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Black Sunday (Blu Ray) (1960)
12th Feb 13
An evil witch is resurrected 200 years after being burned at the stake with a steel mask hammered onto her face. Now she's really pissed off.
The influence and importance of Mario Bava’s films cannot be underestimated. In terms of a visually lavish style, Bava preceeded Dario Argento, and was key in shaping a more European take on the cinema of darkness for the modern age. Having lensed a number of films for various Italian filmmakers as a younger man, he was often asked to complete direction after the original directors were fired, eventually getting a chance to helm his first complete film, Black Sunday, in 1960.
It is the year 1630 in Moldovia. Barbara Steel plays two characters, the first of which is Asa, an evil witch who is executed alongside her accomplice Javuto (Arturo Dominici) at the hands of her brother. She curses the family bloodline before her death, but you can safely assume that she will make another appearance in about 200 years time, when she is accidentally resurrected by a nosey doctor and his dapper assistant. She then telepathically reanimates her rather scary looking pal Javuto to assist on a mission to end her bloodline once and for all, which involves destroying her descendants Prince Vadja (Garrani), Constantine (Enrico Oliveiri) and the beautiful Katia (Steele).
The opening sequence sets the tone well: an iron maiden mask (of Satan) is brutally hammered onto Asa’s face as she prepares to burn. The graphic depiction must have been pretty brutal for the time and it is probably scenes like this that convinced British censors to ban Black Sunday in the UK for ten years. The gaping puncture holes in Steele’s otherwise pleasing face have become instantly recognizable to generations of horror fans everywhere. Kudos also goes to Arturo Dominici as the diabolic Javunto, whose stoney faced presence may haunt your dreams for years to come.
The entire movie is shot in black and white and rather than the prominent mid-tones that usually characterizes the look of older films, Bava proves his mastery of photography with an unusually high contrast aesthetic. Every frame is beautiful, the sense of atmosphere palpable and the set design lavish in detail. Ornate candelabras and cobwebby crypts are the order of the day here, and Bava even includes a slow motion horse and carriage sequence that really helps set his style apart from the rest. When is the last time you saw slo-mo in an old B&W movie?
Bearing in mind this movie was made 53 years ago, it fares well (style never ages), but younger audiences who mostly watch modern movies may feel the pace to be slightly sluggish. Its gothic ambience cannot be denied however, and there’s no doubt in the casting of leading lady Barbara Steele, who apparently possessed that vitally vampish look that Bava sought for the role. She simply looks like she belongs there. Just don’t stare into those eyes too long…
The Arrow Blu Ray presentation does this title justice, emphasizing just how well Bava could shoot in B&W. Extras include a short and informative introduction by horror know-it-all Alan Jones, a 1996 Barbara Steele interview and a feature commentary from Bava biographer Tim Lucas. Also included is the full length feature I Vampiri from 1956 – Italy’s first ever sound-era horror film, initially directed by Riccardo Freda but completed by Bava. If all that isn’t enough, there is also an alternate version of the film included here, called Mask of Satan, re-edited and re-dubbed with a different score. Throw into that a host of new artwork by Graham Humphreys, alternate language versions and a comprehensive information booklet and you’ve got yourself a sweet deal.
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