Movie Review: “Black Sunday” – Sexy and Spellbinding

Written by Angela May 17, 2014

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Italian horror director Mario Bava was a talented filmmaking revolutionary whose abilities are incandescently exhibited in the 1960 film “Black Sunday”, alternately known as “The Mask of Satan”. The movie’s pace is far more evenly spread compared to the whizzing flashes of gore largely seen on contemporary screens, but when it comes to watching cinematography this beautiful, your eyeballs will assuredly be grateful for the given time to take it all in.

Black Sunday 2“One day each century, it is said that Satan walks amongst us. To the God fearing, this day is known as Black Sunday.”

Inspired by the work of Russian author Nikolai Gogol, the film tells the tale of a vengeful witch’s curse upon her own family. Two centuries after the raven-haired princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and her mustachioed lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici) are condemned as sorcerers and vampires by her pious brother, the descendants of his family are tormented by her supernatural vow to return and wreak havoc upon them. Despite the efforts of the valiant young doctor Gorobec (John Richardson) to protect them, there is little he can do to keep the gorgeous Katia (also played by Steele) from succumbing to her ancestor’s evil powers.

“All of your blood will give me the strength of accomplish my vengeance.”

The cinematography of “Black Sunday” is clearly derived from 1920’s German expressionist films fused with the sensuous bravura of Bava’s distinctly Italian 1960’s designs. Carefully plotted camera angles give way to deeply detailed backgrounds boasting the iconography of many early black and white Gothic films; crumbling 17th century monasteries, cloud-covered moonlight and soft, ethereal lighting against the silhouettes of the bare branches of dead forestry, and lots and lots of fog. The final result is a visual display that is breathtakingly rich to behold, confirming the horror genre’s potential to generate some truly sublime artistry. Pleasing as these compositions are, the greatest thing about “Black Sunday” is the juxtaposition it creates by injecting several outright bawdy moments into what is otherwise the height of filmmaking sophistication.

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“Come, kiss me. My lips will transform you!”

Film critics have widely revered Bava as the granddaddy of the ultra-violent and erotic giallo pic, and a single viewing of “Black Sunday” leaves no doubt as to why. Bava’s storyline is drenched in exploitative opportunities to highlight the then barely legal Steele’s alternate seductiveness—as the ancient vampire-witch Asa—and helplessness—as the fragile Katia. This isn’t just a movie about shadows and suspense. This is primarily a movie about sexual fantasy, as is proven when Steele’s blouse is hastily ripped open during her feigned unconsciousness not once but twice throughout the movie’s relatively brief 85 minute duration. Steele’s heaving bosom has so much searing screen-presence that I’m considering petitioning for its mention in the credits of any future re-releases. Pair this not-so-subtle fan-service with gore effects that herald the yet-to-be realized reanimation scene of Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser”, alongside one of the most electric opening scenes ever (even by today’s standards), and you have yourself a certifiably groundbreaking B-grade horror film.

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“You will be dead to man, but you will be alive in death.”

“Black Sunday” did not land its cult status due to its simplistic and derivative plot (I’m fairly certain that Stephen Summers told the exact same story, only better, in 1999’s “The Mummy”). Rather, Bava’s film owes its imbedding in sub-cultural consciousness to the way it pays homage to the classic monster films preceding it, while simultaneously pushing horror film standards forward with its incredible visuals and salacious content. Heaving bosom aside, Steele is also exposed as one of the greatest actresses ever to grace the horror genre: her look in this film seems to have inspired Cassandra Peterson’s famous Elvira character, and she even went on to appear in Frederico Fellini’s “8 ½.” Sexy, sleek and just plain cool, the sorcery of “Black Sunday” guarantees its viewing for generations to come.

Overall Rating: 7/10

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About Angela

Angela McInnes is an English major and up-and-coming horror film aficionado. To her, happiness is a bottle of rum and a creature-feature on a Saturday night.

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