Also known as The Mask of Satan, Black Sunday is essentially how the world became aware of Mario Bava, horror provocateur and cult cinema mad man. Now I am fully aware that he made movies well before this work, as well as even more output following, but with its recent bluray release and the access it has to horror fans via Netflix Watch Instantly, it has gain a new level of adoration. Admittedly, I was far from completely enamored with this film, but it does have me curious about undertaking more work by the Italian director, primarily as a means to see how much German Expressionism might seep into this other work. Also, I am deeply intrigued by some of the special effects that unfold during this film, proving equally baffling to Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity which I also saw yesterday, although the spectacle is certainly favored in the latter, the execution is no less dynamite. I guess my hesitation in fully embracing a work like Black Sunday resides in having a considerable trouble getting behind works of gothic vampire horror, because in my mind their dreary setting, ambient soundtracks and general appeal is often squandered in some half realized narrative of sex and lust, which is overemphasized and always undermines anything worth a damn in the film. While Black Sunday certainly has moments where this threatens to be the demise of the film, for the most part, the narrative manages to side step any egregious errors and remain watchable and poignant. I am also completely aware of the film having a now fifty year history behind it, making its pristine look that much more captivating considering the life and rediscovery of horror films to be a less than prevalent act since it is a genre that seems content to begin its history within the late seventies. While Black Sunday will never be on the level of something like Carnival of Souls it does manages to contain several moments of pure cerebral and surreal intensity, and at this point the dubbing in such a film is more endearing than grating, say nothing of the absolutely ethereal performance delivered by Barbara Steele who may or may not have had the aid of a prosthetic mask.
Black Sunday begins with a historical event focusing on a series of executions in a non-descript Moldovan town, where villagers and clergy men use various tools and religious iconography to destroy a series of demons in their village, one an older man and the other a younger woman, suggesting their ties to satan. Using masks that are lined with spikes, the villagers slay the creatures dubbed vampires and bury them within coffins in an underground labyrinth. The narrative then flashes forward two hundred years to focus on Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) who are traveling through Moldova in hopes of making up time in route to a medical conference. A minor vehicle accidents leads to their having to hole up in a local castle, where they immediately discover the tomb of Asa (Barabara Steele) the woman murdered for being a vampire some two centuries earlier. This bizarre discovery is only made doubly so when they return to their carriage to find Katia (Barbara Steele) who takes on an uncanny resemblance to Asa. An accident earlier, involving Kruvajan, results in his blood reawakening the vampire of Asa, who begins wreaking havoc on the two doctors as well as Katia, eventually even bringing back to life Javuto (Arturo Dominici) her partner and half of a Hall and Oates vampire cover band. Between the two of them, they attempt to offer the doctors a chance at eternal life in exchange for their blood, while the fascination implemented by both Asa and Javuto is strong the two doctors are able to deny the advances, instead turning to Katia for suggestions on how to slay the assumedly immortal beasts. After a series of scenes with Asa attempting to pass as Katia, only to fail to turn her when she finds a crucifix around Katia's neck, the return of Gorobec affords him the ability to slay the real vampire in Asa, turning her in the moment to an shriveled up corpse, while Kruvajan knocks Javuto into a fire, burning his body permanently. Katia now free from the spell of the vampires, awakens as young and jovial as ever.
I have not seen nearly enough gothic horror films and only marginally more vampire flicks, so I would be hard pressed to claim myself an authority on either. Furthermore, I am hesitant to appropriate things such as tropes to such a specific genre of films. Nonetheless, I have the space and certainly cannot help but consider the particular way in which the "intellectual" figure emerges within the space of these films. Of course, since they are classic works in gothic horror the figure of the intellectual is always male, driven by his unbridled desire for truth and scientific fact, he often finds himself in curious situations only to become involved out of a quest to explain that which is inexplicable. In many of these films, particularly the Dracula films "proper," this intellectual is represented through the figure of Van Helsing, but even in these instances there is an acceptance of the paranormal as a fact in the world, one that is confronted with goodness to overcome the evil. In Black Sunday one can certainly pull many elements of the traditional good versus evil narrative, but it is clear, particularly in their dual presence, that the intellectual is intended to be seen as the ultimate savior in a world of violence one exacted by and upon all involved, whether it be the blood thirsty vampires or the villagers who kill these creatures without even the slightest attempt to understand their actions. Indeed, that is not to say that the intellectual within the space of a gothic horror film is void of character flaws. The major cause for concern with such figures, despite their deep understanding of science, human nature or archaic folklore still seems to revolve around some degree of sexual repression, whether by choice or social situation. The relationship between Gorobec becomes particularly fascinating as one watches him fall for Katia, and assumedly Asa in the process, it is precisely this infatuation that nearly leads to his point of intellectual privilege becoming undermined and leading to his own turning into a vampire, void of any sense of rational thought when, in such a scenario, his need to devour would overcome his desire to learn and understand. Interestingly, this film also reconsiders the intellectual to a degree by affording Katia a considerable opinion in how to slay the creatures, one that proves both well-reasoned and useful.
Key Scene: The simultaneous aging and return to youth of Asa and Katia is cinematic magic even by contemporary standards.
This is on Netflix, take a chance to watch it as it is an undisputed classic and certainly a higher end work in vampire film.