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The Movie Night Diaries: Black Sunday

It is 1960′s horror classic Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan) that marks the second installment in a row here at The Movie Night Diaries for Italian horror director Mario Bava. Black Sunday stars the inimitable Barbara Steele playing a dual role — both the evil witch Asa and the young Katia, victim of the ages-old curse that plagues the Vadja family.

An image of the poster for the film Black SundayAs of this writing, Netflix’s instant service is featuring a half-dozen or so different films from Bava’s oeuvre, all part of Kino Lorber’s Mario Bava Collection package of DVD releases. I am jumping into this collection with both feet, as it were, as last week I celebrated Halloween with a viewing of Lisa and the Devil and its International counterpart The House of Exorcism. This week I’m taking a look at what is arguably Bava’s best known and most revered horror film, Black Sunday.

Barbara Steele plays the witch Asa, acolyte of the murderous Igor Javutich, condemned to death at the stake for witchcraft. Javutich is buried in an unmarked grave while Asa is entombed in the Vajda family mausoleum. Upon her death Asa curses the descendents of her traitorous brother and swears to return to exact revenge upon his children for her death at his hands. Two hundred years later, young physician Andre Gorobec and his mentor Dr. Thomas Kruvajan are stranded in the dark forest near the Vajda estate. Unwittingly, the two unlock the secret of Asa’s tomb and hasten her resurrection from the dead, as well as revive the curse that has hung for centuries over the Vajda family.

What I like most about this film is its atmosphere, that intangible quality of a film that seems to bring the audience back time and again to be in the film’s world for a bit: the abandoned mausoleum., the nighttime clouds obscuring the pale moon, the lonesome howling of wolves. All of these things are staples of Gothic horror stories, and Bava puts them to great use in Black Sunday. This, along with the stark, black and white photography of the film, brings us back to the grand old Universal Monster-era horror films like Browning’s Dracula and Whale’s Frankenstein. But these earlier films, tame by comparison to Bava’s work, have a cozening campfire quality that is charming while Bava goes straight for the jugular.

And it is this effort at shocking you straight out of your seat that makes Black Sunday a memorable film. From the earliest images of Asa being forced to don the nail-lined Mask of Satan at her execution to the ingenious scene of her transforming back to life in her tomb, Bava amends the film’s Gothic imagery with striking moments of a visceral quality that will quicken your pulse in a way that older works do not.

Mario Bava’s Black Sunday is a chilling and remarkable work that has earned its reputation as a landmark horror film, and Barbara Steele’s performance should be regarded alongside other macabre female roles in the history of horror cinema. It is well worth your time if you are a fan of horror films and as an introduction to Italian horror for the uninitiated.

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