Black Sunday (1960) – By Duane L. Martin

In 1960, Mario Bava made his directorial debut with Black Sunday, a very dark and dramatic film about a witch and her servant who were put to death for being vampires, the servants of Satan. As she was about to burn on the fire, Katia Vajda (Barbara Steele) put a curse on her brother and the family line for sentencing her to die. A mask of Satan with spikes on the inside was pounded into her face, killing her, and just as she was about to be burned, the clouds roiled and rain began to fall, dousing the fires. They ultimately placed her body in a tomb rather than burning it, and her assistant, who had the same mask pounded into his skull, was buried in unconsecrated ground. Now, two-hundred years later, the family line is royalty is Moldovia, and yet their ancestral tomb is being left to fall to ruin because of the evil that is entombed there. Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is the spitting image of Katia.

Around this time, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young associate Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) are traveling through the area by carriage on their way to a medical conference, when the wheel comes off the carriage. Exploring the area a bit while the driver fixes the wheel, they find the Vajda tomb and explore around inside, eventually finding Katia’s stone coffin with a window in it, so the cross that sticks up from the end will be visible and keep her trapped inside, and the spiked mask of Satan, still spiked into the skull to make sure she remains dead. After he’s attacked by a giant bat however, Dr. Kruvajan accidentally breaks the stone cross while swinging at it with his cane, and breaks the glass on the coffin as well, cutting himself in the process. His blood, which dripped on Katia’s corpse, plus the fact that he removed the mask from her body, caused Katia and her servant to return from the grave in order to bring the curse on the family to fruition. She will take Asa’s blood, so that in Asa’s death, she can once again be whole. The only ones who stand in the way of her plans are Asa’s brother, Prince Vajda, Andre, who’s fallen in love with Asa, and the village priest, who has learned the secret of stopping Katia and her evil once and for all. The question is, can they, before it’s too late?

Dark, moody and full of drama, Mario Bava’s first outing as a director was a success to say the least, as long as you ignore one rather glaring story flaw.

I know Mario Bava is famous. In fact, he’s very famous. Despite that fact however, I really haven’t seen any of his films until now. Mario is sort of one of the big three Italian horror directors, along with Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. To be honest, I’ve never been all that impressed with Fulci or Argento, so I didn’t really know what to expect from Mario Bava. I’m happy to say though that I was pleasantly surprised with his work.

I’ve always been a huge fan of classic b-movies, and this film truly nails that classic b-movie feel, combining the dark castle and vampire feel of Dracula with the macabre vibe of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films. That’s about the best way I could describe it. It’s also very dramatic in its performances. There are times in fact where there’s so much drama in the performances that it becomes almost comical how dramatic it is. The performances are strong throughout the cast though, which played well to the strengths of the story.

The story however, as mentioned above, did have one glaring flaw. I may be mistaken in this, but I’m pretty sure the Satan mask that got spiked into the heads of Katia and her man Igor were supposed to keep them dead. Katia started coming back to life after the doctor had removed the mask from her corpse and spilled a couple of drops of blood on her from the cut on his hand. Igor on the other hand, dug his way up out of the grave with the mask still spiked firmly into his skull, only removing it after he was fully out of the ground. So if he still had the mask, and there was no blood to revive him, how did he revive and dig his way out of the grave? Aside from this however, the story, while a bit confusing with the curse and how it was supposed to work, was well written and entertaining. This is definitely the type of film you’ll want to watch in the middle of the night. It has just the right combination of darkness, and that suspenseful, creepiness that make it excellent for midnight viewing. I really enjoyed this film, and I’m really looking forward to the other two Mario Bava films I have to review this month.

This release from Kino Lorber has the following special features:

Mastered in HD from an archival 35mm print. (It looks fantastic. The quality is just beautiful!)
Audio commentary by Tim Lucas, author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark.
The original theatrical trailer for this film and other Mario Bava films.

If you’ve never seen a Mario Bava film, this is an excellent one to start with, especially seeing as it was his directorial debut. It’ll give you a good starting point, after which you can see his subsequent films and observe how he grew as a director throughout his career.

If you’d like to find out more about this release, you can check out its page on the Kino Lorber website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can get the blu-ray or DVD release from Amazon, or from any of the other usual outlets.