Mario Bava, a cinematographer of some repute by the mid-1950s and heavily influenced by his father Eugenio's accomplishments as sculptor, set designer, visual effects technician and cinematographer in Italy's silent cinema era, made the transition to directing through uncredited work on several films in the post war period. Bava gained his early directing experience often by stepping in at the eleventh hour to turn round beleaguered productions he was hired to photograph or provide effects for.

Director Riccardo Freda hired Bava as cameraman and effects designer on I Vampiri (1956), the first Italian horror film of the sound era, after the two friends had decided it was time to return to the horror genre since horror films had been previously banned by the fascist regime in the 1930s and 1940s. Convincing the film's backers that they could shoot the production in 12 days and get the censor to pass the script, Freda set to work. Only half the film was completed in the allotted schedule and the production company refused to allow him an extension to continue production. He abandoned the project and Bava took up the reins, finishing the film in two days.

After uncredited directing work on La fatiche di Ercole (1957, aka Hercules), Ercole e la Reina di Lydie (1958, aka Hercules Unchained) and La battaglia di Maratona (1959, aka The Giant of Marathon) he once again found himself working with Freda, as cinematographer and effects technician, on Caltiki il mostro immortale (1959, Caltiki the Immortal Monster). After two days, Freda once again vacated the director's chair and Bava replaced him. Freda later claimed this was a deliberate choice because he wanted to give Bava, a man too modest to realise his ambitions, an opportunity to direct.

... family corruption, doppelganger descendants and female power 
Lionello Santi, the founder of Galatea, the distribution company for three of the films that Bava had rescued, was impressed enough with Bava to approach him to select a project for his directorial debut proper. At the same time the huge success of Hammer's revival of the Gothic horror film with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), with their emphasis on colour, sensuality and gore, influenced Bava's direction. He combined his admiration for Terence Fisher's Dracula with a very loose adaptation of 'Viy', a Nikolai Gogol story written in 1835 about three students terrorised by an old witch that Bava had read to his children to scare them at bedtime.

His four page treatment retained only the Russian setting and the demonic witch from Gogol's tale and this was developed by screenwriters Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei into The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday, 1960) with the film's Italian title La maschera del demonio an affectionate play on the Italian release title of Hammer’s The Curse of FrankensteinLa maschera di Frankenstein. The film emerged as a full blooded homage to the aesthetics of both the classic Universal horror cycle of the 1930s and the transgressive style of Hammer.

Serandrei, particularly, was a huge influence on the narrative structure of the film because he was also Bava's film editor and worked with him again in a similar capacity on Black Sabbath (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1965). As Tim Lucas reveals on the commentary star Barbara Steele also shed some light on how Bava and Serandrei put the film together and how the cast never received a complete script and pages for scenes would arrive on the day of shooting. This reflects what Lucas believes was Bava's jigsaw puzzle methodology used to shoot and structure the film.

Produced over a six week schedule, shooting commenced March 28, 1960 at Titanus Studios in Rome where Bava and Freda had made I Vampiri in 1956, and the film's exotic exterior locations were created with exquisitely designed sets built on sound stages although some exteriors were shot at Prince Massimo's Castle, Arsoli in the Lazio region of Rome. Bava, with an eye on the international markets being conquered by British horror films, cast ex-Rank contract players Barbara Steele and John Richardson in the lead roles. They had appeared together in Bachelor of Hearts (1958) and then Rank, unsure of what to do with the two actors, sold their contracts to Fox. Steel had just walked off the Elvis picture Flaming Star (1960) when Bava came calling.

As Steele recalled of her and Richardson's casting and journey to Rome: "It’s very odd that we both ended up being in the film. I couldn’t understand why I was there. I had a little spread in Life magazine, and I think Mario Bava saw one of these photos. Anyway, he invited me to go to Rome, where I’d never been, and I must say I’ve never recovered. (1) Richardson, an ex-male model, would eventually work for Hammer as the male lead in She (1965). However, Bava found Steele something of a handful to work with. Her lack of punctuality and reticent attitude delayed work.

