Friday, August 19, 2011

#114: Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960)

It's turning into Mario Bava Month here on the old D-Cap ZomVamp B-Bath (as the youth call it), and I can't complain. The last movie on the list was Bava's first color film, the three-part anthology Black Sabbath, and now we have another Bava film, 1960's Black Sunday. Black Sunday was Bava's first full-length feature and one of his rare black-and-white films. Bava's expressive use of color is such a large part of his identity as a filmmaker that I was concerned Black Sunday might be lacking some oomph, some pizazz, some ring-a-ding-ding, some hotcha, and so on. It isn't. Bava's b&w is just as beautiful as his color, and his camera work is just as expressive. This is a good-looking movie. Narratively, it's no great shakes, but I'll get into that later. Atmosphere and style count for a lot and can survive much plot silliness.

Black Sunday begins in the mid-1600s. A man and woman have been captured and accused of witchcraft and Satanism. They're killed in a particularly grisly way, but not before the woman vows revenge. The Inquisition-style punishment is not complete until the bodies have been burned immediately after the execution, but a sudden thunderstorm puts out the fire. The fundamentalist executioners have little recourse but to bury the bodies unburned and hope the revenge curse blows over.

Jump ahead 200 years. We're now in the middle of the 19th century. A doctor and his young protege are traveling by horse and carriage to a medical conference in the region of the execution 200 years earlier. The doctor insists they take a shortcut through some spooky woods at night and pays the frightened coach driver extra to coax him into the freaky route. They hear strange noises and the coach driver insists that a branch from one of the trees deliberately tried to choke him. One of the wheels slips off its track near the halfway point of the journey, and the driver needs to repair it. The doctor and his protege decide to explore the nearby ruins of a crypt while they wait. This crypt is the resting place for the Satanist woman, and this night is the 200th anniversary of her execution. While exploring the crypt, the doctor kills a giant bat with his patented blend of nonchalance and reserved action. He also cuts himself during the scuffle, and a few drops of his blood land on the face of the dead woman, bringing her back to life and activating the ancient curse. After the wheel is fixed, the doctor and protege make it to the inn for the night, where the vodka is much renowned. Just before leaving the crypt, however, they encounter Katya (cult movie icon Barbara Steele) walking her large hounds. The protege is instantly smitten with her mysterious beauty.

After our doctors make it to the inn, the film shifts focus to the castle where Katya lives with her brother, father, and servant. The Satanists killed in the film's opening were their ancestors, and Katya looks just like the dead woman, Princess Asa. The father is uneasy since it's the 200th anniversary of the execution. On the 100th anniversary, another ancestor mysteriously died who looked just like Katya and Princess Asa. Thanks to the doctor's few drops of blood, Pops is justified in his fear. Not only is the Princess reanimated, but the Prince also crawls out of his grave, ready to do a little Satanic ass-kicking. What follows is a nice bit of Gothic horror as the doctor, his protege, and the family battle the undead ancestors in atmospheric sets full of hidden passageways, trapdoors, crypts, cobwebs, dark woods, mist, fog, and graveyards. You can see why Tim Burton considers Black Sunday his favorite horror film.

Bava's later films can be so narratively incoherent they approach surrealism, but the plot of Black Sunday is pretty simplistic. The English-language version, the most widely available on DVD in this country, sports some atrocious dubbing. The voice actors are wooden, and much of the dialogue is ham-handed and silly. None of the characters are particularly interesting, and the story isn't as engaging as any of the vignettes in Black Sabbath. Barbara Steele is a compelling performer with an unusual, expressive face, but the woman dubbing her dialogue is pretty terrible at emoting convincingly.
Despite these flaws, the film is far more interesting than it has any right to be. Bava's cinematography, fluid camera movement, and framing of shots are top notch work. The film is gorgeous to look at and has a palpable atmosphere no amount of weak dubbing can ruin. A scene in which the reanimated prince rides a coach and horse through a fog-shrouded forest is the personification of Gothic horror. There are so many memorable images in Black Sunday. This is a fine debut. Cult movie legend Barbara Steele, in particular, has a great face for horror, with her long black hair, big eyes, large lips, long eyelashes, and curved eyebrows. Besides Black Sunday, she also appeared in Roger Corman's Pit and the Pendulum, Fellini's 8 1/2, Schlondorff's Young Torless, Cronenberg's They Came from Within aka Shivers, Louis Malle's Pretty Baby, Joe Dante's Piranha, episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Rod Serling's Night Gallery, and dozens of horror B-movies.

Black Sunday was released in the U.S. under that title as well as a translated version of the Italian title, The Mask of Satan. Unlike Black Sabbath, Black Sunday's Italian version is hard to find on DVD in the U.S. The American version is dubbed, but so is the Italian version. Until recently, Italian movies were always filmed without a soundtrack and dubbed later. This was standard Italian film industry practice. It saved money and freed the directors to move their cameras and set up their actors in any configuration without having to worry about recording the sound. Like Black Sabbath, the Americans censored parts of the film, though not as extensively. In the Italian version, the Satanic prince and princess are siblings who engaged in an incestuous relationship. All mentions of their romantic and familial relationships have been removed from the American print. This doesn't really harm the film the way the removal of the lesbian elements from Black Sabbath hurt that film's U.S. incarnation, but it's further proof of how entrenched the Puritan fear of sex is in the American psyche. Oh well. Either version of Black Sunday is worth your time.

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