Review: Black Sunday / Cert: 15 / Director: Mario Bava / Screenplay: Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrai / Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Arturo Dominici / Release Date: Out Now
Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan) was Italian maestro Mario Bava's feature debut, and the film where he set out his stall of dazzling themes and imagery. It remains one of the great cinematic exercises in Gothic horror, and now it's back in a release that will have mysterious hooded figures assembling at midnight in celebration.
In brief, it's the tale of a 17th century Moldavian witch reeking revenge from beyond the grave upon the descendants of her own aristocratic family who brutally put her to death. Scream queen Barbara Steele plays the dual roles of the hateful Princess Asa and Katia, her 19th century lookalike who will be the vessel for her reincarnation, and the British actress' eerie china doll looks were never put to better use.
What sticks in the mind, though, isn't the plot or the performances, but a series of stunning tableau. The gruesome pre-titles sequence, in which a grotesque metal mask is nailed onto Asa's face by a musclebound executioner with an oversized mallet. Then, two centuries on, Asa lying in the tomb of her ancestors, her eyeless face crawling with insects, her porcelain skin puckered with nail-holes. Or the moment when Javutitch (Dominici) (Asa's consort, slain at the same time) rises from the grave, cobwebs trailing free as he rips the mask of Satan from his papery-white visage.
Bava was a master at painting with shadow and mist, but more than that, he was a genius at using his directorial flair to suggest morbid and disturbed psychological states. Witness the virtuoso sequence where the self-satisfied Dr Krujavan (Checchi) is escorted by Javutitch through a series of corridors which slowly grow more menacing and Escher-like – mirroring the inner state of a man soon to be lost morally and spiritually. And its these undercurrents of subtext that give his films such power to move and disturb.
Arrow Video have done Bava proud with this Blu-ray release. Not only do you get two versions of the film (the official European cut and the rarely seen Stateside edit, with an alternate score), there's also an absolutely amazing extra in the form of I Vampiri (1956). This was the film that gave Bava – then a cinematographer – his big break when its temperamental director, Riccardo Freda, stormed off set never to return. It's a classic in its own right and almost as good as Black Sunday. Throw in a hugely informative audio commentary from American critic and Bava expert Tim Lucas and a bunch of other stuff including a reel of delightfully lurid trailers for the maestro's other films, and you have what amounts to an unmissable package for horror buffs and lovers of beautifully wrought cinema.
Extras: Two versions of the film / Audio commentary with Tim Lucas / Introduction by author and critic Alan Jones / Interview with Barbara Steele / Trailers / 'I Vampiri' (1956) / Trailer reel / Collector's booklet