She and fellow actor Arturo Dominici, playing the demonic vampire villains Asa and Javutich, were originally fitted with sharp vampire fangs but these were abandoned when the rushes revealed how fake they looked. Steele argued about her wig, had it changed a number of times, struggled to understand the Italian crew and, for an intimate scene with Richardson, was reluctant "to allow them to tear open my dress and expose my breasts, so they got a double that I didn't like at all, so I ended up doing it myself - drunk, barely over eighteen, embarrassed and not very easy to be around." (2)

Samuel Z Arkoff and James H Nicholson of American International Pictures were always looking for European films they could squeeze onto double bills with their own product and, after seeing the film, they snapped up the rights to The Mask of Satan for $100,000. AIP edited, re-dubbed and re-scored the film, losing about three minutes from various scenes including the opening torture sequence, the staking of Kruvayan's eyeball and Prince Vajda's close encounter with a fireplace. The implications of an incestuous relationship between Asa and her demonic brother Javutich were also erased and some dialogue was made more audience friendly. The romantic score by Roberto Nicolosi was replaced by what was considered a score more in keeping with the horror genre from Les Baxter. Retitled as Black Sunday, it made its US debut on February 15, 1961.

British audiences would have to wait until 1968 to see the film, re-cut and released as Revenge of the Vampire. The film was submitted to the BBFC by Anglo Amalgamated in 1961 but John Trevelyan and his readers gave the film a tough ride and demanded many cuts. After a second submission, they refused to give it a certificate and the film was effectively banned until 1968, deemed unsuitable for exhibition. A fully uncut version only emerged in 1992.

The sensibilities of the 1960s audiences would still have been tested by the re-cut Black Sunday as Bava reinterpreted the Hammer aesthetic with an even greater emphasis on violent and gory content. It is a testament to his abilities that he married this sensationalism with a lush homage to the studio bound horror movies of the Universal era and introduced many of his own recurring narrative motifs. The power of The Mask of Satan / Black Sunday lies in its themes of family corruption, doppelganger descendants and female power coupled with Bava's extraordinary, kinetic camerawork and editing.

He demonstrates this admirably from the start with the still startling torture sequence set in 1630. The witch-vampire (the film doesn't quite make its mind up whether she's either or both) Asa (Steele) is being condemned to death by her brother and the Inquisition for consorting with her demonic lover/brother Prince Javutich (Arturo Dominici). A voice over explicitly underlines the crisis within the family as "brothers did not hesitate to accuse brothers" of dabbling in witchcraft and vampirism. Immediately, Bava's themes of incestuous destruction within the family unit, ancient family curses and the struggle between overt female sexual power and a reactionary, fearful patriarchy are set up as Asa curses all those yet to be born in her Vajda bloodline. Her punishment is to have 'the mask of Satan' hammered onto her face.

What's extraordinary about this scene is how Bava provides Asa's subjective view of the approaching mask and its interior spikes. His camera is static as the executioner brings the mask closer and it covers the screen and a transitional edit then reverses the viewpoint and we see the mask being brought towards Asa's face. Bava intercuts close ups of the interior of the mask, again showing us the hideous spikes inside from her viewpoint. The moment when the mask is struck onto her face retains its visceral, graphic power to this day.
"whether we want to or not Bava has made us children hiding our eyes at the movies." 
This prologue not only "introduces an eye motif and an injury to the eye motif that carries throughout the picture" (3) but it also sets the stage for the film's battle between feminine power and declining patriarchy. As Angela Connolly notes of the archetypical destruction of the female monster in horror: "If the staking usually represents a moment of narrative closure and restoration of order, here it is Asa's mutilation and her furious reaction to her brother's betrayal that sets in motion the plot suggesting that the disorder comes not from feminine evil but from the way in which patriarchy treats women." (4) Peter Hutchings also sees the mask as a form of female castration, an emblem of the male institution's urge, religious in origin, to curtail female power.

Her resurrection some two hundred years later is at the hands of Professor Kruvayan (Andrea Checchi), the representative of scientific knowledge and initially the Van Helsing savant figure, and his young, naive assistant Doctor Gorobec (John Richardson). Kruvayan, full of male pride, inadvertently disturbs Asa's resting place while fighting a bat, carelessly spilling his blood into her coffin, removing the religious symbol of the cross and the imprisoning mask that hold her in check. Kruvayan's hubris is exploited by the revived Asa and he falls under her control as she seeks to replace her descendant Princess Katia.

