Black Sunday

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"We're in the presence of some unnatural mystery."

Hoo boy, how am I going to do this? Let's face it, folks. BLACK SUNDAY is an important film. Just break it down and you can see what the film means to true fans of the genre. Speaking on a personal level, what do I love and write about? Horror. What kind of horror got me obsessed with the genre all over again a few years back? Italian horror, most specifically all the stuff I missed in my youth. Who are the people credited with giving birth to the Italian horror cinema? Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. And what film really put the whole thing on the map? BLACK SUNDAY. So you have to forgive me if I find the task of reviewing this film a bit daunting. Call me a puss if you want, but it's a little intimidating reviewing a film that has been so influential, pointing out it's influence and still showing a critical eye towards why the film succeeds or fails on it's own.

Thankfully, I don't have to worry too much about that last bit. BLACK SUNDAY is quite simply one of the greatest gothic horror films ever made.

In the notorious prologue, Princess Asa (Barbara Steele) is tied to a stake, where she is lashed and readied for burning. The corpse of her lover, Juvuto already lies impaled a few feet away. The leader of this inquisition is Asa's own brother. She is being condemned as many witches were, but really her crimes more or less resemble crimes against humanity. She was a murderer, who killed several innocents and wallowed in their blood. Not out of any thirst, but out of simple lust and obedience to Satan. As any self-respecting Satanist would do, she curses her accusers before she is put to death. She swears she will return to eliminate their bloodline and walk the earth once more.

To their credit, the executioners think they have a pretty fool-proof plan for getting rid of her. For one, she needs human blood in order to be reanimated again, and she isn't about to get any locked in a coffin, sealed in a tomb on the family's estate. They also put in a glass window at the head of the casket, so she will forever have a big crucifix in sight. That should scare her off. If not, they nail the Mask of Satan (which is the original European title) to her face. Surely, that's going to stop anyone from coming back.

Two hundred years later, Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checci) and his student Andre (John Richardson) are on their way to a lecture. Andre, being young and na�ve, looks forward to hearing the medical gasbags speak, but the elder knows better amd emcourages the driver to take his time. Their coach has an accident nearby a neglected graveyard. Guess which one? The coachman is typically suspicious and even the young Andre seems a little taken with the creepy ambiance, pointing out the odd howling noise the wind makes. But in an absolutely inspired scene, the elder doctor points out that the noise is simply the wind blowing through some old organ pipes. He nonchalantly knocks the pipes over, robbing them of their magic. BLACK SUNDAY is as much about dispelling old cliches as it is celebrating them.

Kruvajan stays a little longer than expected in an old tomb, it just so happens Asa's tomb. He is attacked by a huge (and very fake looking) bat. In a panic, he swipes at the creature. This knocks the cross over and smashes the glass underneath. Worse yet, the good doctor has cut himself and Asa begins to regenerate. It's an uncanny chain of events. I guess if you're going to be cursed, you're going to be cursed.

Asa's descendents are described as being melancholy, but really they should have a steady dose of anti-depressants by the bowl-full. Prince Vajda (the family name possibly taken from the Russian short story, "The Vig," which BLACK SUNDAY was originally to be based on), the matriarch has let a self-defeating attitude that has lead to his neglect of the family tomb. His daughter, Katia (Steele again) is a dead ringer for Asa, and senses that she will meet an ugly end. In an essay accompanying Image's DVD release, Tim Lucas points to the film's allegiance to "a tradition of Roman Catholic art with vivid attention paid to martyrdom and suffering." This is certainly evident in the behavior of Katia and her father. To his credit, the son Constantine (Erico Olivieri) seems rebellious.

Andre and Kruvajan encounter the family and through a chain of events I won't spoil here, become involved in their generations-old suffering. They aren't the only outsiders paying a visit to the Vajdas. Asa is almost up to her old strength and she has resurrected Juvuto to perform the menial tasks of tormenting and murdering the family. As can be expected, Katia is at the center of this, the key to Asa's quest to plague the earth once more.

