La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday) is an 1960 Italian gothic horror film directed by Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, Planet of the Vampires, Rabid Dogs). The film has a wide range of talent, including the beautiful English actress Barbara Steele who played due roles as both Katia Vajda and Princess Asa Vajda. Barbara is best known for her work in a shit load of Italian gothic flicks, but also for her work in Roger Corman’s cinematic adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). She also stared as Betts in David Cronenberg’s sexual-liberation epic Shivers (1975) and in Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978). Barbara was most recently in The Butterfly Room (2012) as Ann. Among the cast of Black Sunday we also find Andrea Checchi (Dr. Thomas Kruvajan), John Richardson (Dr. Andre Gorobec), and Arturo Dominici (Igor Javuto), among others.
The film follows the story of Katia Vajda, a vampire-witch hybrid who is put to death for witchcraft (basically, her brother hammered a Scold’s Bridle, a mask with sharp spikes on the inside, onto her face and then buried her, presumably alive. Nice, right? But hey, that’s amore! Here’s a fun fact: Scold’s Bridle’s were used as punishment for nagging women during the Middle Ages). 200 years later, by happenstance, Doctors Kruvajan and Gorobec stumble on the tomb of Katia Vajda. Kruvajan accidentally cuts his hand and blood drips into the coffin of Vajda. The blood reawakens the vampire-witch and she goes about exacting revenge on her descendants.
While watching the film, I was actually rather impressed with the practical effects. The rejuvenation scene with Katia Vajda coming back to life was very stylish and gory, considering the movie was released in 1960 and censored by American International Pictures. It would take another 8 years, during the era of Savage Cinema (also the same year as the Tet Offensive, the assassination of MLK and RFK, and the massacre in My Lai) for those guys at AIP to loose traction in the whole film censorship business when the violence on the big screen struggled to match the violence seen on the daily news. The voice overs in the film are expected and not any kind of hindrance. And there are some rather spooky scenes in the flick. Some of my favorite included Igor and Prince Vajda. Igor’s eyes gave me a real feeling of dread while he slowly approached the princes bedside. But, most of the best scenes were with Katia Vajda. Barbara Steele had this crazed-manic look in her eye that made the movie both enjoyable and fun.
The ending and overall message of the film is something striking. This time around (SPOILERS) when Katia Vajda is put to death, a mob of villagers led by a Christian priest burn her at the stake. The film is most certainly atmospheric and gothic, drawing from Bava’s love for the classic 1930 Universal features. And perhaps, this is where he got the whole “mob” destroying the “monster” trope. But it makes you wonder about the religious connotation. I mean, this is an Italian feature after all. The two doctors represent the world of science and rationality, but both science and rationality fail to slay the beast, as it were. It was the Cross and the mob who saved the princess and defeated the growing darkness. And it is also interesting how successful Black Sunday was during its theatrical release in 1961 America. Looking at the history, it all kinda fits together. This was pre-1965-68 chaos, before the era when horror cinema really focused on drawing down introspectively, as with such films as Psycho (1960) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) In Black Sunday,the monster is still “out there in the woods” and can be defeated through religious purity. Regardless, the movie was a colorful black & white feature full of fun gothic atmospherics.
My rating: 4/5