Gorobec, who falls in love instantly with Katia as soon as he sees her, then allows his romantic allusions for Asa's double to cloud his judgement. At the film's climax he is unable to tell them apart and only until the villagers and their religious leader arrive does he understand the distinction between them. Likewise, Katia's troubled father, the Prince Vajda, fails to protect his children and becomes a vampire under Asa's influence. Patriarchy crumbles before a woman who for most of the film exerts her power from within the tomb, gradually fuelling her furious revenge and only properly emerging towards the end of the film.

As Asa seeks to seduce Kruvayan, she is initially set free during a spectacular burst of her own revived subjectivity. Her will power and boiling sexual energy shatters the coffin in which she is entombed. Bava then provides a disturbing, doublingly horrific and erotic vision of a dead woman in the throes of orgasmic revivification, a bosom heaving medusa clawing her way back into life. The film's central concept of the double or evil twin reproduces this moment in a later scene where Gorobec carries the unconscious Katia back to her bedroom, having fainted at the sight of her dead father's corrupted face, and where he unbuttons her dress as she pants and heaves back into consciousness.

Bava continues to play with the double or twin motif in the film and initially fools the audience into thinking that Asa has been revived immediately after Kruvayan's molestation of the tomb when he and Gorobec are confronted by her double, Katia, in a remarkable, painterly image as she stands with her dogs in the ruins of the chapel beneath a stormy sky. Asa and Katia are also replicated in paintings in the film, one in the main hall of the castle and another, depicting a naked Asa, hiding one of the many secret passages that lead from the fireplace.

With Steele playing both Asa and Katia, Connolly believes Bava was attempting to blur the boundaries between feminine 'evil' and 'good', those sought by a patriarchy which demanded of women the presence of an evil Otherness. Certainly, that Otherness is here represented by the terrifying face of Asa, full of holes and bubbling eye sockets, and the seduction of Kruvayan with erotic kisses that codify a necrophilic longing typical of Bava's signature. Katia too is almost the victim of incestuous desire where her father, cursed by Asa, revives as a vampire and attempts to consume her as she mourns by the side of his coffin.

Asa and Katia are aspects of this distinction where "Asa is a powerful and dominating subjectivity with agency and will... and Katia is marked by her lack of vitality... and her total dependency on male agency to save herself." They mirror each other: Asa can only be revived by becoming Katia and Katia will only have will by "reintegrating the Asa-like aspect of herself." (5) However, even Steele recognised that female subjectivity would ultimately be constrained by such films and that male order and the family structure would eventually be restored: "The dark goddess can't just go on wreaking hubris and havoc ad infinitum, she gets her comeuppance too." (6)

This struggle occurs within a spectacular mise-en-scène wherein the eye motif, mirror images and reflections reoccur. Asa's dead eyes disgorge insects and hypnotise mortal men, and vampires are despatched by gruesome stakings through the eye. The mask itself is seen reflected in the Prince's hot toddy and, as Kruvayan meditates beside a pond, a dissolve shifts between the pool of water and Asa's opening eyes and commandments.

When Katia looks through her hands as her dead father revives as a monster, Bava again presents it subjectively and creates a view through her fingers. Tim Lucas evocatively sums up this moment on the commentary: "whether we want to or not Bava has made us children hiding our eyes at the movies." 

The importance of fairy tales to Italian horror cinema can be seen through much of The Mask of Satan's running time. As Danny Shipka notes, "Bava was able to create a film that would appeal to a variety of cultures as a fairy tale for adults with its mystic far away castles, fog-shrouded forests, ghosts and hidden adult sexuality."(7) The resurrected Javutich kidnaps Kruvayan with an enchanted coach and horses that on arrival glides in slow motion through the misty forests, recalling the powerful imagery of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (1946).

The young girl sent out to milk the cow just as Javutich rises from the grave and who must travel through an enchanted forest to complete her task is clearly a Red Riding Hood figure too. The 'evil twin' theme featuring Asa and Katia is also an example of the fairy tale demonstrating its ability to describe the humanising process of such moral stories, telling us what we lack and how we can repair that deficiency, evoking the uncanny in a familiar world and offering us situations that are both frightening and comforting.

