Black Sunday (1960)
Written & Directed by Mario Bava
While the French critics were wringing their hands over Eyes Without a Face, the Italian cinematic world was embracing the fervor of horror movies in the same way all of their films seemed to overflow with passion. Elements of gore and the Gothic were treasured, and the filmmakers associated with these pictures clearly understand the nature of spectacle in film. Mario Bava is the father of Italian horror movies, having directed the first horror “talkie” in the country, I Vampiri. Black Sunday was his first solo effort; he was no longer collaborating and could finally indulge in the lush horror he loved. The result would be a piece that formed his trajectory for the rest of his days and established actress Barbara Steele as one of the scream queens of the decade.
In the 1630s Moldavia, Asa Vajda (Steele) and her lover Javutich were found guilty of sorcery and sentenced to death by her brother, Gribai. Before the spiked metal mask is hammered onto her face, Asa curses Gribai and all his descendants to come. Two hundred years later, Dr. Kruvajan and his assistant Andrej travel to a medical conference in Moldavia when their carriage wheel breaks. While waiting for it to be repaired, the two men wander into a cemetery, where they discover Asa’s tomb. While trying to strike down a bat, Kruvajan breaks the glass window that allows people to peer into the crypt. Some of his blood drips onto Asa’s body. They exit and meet Katia Vajda (also Steele), who tells them of her family’s nearby castle, which they believe is haunted. The men spend the night at an inn when Asa rises from the grave, bringing Javutich with her, intent on wiping out her brother’s family line.
The aesthetics of Black Sunday are unquestionable. Bava has a brilliant understanding of light & shadow, resulting in evocative images. The movie drips in the deepest shadows, with stark black & white cinematography and a constant sense of ancient dread. Bava also doesn’t shy away from embracing the staginess of the production. There are no on-location scenes, everything is clearly happening on a soundstage, and there’s no getting around that. However, instead of letting that be a weakness as many B-movies of the time did, Bava leans into the artifice, which causes Black Sunday to feel like a dream, a dark fairy tale that feels familiar. If you are a fan of horror that values atmosphere and creepiness this delivers it in droves.
In an era where jump scares continue to be one of the dominant horror tropes, it is nice to watch a movie where that is anathema. Bava has no interest in giving you sudden jolts that fade in seconds. Instead, the story builds momentum, hinting at greater horrors to come. Bava doesn’t let his picture become camp, a trend of the period. Black Sunday was often double-billed with Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors in the United States. There are certainly heaps of dramatic excess, but Bava and his actors never play these moments with a wink to the audience. Instead, they are committed to the reality of what is happening; the horror for these characters is a real mind-breaking experience. When it comes to camp horror and more serious takes, I will always prefer the ones that convince us to buy in rather than feeling we’re above it all.
While Black Sunday is a masterclass in style, its story leaves much to be desired. In some parts, the momentum dies and can quickly lose the audience’s attention. I don’t think the narrative is overly convoluted or hard to follow; it’s very straightforward. There’s not a lot of meat on the bones, though, and nothing ever goes much beyond the revenge from beyond the grave plot. No real side stories happen between characters. What Black Sunday brings to the table is an emphasis on the feel of horror more than anything else. Its influence can be felt in later works like Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, where arthouse elements combined with horror tropes resulted in pieces that felt more substantial than the low-budget fare audiences associated with the genre.
I have never been a massive fan of Italian horror. I’ve watched several Dario Argento pictures and a couple Bavas, and while I appreciate the amount of technique that goes into them, the stories are always the most paper-thin veneer onto which present cinematic spectacle. The characters are rarely compelling, and the performances are adequate. Moreover, I’ve found the modern deconstructions of Italian horror far more effective than the originals. See Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria or Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s modern giallo collaborations (Amer, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears). Nevertheless, Black Sunday is still one of those horror essentials everyone who loves the genre should see. There’s a lot to appreciate that informs the development of horror even today.