the best, most elemental horror sort. Barbara Steele, one of my candidates for cinema's all-time most beautiful women, is used magnificently for her looks, radiating virginal delicacy as Katia and frozen cruelty as Asa, even aside from her acting, which is awfully good, allowing that the part doesn't really ask for anything in the neighborhood of "nuance". There is a neat make-up effect near the end where Bava takes advantage of Steele's looks by distorting them, creating an exceptionally weird and disturbing effect of dying flesh. And that's far from the only great bit of make-up in the film - the design of Asa's victims is pretty great as well.

The most vivid image in the film, though, is surely that of Asa's corpse, with the Mask removed - perfect flesh, empty eye sockets, and a disquieting pattern of deep holes where the nails were plunged, as scorpions crawl about. It's one of a small handful of scenes so enthusiastically unsparing that it seems impossible that censors anywhere in 1960 would have been okay with them (the most extreme effects - blood dripping when the Mask was applied chief among them - were cut from the early English-language prints). Intense gore also being part of the Italian horror experience, I take pleasure in thinking that this early masterpiece of the form would be, in its little way, intense enough that even after decades of increasingly explicit and imaginative bloodletting, Black Sunday still includes moments that can be genuinely unsettling. The hallmark of Bava's filmmaking is style, atmosphere, and alarming violence, and these things are all at their very best here, in his most approachable and perhaps even his most beautiful film. It's a tremendous start to what would end up being one of the most brilliant careers in all of horror, and one of the genres undeniable masterpieces.