Bava creates a dream-like spell in The Mask of Satan and locates the film on the unstable axis of the uncanny and the homely. When Kruvayan and Gorobec set out to explore, he patiently employs a 360 degree pan around the crypt to emphasise the uncanny Gothic space of the ruined chapel, re-codified as a potentially threatening feminine space when they discover Asa's tomb. Yet, when they then meet her double Katia upon their departure this female agency becomes romanticised and contrasted by Roberto Nicolosi's beautiful piano based theme.

When Bava introduces Katia's father Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), his camera describes the interior of Vajda castle as Katia plays the romantic piano theme. What is initially presented as a domestic, familial scene becomes more and more troubled. The camera whisks by Katia and her brother Constantine cleaning his hunting rifles and glides toward the roaring fireplace and a high backed chair, its occupant unseen. As the camera moves in, the fireplace is central and bordered either side by huge portraits of Asa and Javutich - it is the hearth as a symbol of traditional family activity but troubled by the ancestral, incestuous curse of the witch and her brother.

To underline this, Bava then reveals the Prince as a deeply troubled, introspective man gazing into the firelight and his fears are scored in the form of the discordant, ghostly note that Katia hits on the piano. The fireplace, with its ancestral symbol of the dragon, also becomes the centre of chaos and provides a passageway into the bowels of the castle and to Asa's tomb, transforming the heimlich (the homely) into the unheimlich (the uncanny, the unhomely). This theme is revisited in Javutich's revival and stalking of the Prince as a visual exploration of a force of evil wreaking havoc in the home. As the undead monster attacks the Prince in his bedroom, Bava deftly escalates the Prince's fear at the uncanny visitation with ever moving, incredibly fluid camera moves and editing.

That the film relies on a conventional ending, where vengeful villagers complete the job their ancestors failed to do by executing Asa as the romantic (and heterosexual) sub-text between Gorobec and Katia becomes triumphant, is not to its detriment. This is a magnificent debut from Bava, stunningly filmed on some extraordinary sets, that briefly allows the 'female monster' genie out of the bottle and dares to suggest that her power is not just the result of "male cultural fantasies" but is also representative of the possibility of "autonomous female desire" in the 'good' and 'evil' fusing of Asa and Katia. Steele's physical presence is vital in communicating this and her eyes, face and mouth provide an abstraction of the Otherness, the female uncanniness at the centre of the film. (8)

(1) Steve Biodrowski, Black Sunday: a retrospective, Cinefantastique March 13, 2008
(2) Mark Thomas McGee,  Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures
(3) Tim Lucas, Black Sunday DVD commentary
(4) Angela Connolly, 'Daughters of the Devil: feminine subjectivity and the female vampire' in Cultures and Identities in Transition: Jungian Perspectives
(5) Ibid
(6) Danny Shipka, Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960-1980
(7) Ibid
(8) Carol Jenks, 'The Other Face of Death: Barbara Steele and La maschera del demonio' in Popular European Cinema

About the transfer
For the most part the HD transfer of The Mask of Satan is clean and robust despite it originating from a less than recent source. There are occasional speckles here and there and contrast can often seem a bit inconsistent where some solid blacks turn to greys at the edges of the frame. White highlights also seem a little greyer than on the Image Entertainment DVD I compared this with but it is still a highly enjoyable presentation, full of depth and retaining much of its film grain. It certainly flatters the gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography and stunning sets the film is known for. AIP's cut, the retitled Black Sunday, is marginally better when it comes to the layers of contrast and deep blacks. Audio is clear and dynamic and suffers from a bit of hiss and high-frequency trembling but there's little to complain about. The various English recordings and dubs that have been applied to the film are evident in the slight syncing problems and that's normal for this film.

