Saturday, October 18, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—Black Sunday (1960) ***½

UR, 87 min.
Director: Mario Bava
Writers: Ennio de Concini, Mario Serandrei, Nikolaj Gogol (short story)
Starring: Barbara Steel, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Enrico Olivieri, Antonio Pierfederici

I think I prefer the original title of “Black Sunday”. “The Mask of Satan” has much more to do with the movie. I don’t think the day of the week is ever even mentioned in the film. And does it really matter what day it is? I suppose in 1960, it would’ve been difficult to get U.S. audiences of any kind to go see a movie that even mentioned Satan in its title. Hell, today’s Hollywood would be just as scared to release a film under such a title, but people would go to see it. People who will never see it would also lambast it in the media.

But, none of that has much to do with the movie itself. Directed by Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, “Black Sunday” is an early entry into the Italian horror movement that would hit its stride in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. Made with the same style and mood of the Universal classic monster movies, “Black Sunday” hits a little harder than those not so frightening horror entries. Still, by today’s standards it isn’t necessarily a fright fest. It is however a mastery of mood, atmosphere and that gothic style of the old Universal movies.

It’s a much tighter production than those early monster flicks as well. Of course, it was made several decades after Universal popularized the classic horror monsters. The vampires featured here are far from classic versions, though. They don’t have fangs and we don’t even ever see them bite anyone. They certainly thrive off blood, however. The sequence where the witch’s body is revitalized by the blood of a foolish professor is quite well done. The shot where her eyes bubble back into existence from within their empty sockets is one of the freakiest and, quite frankly, kickass horror moments I’ve ever seen.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about these old timey horror flicks, though, is some of the more inadvertent humor you can find in them. Often times, this type of humor comes through a slight awkwardness in getting from point A to point B. It’s the professor’s clumsiness, which culminates in the freeing of the witch from her tomb that best illustrates what I write of here. He’s attacked by a bat… a freakin’ giant bat. In his attempt to stop the bat he flails about with his cane and destroys the cross and window casing on the witch’s coffin. His beating on the coffin and cross is so blatantly overdone and done on purpose that it’s hard to suppress a laugh. Still there’s a great charm to be found in moments like this.

Surely, this will not necessarily satisfy just any cineaste, but there’s such great style and visual mastery going here under Bava’s direction that you cannot deny the film’s importance in progressing the Italian style toward the distinctive look and mood it would eventually evolve toward. This is an important movie in those terms and an enjoyable one under the terms it embraces itself.

Watch the movie below.

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