Ed. note- Now that the Christmas shopping season has set in and that blackest day of the year has passed, what better way to celebrate the horrors Black Friday than with Mario Bava’s auspicious debut BLACK SUNDAY? You may become a slave of Satan watching it, but better that than a slave to 25% off a flat screen TV!- P.F.
Taking a familiar story and making it something new and interesting is not as easy a task as one might think. Taking a familiar story for a first film and making something brilliant out of it is next to impossible. But Mario Bava did just that with his directorial debut, BLACK SUNDAY. It’s a Gothic vampire tale that becomes a thing of great beauty in the maestro’s hands.
BLACK SUNDAY begins with a double execution. The evil princess Asa Vajda and her consort Javutich have been found guilty of witchcraft, and face a rather painful form of execution involving spiked masks and the business end of a huge hammer. But before she goes out, Asa threatens to return and bring a curse upon the town and her descendants. 200 years later, a traveling doctor and his protégé get sidelined on their way to a medical conference and decide to check out Asa’s nearby crypt. Dr. Kruvajan accidentally awakes Asa, who then revives Javutich so they can set their evil plot in motion. She plans to rob her lookalike descendant Katia of her life force so she can live again. Can Kruvajan and young doctor Andre save Katia and the rest of the Vajda clan?
This archetypal story has been told numerous times before, but rarely with such flair and fun. It’s told so well, I have very little bad to say about it. I could’ve done without the opening voiceover, and some of the dubbing is very obvious. And the protagonists are corny, much less cool than the villains Asa and Javutich. As was the case with LEGEND, I found myself rooting for the bad guys to destroy the bland goody two shoes. But those are trifles. Bava nails just about every other aspect of the film to sweet perfection.
Foremost is the cinematography. Bava began his career as a camera man, and he acted as his own on BLACK SUNDAY. His choices in movement and lighting are spectacular. Take the scene with the peasant girl milking the cow. It’s a mundane act, but Bava uses his camera to build fear throughout the entire sequence. The editing is great too, as Bava stacks shots of a grave from several distances, getting ever closer to the grave dirt. He also employs a slow motion carriage here, a technique I don’t usually find effective; but the surrounding shots play at regular speed, adding an eerie otherworldliness to the carriage. Unlike multitudes of horror directors, Bava was a visual stylist, and BLACK SUNDAY is a beautiful film.
Bava’s story also makes great use of all the archetypal Gothic elements. The abandoned crypt and local graveyard; the clawed hand emerging from the grave dirt; the superstitious peasant village; the castle, with its parapets and hidden passages; the familial curse. And then there are the monsters. Though Asa and Javutich are constantly referred to as witches and agents of Satan, they’re vampires (though the word “vampire” never comes up once). Javutich’s dragon crest is clearly a shout out to Dracula, and their other traits fall under vampire lore: they turn others into Satan’s slaves through bites to the neck, they drink blood, and those they infect are dead by day, and can only rise at night. Bava loosely based the story on Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Vij,” which I now want to read. I don’t know if Gogol ever outright uses the Russian word for “vampire,” but BLACK SUNDAY fits snugly in the lineage of NOSFERATU and Universal’s DRACULA.
As for the acting, Barbara Steele is great as Asa. She commands the screen, her unconventionally beautiful face twisted into a snarl, spouting out threats to the goodies of the world. She’s less successful as Asa’s descendent Katia, but I don’t fault her. There’s less meat on the bones, as Katia is a typical Gothic heroine, forced to scream and faint, as she waits for males to save her. As Javutich, Italian actor Arturo Dominico brings a ghoulish efficiency to the character. He looks starkly evil in his dragon crest armor, and has the muscle to back it up. Interestingly, in the original Italian version, Asa and Javutich are brother and sister. But AIP edited this out for the American version, fearing their implied incestuous relationship would never clear censors.
Andrea Checchi brings a certain flair and humor to Dr. Kruvajan, and his acting holds up once the character takes a turn later in the film. As Katia’s brother Constantine, Enrico Olivieri is just kind of there. I take it they hired him for his boyish good looks.
I gather the same for John Richardson as Andre, who’s not only the de facto hero, but the handsome love interest as well. He’s so milquetoast that it’s easy to see why even the bland Katia doesn’t immediately fall for him. Richardson is most famous for his role in ONE MILLION B.C., which speaks volumes about his career, as he doesn’t speak an actual word in that film. A stronger actor would have upped the ante considerably, but Richardson doesn’t detract from how great Bava’s film is.
And a great film, it is. Mario Bava would direct for two decades following BLACK SUNDAY. His films are some of the most beautifully shot in all of horror. Though the story quality sometimes varies, a Bava film always promises an interesting film. BLACK SUNDAY was a brilliant start to a brilliant career, and when it comes to Italian maestros, I’ll take Bava.