Sunday, 3 March 2013

1,001 Films: "Black Sunday" a.k.a. "The Mask of Satan" a.k.a. "Revenge of the Vampire" (1960)

Italian horror director Mario Bava was his own cinematographer, and as such he had as much to do with the look of the 1960s horror film as anyone. Black Sunday, his Gogol-inspired tale of witchcraft in deepest, darkest Russia, takes the crypts, horse-drawn carriages and exposed brickwork of Hammer's period films and makes them newly elegant and spooky: it's not too great a stylistic leap from here to Romero's striking deployment of monochrome in the first Living Dead movie, or indeed onto the vivid, visceral flourishes of Bava's compatriot Dario Argento.

In a prologue, a prince and his witch lover are burnt at the stake after having a mask of torture nailed to their faces; two centuries on, they've returned to stalk the residents of the town where they were put to death, and where - in an especially poetic touch - the witch's doppelganger (Barbara Steele, in a career-making dual role) now resides. The sets - while still seeming very much like sets - at least seem like atmospheric sets, not so very far removed from the Universal horror movies of the 1930s in their pools of light and fog, yet Bava doesn't shy away from more graphic shocks.

Blood drips into maggot-filled eye sockets; there's a spectacular disinterment; and the make-up stretches from punctured skin to gaping ribcages. Even as it held rather ploddingly dear to timeless folk myths, the chopped liver and potatoes of the modern horror movie were being set firmly in place. While the English dub currently available proves a little flat and imprecise in places, the sound throughout is never less than supremely evocative: with its network of secret corridors running behind the action, it remains one of the all-time great creaking door movies, and I'm pretty sure you can hear every last one of those nails piercing the heroine's flesh.

Black Sunday is currently available on DVD through Arrow Video.

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