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From the Vaults: 'Black Sunday' (1960)

May 3, 2010 |  6:09 am

Black sunday I'm so sorry: I know last week I promised Zorro, and I had the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks movie all cued up and ready to go. But there was a full moon out, and Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" had just showed up in the mail, and I was all excited from having recently watched "Black Sabbath" for the Final Girl Film Club -- anyway, one thing led to another. Bava's film provides witches AND vampires, thank you, plus exploding coffins, swooping bats, walking corpses, terrified milkmaids and all the gorgeous black-and-white visuals you could want. It's perfect for a chilly full-moon night.

We open with a prologue in the 1600s, where Moldavian witch Asa (Barbara Steele) is being sentenced to death by her own brother for sorcery. Because she is so very evil, she has to be branded with the mark of Satan, then killed with a spiked mask to the face, and THEN burned at the stake. The Moldavians do not mess around and neither does Bava. It's a gruesome opener. Asa is not the falsely accused variety of witch -- before taking the spiky mask, she snarls out a curse on her brother and his descendants. A rainstorm prevents the witch-burning mob from setting fire to her body, so she's buried in the family crypt, still in the spiky mask.

Two centuries later, it's a more enlightened age. A pair of doctors (John Richardson and Andrea Checchi) are riding through the Moldavian wilderness on their way to a medical conference. How professional! Their carriage driver is reluctant to take a shortcut through the forest because of local superstition about a witch, but the doctors just laugh this off. But that's before their carriage loses a wheel -- and before they decide to explore an old tomb nearby, and find a woman's perfectly preserved corpse inside, and before they meet the beautiful and mysterious local princess, Katia (also Steele), walking her dogs nearby. Has an ancient curse been revived? Will evil walk again? Cue howling dogs!

This movie's such a blast. Bava's high-Gothic visuals are absolutely dazzling, whether he's got you in a forest or an old churchyard or a crumbling castle. "Black Sunday" (released as "La maschera del demonio") launched Bava's career as an Italian-horror maestro and influenced decades of Gothic chillers, from Roger Corman's awesomely goofy "Pit and the Pendulum" (also starring Steele) the next year to Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" in 1999.

The DVD was dubbed into English, which was a little distracting -- I really hate hearing American accents coming out of my 19th century Italian peasants, you know? -- but the dialogue's really beside the point. You're here for the livid faces and billowing cloaks and crumbling tombstones, and you have them in spades.

Black sunday steeleOh, and it turns out that evil witch Asa is not just any witch -- she can live again by drinking blood, vampire  style! She can also revive her 17th century consort and have him go lurching around doing her evil bidding, so really what you have here are witches, vampires and zombies, all in one high-goth package. What more could you ask?

Looking at Barbara Steele's IMDb page here, I learn that not only did she go on to play a military doctor in "Piranha" (1978), she's got a new film called "The Butterfly Room" in post-production -- costarring Ray Wise ("Twin Peaks") and Heather Langenkamp ("Nightmare on Elm Street"). Intriguing! She's quite lovely in this movie, whether tearing up as the innocent, tormented Katia, or snarling and spitting curses as the evil Asa.

Anyway, I love "Black Sunday" not only for its visuals, but for the idea that evil cannot be contained, even in an age of reason. Those peasants with their superstitions and crucifixes are spot-on: You SHOULD be afraid of the dark forest, and you should NOT go messing around with old tombs. Deep in some pre-rational cave in our collective minds, we just know this is true; and that's what keeps us coming back to these kinds of movies. There ARE such things. Be afraid.

Cue full moon and howling!

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images: AIP. Above: Evil (black gown) Barbara Steele meets good (white gown) Barbara Steele.