Special features
You can play either the AIP cut from the menu or the original Italian cut.
Audio Commentary
Ported from the Image Entertainment DVD of 1999, this is a engaging commentary with Bava biographer and expert Tim Lucas, full of facts about Bava and his inimitable style, the cast and the production and an analysis of the symbolic imagery in the film. It can go a little quiet at times but it's a recommended listen. 
Introduction to Black Sunday (2:52)
Author and critic Alan Jones provides some essential background to Bava's early career and his directorial debut, the Gogol source of the film and the controversy over its violence and sexuality.
Interview with star and horror icon Barbara Steele (8:44)
An unpublished 1995 video interview where Steele reasons that it was perhaps the dark and intense Life magazine photo spread that generated Bava's interest and she discusses the powerful atmosphere of the film's opening scene. Lovely to see her willing to reflect back on the film that launched her career and she has some interesting comments about the power of Asa as a female character.
Deleted Scene from the Italian version with notes by Tim Lucas (3:32)
Having read about this scene, it's really great to actually see it here. This is a brief meeting between an introspective Katia and her father where he suggests she leave the castle. It is intact in some Italian prints but as Tim Lucas notes the scene's position in the film is very incongruous as it is cut into the two very intense night scenes when the maid is milking the cow and Javutich crawls out of his grave. Lucas feels it was a sequence inserted into the film without Bava or Serandrei's approval.
International Trailer (3:35)
Horror! Anguish! And Terror!
US Trailer (2:12)
"Black Sunday is like no motion picture you've ever seen" booms the AIP trailer. I'll second that.
Italian Trailer (3:27)
A "story with a morbid interest... that goes beyond our imagination."
TV Spot (0:22)
Barbara Steele's eyes transformed into a marketing campaign.
I Vampiri (1956) – Italy’s first sound horror film directed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava and it is here presented in a 2.35:1 ratio, up-converted to HD by the looks of it. Perfectly watchable and certainly of interest to Bava fans as his signature stylings with the camera and lighting are already ably demonstrated as are his innovative effects. The story is set in Paris where a journalist investigates a series of 'vampire murders' carried out by a crazed duchess, obsessed with retaining her youth. There are elements of giallo and Gothic horror and Bava's use of filters and make up to depict the duchess's disintegration is still a bravura use of visual effects.
US I Vampiri Trailer ‘The Devil’s Commandment’ (1:39)
Mario Bava Trailer Reel (54:02)
Exhaustive and impressive hour-long collection of trailers for Bava's major films, stretching nearly twenty years from The Mask of Satan through to 1974's Rabid Dogs and 1977's Shock!
Reversible sleeve
Featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
Collector’s booklet 
Featuring new writing on the films by Matt Bailey and Alan Jones, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

The Mask of Satan / Black Sunday- 1960
Galatea - Jolly Films - Alta Vista
I, Vampiri - 1956
America - Athena Cinematographica - Titanus

Arrow Video Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD Edition / FCD756 / Released 4 February 2013 / Cert: 15 / 1.69:1 / Black and White / High Definition Blu-ray (AVC 1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of both versions of the film: The Mask of Satan – the European version with score by Roberto Nicolosi & Black Sunday – the re-edited and re-dubbed AIP version with Les Baxter score / Three audio versions: Optional Italian, European English and AIP English re-dub and re-score / English SDH subtitles for both English versions and a new English subtitle translation of the Italian audio / Region B/2

2 Responses to “WORLD CINEMA CLASSICS: Black Sunday - Mario Bava Deluxe Blu-Ray Edition / Review”
  1. Unknown says:

    Thanks Frank, that's an excellent review - and the one for 'Lisa and The Devil'. My enjoyment of Bava's films just keeps increasing and I hope they eventually get more recognition - they deserve it! These new Arrow blurays are excellent in the way they've included the different language options and alternative edits. The transfer sources might not be ideal but they are a great improvement over the DVDs. Shame the Italian home video industry doesn't seem interested in putting out Bava's films on bluray, although that is probably a good thing until they get over their habit of giving Italian movies such appalling HD transfers.
    Looking forward to some more good Bava releases this year, with 'Black Sabbath' scheduled for April.
    I can also recommend the US bluray of 'Hatchet for the Honeymoon' which looks great although the audio suffers from crackles and would really benefit from a cleaner source.

    Graeme C

  2. Thanks Graeme. Glad you enjoyed the reviews. More Bava soon!


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