The story is pure tradition, taking the best elements of classic gothic horror tales and the greatest feats of Universal horror and very early Hammer films. Yet, right from the start. BLACK SUNDAY offers a wicked spin on these traditions. There is a sensibility that would become synonymous with Italian horror in the years to come. Special attention paid to graphic violence and eroticism along with beautiful scenery and, let's be honest, more complex characters than lesser imitators would later offer.

The success of the film owes a lot to Mario Bava, who served not only as director but cinematographer as well. The film features some of the best black and white cinematography and art direction ever. Just look at the long tracking shot that establishes the brooding family, Katia whiling away on the family piano, Constantine dutifully waxing the antique weapons and Prince Vajda in the midst of it all, looking into the fireplace, his spirit defeated. The detail paid to the sets and focus is unprecedented and all of it adds to the mood of the piece in ways that cannot even be gauged.

Witness how a simple jaunt through the forest becomes a virtual child's night dream, through an expert use of rolling fog, shafts of light, well-placed shadows and an inspired use of focus. The imagery BLACK SUNDAY offers is not the work of simply a technical marvel. Beauty like this is the work of an artistic genius.

In praising Bava's work however, we can't forget the huge debt this film owes to Barbara Steele's dual performance. As Asa, she is one of the greatest villains in horror film history. As the melancholy Katia, she possesses a haunted and defeated stare that seems to penetrate the realm of what's real and into her the veil of own mortality. Asa's is a glare of rebellious evil. The contrast between the two characters is amazing and Steele makes each one her own. In a better world, Steele would be known as something more than the traditional "scream queen." Its too bad horror films of years gone by didn't offer more roles like this for women. Oh, Steele did plenty of other notable films, particularly DANZA MACABRA, THE FACELESS MONSTER, SHIVERS and CAGED HEAT. But she could have easily been the female counterpart of Vincent Price or Christopher Lee. It's the class and talent she brings to the part that means so much.

Horror, particularly gothic horror, is essentially a traditional genre that has to continually look for new ways to exploit it's own traditions. To this end, BLACK SUNDAY performs an incredible service. The film pushes the envelope quite a bit, so much so that it was one of the earliest films to have age restricted viewing and was even banned in the UK for eight years. All this might seem strange to us today. But the fact is the violence is intense, with masks being hammered onto faces and eyes being gauged out.

But more startling still is the underlying sexual tension of the piece. Katia seems resigned to a life where she tries to stay away from temptation, but knows in her heart that she is destined to be lured away from the light. In contrast, Asa is all about pleasures of the flesh, both carnal and homicidal. The welcome sight of Steele's heaving bosom does nothing to dispel this. Not to sound crass, but sometimes the villains seem intent of eliminating the family line, and other times it seems like Satan's legions want to get in Katia's pants. When Asa confronts Katia, she tells her, "You didn't know your body had been consecrated to belong to Satan, but you sensed it, didn't you?" Did she? It seems likely. And the path that seems most ideal in this film, again flying in the face of tradition, seems not purity or self-destructiveness, but in the simple living that lies in between.

There is also an overlying theme of fear and what it takes to overcome it. Andre is especially cautious at first to the point of being ridiculous and na�ve. His mentor is a tad too dismissive of the mysteries that lie beyond. And of course, there's Katia. Only by succumbing to her fears will she be destroyed and only by conquering them once and for all will she be saved. But then, all of that is easier said than done.

Attention heaped upon the films inspired by BLACK SUNDAY have often eclipsed BLACK SUNDAY itself. It led to decades of exciting filmmaking in Italy (and some cardboard rip-offs). But the film itself deserves continued attention, and regularly to boot. It really is a film that took the classics of old and enhanced them ten-fold. It is a motion picture classic and a remarkable work of beauty. If it weren't for films like BLACK SUNDAY, the genre wouldn't be half as fascinating.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis