Thursday, January 22, 2015

La maschera del demonio (1960)

... aka: Black Sunday
... aka: Demon's Mask, The
... aka: Hour When Dracula Comes, The
... aka: House of Fright, The
... aka: Mask of Satan, The
... aka: Mask of the Demon
... aka: Revenge of the Vampire

Directed by:
Mario Bava

Though not the first post-war Gothic horror out of Italy - that would be I VAMPIRI (1957) aka The Devil's Commandment (which was also the first Italian horror film of the sound era) - it is La maschera del demonio that would become the crossover international hit to kick start the whole Italian horror renaissance of the 60s and 70s. Shot for about 100,000 dollars in 6 weeks, the film was a minor success in its homeland, making back most of its production budget there, but it was an even bigger success abroad. In the U.S., distributor American International Pictures, who re-dubbed the film a second time, removed about three minutes of violent content and replaced Roberto Nicolosi's original score with a new one by Les Baxter, had their biggest money-maker up to that time with this film. Not only were audiences thrilled, but so were many in the critical establishment, who gave it an uncommonly positive reception for a genre film of its time. As it stands now, Sunday's negligible dubbing and rather routine story line haven't stood up particularly well but, honestly, who really cares? This is a gorgeously-made, moody, sumptuous and haunting film staged, lit and photographed to maximize the feelings of dread and horror. As far as I'm concerned, the astonishing visuals alone make this a true classic... and they remain almost unchallenged to this day.

17th Century witch / vampiress Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is condemned by the Grand Inquisitor of Moldavia, who also happens to be her brother, and has the spiked mask of Satan hammered onto her face... but not before placing a curse upon the descendants of her executioners. A sudden rainstorm extinguishes the fire meant to burn her and, instead, her corpse is moved to the family ancestral tomb for burial. Two centuries later, Professor Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his handsome young colleague Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) are passing through the area on their way to a medical conference in Moscow when their stagecoach breaks down on a back road. The two end up stumbling upon the Vajda family tomb, go inside and find the casket containing Asa's corpse. Not one to believe in local superstition, Thomas casually desecrates the tomb in a variety of ways that include breaking a stone cross (which was placed in front of a glass window on the casket to supposedly keep Asa's spirit at rest) and removing the mask from her face. After accidentally cutting himself and dribbling some blood on the body, Thomas and Andre leave, briefly encountering a strange, beautiful woman walking dogs outside the chapel.

Meanwhile, at the Vajda Castle and the neighboring village, strange things are afoot. Lord Vajda (Ivo Garrani) - a descendant of both the executed witch and her executioner - notices some strange changes in a painting and sees the reflection of the death mask cast in liquid inside a cup. The Lord soon grows ill and delirious, so his children; Katia (also Steele) and Constantine (Enrico Olivieri), send for Dr. Kruvajan, little realizing he's already under the spell of the newly-revived Asa. Asa has also brought back an old friend to help her out; resurrecting her former accomplice Javutich (Arturo Dominici), who'd been executed in a similar fashion as her at the same time and buried in a peasant's graveyard. People turn up dead or become possessed, corpses are brought back to life, secret passageways are discovered and Dr. Gorobec - with help from a village priest (Antonio Pierfederici) - attempt to stop Asa before she's able to complete her ultimate goal: possessing Katia so she can live once again to do Satan's bidding.

Black Sunday contains pretty much everything lovers of vintage black-and-white Gothic horror flicks could possibly want to see, from mysterious ancient cemeteries filled with dying trees to cobweb-strewn dungeons to candlelit strolls through dimly-lit corridors and secret passages. Swirling mists and lightning flashes illuminate a cemetery as a ghoul emerges from the grave, carriages make their way through the thick fog in slow-motion, flickering light cast over water creates a wavering effect on the walls before a heavy door shuts, an undead witch heaves with sadistic, sensual delight on the slab... All of these standard Gothic trappings are done with so much visual style and with such meticulous craftsmanship nearly every single frame seems like a gloomy work of individual art. In fact, the individual frames are so beautifully composed, it almost felt like a crime having to shrink the screen caps down to fit this blog! The photography, camerawork, art direction, sets, lighting and overall mood and atmosphere are all, in a word, outstanding.

Even in censored form, Black Sunday was considered extremely gruesome for its day. It was not only trimmed for U.S. showings but was actually banned in the UK until 1968, when a version even more censored than what played in America was released. The film in its uncut form wouldn't even make it past the UK censors until 1992! What's seen in the full 87 minute version is indeed pretty heavy stuff for 1960. Aside from the legendary opening mask scene and its accompaniment of gushing blood, there's an eyeless corpse festering with bugs, blood bubbling under empty eye sockets, flesh burning after being branded with a hot iron, a face roasting in a fire, an eyeball poked out and much more. The special effects - most of which were done by Bava himself, who also shot this - are excellent for the time. Perhaps most impressive here are aging effects foregoing the usual time-lapse technique in favor of utilizing lighting and special makeup so it could be done smoothly in just one take.

Bava was handed this assignment - his (credited) feature directorial debut - after proving his mettle salvaging three other troubled productions for production company Galatea Film, after their directors - Jacques Tourneur in the case of The Giant of Marathon (1959) and Riccardo Freda in the case of both I Vampiri and Caltiki - The Immortal Monster (1959) - walked off the sets. He makes the absolute most of the opportunity here and it's easy to see why he went on to become one of the most acclaimed and influential genre directors of all time over the next two decades. In her dual role, the fascinating and stunning Steele also makes a huge impression, particularly playing the witch. It's no wonder she went on to a healthy career playing vamps, vixens, virgins and villains in numerous other Gothic horrors after this one.

The version I viewed was from "The Mario Bava Collection Volume 1" box set distributed by Anchor Bay, which also contains the Bava films Black Sabbath (1963), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), Kill, Baby... Kill! (1966) and the non-horror Knives of the Avenger (1966). Arrow Films released a remastered blu ray in 2013.



Piotr W. said...

I've actually seen this movie and I admit that I'm not sure why it's considered to be so good. There's some good cinematography there, but overall, I found the movie to be boring.

And was it really considered so graphic in its day? In the version I've seen, there were only two scenes that could count as gruesome (the mask-nailing scene and the eye stab delivered to the older doctor's corpse). Everything else seemed, for me, comparable to average Hollywood horror flick from the 1960s... but I'm definitely not an expert, so I may be wrong?

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Definitely not any right or wrong in regards to liking, disliking or being ambivalent toward this one. Cases can be made for all three viewpoints. You either think the camerawork / visuals / atmosphere overcome the flaws or you don't. Personally, I'd rate the plot just about average for the time and the dubbing mostly sucks, but nearly everything else in play gets a 4/4 from me. Factor in the film's influence and that's always good for a little bonus. It and The Innocents have the finest black-and-white photography of ANY horror film I've seen thus far.

And yes, Sunday WAS considered one of the most gruesome movies up until that point and was also one of the only films banned for violence / gore in a number of countries its year. "Jigoku" was by far the goriest of 1960 (perhaps the goriest up until that point period) but I don't believe it was released many places outside of Asia until years later. The face removal scene from "Eyes Without a Face" was another big one for the time but it was cut out of many of the prints and is the only really gruesome moment in the movie.

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