Black Sunday, also known as The Mask of Satan or La maschera del dominio in some territories is a 1960 Italian horror movie about a beautiful vampire-witch who is given new life two hundred years after her brutal murder. The movie opens with a horrific scene in which the witch, Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is put to death at the stake with a spiked, iron mask hammered onto her face. Blood splatters through the mask’s holes and drips down the woman’s body in a scene which would still shock if released today. For 1960s though, the same year that Alfred Hitchcock got into trouble for showing a toilet flushing in Psycho, its effect must have been extraordinary. The movie continues the trend of shocking throughout its 90 minute runtime but doesn’t simply rely on it. Black Sunday, despite its surprising gore, is a well made film which looks and sounds great and has a very good story at its centre.
The film was directed by Mario Bava in what was technically his debut feature. Previously a cinematographer, he had unofficially completed several films as a director but was always uncredited as he took over from directors who left the films they were helming. His background as a cinematographer helped here to blend beauty and gore and produce a film whose reputation stands out against the plethora of similar films from its period.
The story begins with the brutality mentioned above and then fast forwards two centuries to the eighteen hundreds where two doctors are travelling towards St. Petersburg. They pull over for the night in a small town after discovering an old crypt which contains the remains of a decaying dynasty of princes and princesses. Amongst the tombs is that of a woman punished for witchcraft, a woman who gave herself to the devil and was buried with a window on her tomb and a crucifix in her line of sight. After the two men accidentally break the crucifix the woman is able to rise again and begins to turn those around her into vampires while searching for the body of a young woman from whom she can feed on.
The body she finds belongs to Princess Asa (Steele – who plays both parts). Steele took the lead role despite not having read the screenplay or speaking Italian. At just eighteen she was cast after the director had seen photos of her modelling and the role lead to several more Italian horrors as well as a starring role in Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum and Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½ which is where her charms first came to my attention. Steele has the perfect look for the role, innocent yet sexual, capable of manic outbursts and glazed over eyes within seconds of each other. Her acting is to be honest quite poor and made me laugh a few times but she is well cast for the role and has a magnetic and mesmerising presence. The actors surrounding her aren’t much better than Steele, with a number of English and Italian actors struggling in the wrong language and with corny dialogue. A problem, as so often is the case with Italian movies, is the dubbing. The movie is available in a number of different versions due to language and censorship issues and I saw it in the original Italian, dubbed English version.
The censorship issues remained right up until the early 1990s when the film was finally passed uncut in the UK and rated '15'. It was originally banned altogether here and not released at all until 1968 in a heavily cut version. In the US, three minutes were trimmed, the dialogue was altered and the score was toned down but luckily I was able to see the movie in all its glory today. Some of the scenes are quite gruesome to look at but they are spread very thinly. The images aren’t as shocking as in many modern horror movies but I can’t say I’m surprised it was met with cuts in 1960. Stakes in eyeballs, burning, melting heads and dying dogs are just some of the gory images which the film offers up.
Despite the gore, Black Sunday is a handsome looking film with a noteworthy story. Its influence over other films in the genre is clear to see and it entertained me from start to finish. Mario Bava strikes me as an assured director and I want to search out more of his work while Barbara Steele’s big eyes and high, arched brows mean I’ll watch anything she’s in.
- Director Tim Burton sited Black Sunday as his favourite horror film and gives a clear nod to it with a death scene in Sleepy Hollow.
- The vampires were originally going to have fangs but they were dropped after a couple of days filming because the director didn't think they looked real enough.
- Mario Bava was offered an American-colour remake but turned it down.