Evil never looked so good

Black Sunday movie posterMario Bava’s Black Sunday is regarded as one of the most influential horror films of all time. It’s the H.P. Lovecraft of gothic horror movies. Its look and feel have inspired legions of imitators, derivatives and spiritual descendants.

Netflix has been recommending this movie to me for a while now, but I didn’t take the plunge until I read Dave’s review at DVD Infatuation. His view?

From the opening sequence, where we witness Asa’s execution (which also features the film’s most graphic scene: the Mask of Satan, with several long spikes attached to the back of it, being hammered onto the poor girl’s face), it’s easy to see why Black Sunday is considered a classic of the horror genre.

There is nothing complicated about this movie. It opens with an accused vampire/witch, Moldavian Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), being condemned to death by her brother. Because Asa is an eeeevil,* unrepentant harpy, she curses her brother and all her descendants before beseeching The Prince of Darkness for assistance. The Prince of Darkness answers her call with a wicked rain storm, and the peasants are unable to burn her at the stake. Why they can’t just burn her when the weather breaks is anyone’s guess.

In any event the Inquisition buries Asa in the family crypt, where she waits to exact revenge from the beyond the grave.

Sure enough, a pair of bumbling doctors on their way to a conference [INSERT JOKE] bring Asa back to life. Thirsty Asa promptly sets her sights on the lithe neck of her great-great-grandniece Katia (also played by Steele). Mayhem ensues.

Narrative complexity is not Black Sunday’s strong suit. The movie is built on strong visuals. It uses its monochrome palette to maximum effect in portraying its bleak, moody setting. Francis Ford Coppola found Black Sunday so visually striking that he recreated some of the shots in his own Dracula adaptation. This is a fantastic example of the atmosphere a skilled director can create with limited resources. I found quality even more prominent coming on the heels of the latest Godzilla movie.

In terms of acting, Barbara Steele’s dual roles steal the show. Asa is of course more fun to watch than Katia (when hasn’t pure eeeevil been more fun than naive virtue?) but Steele is convincing in both roles.

Director Mario Bava ended up as something of a one-hit wonder. Black Sunday was his directorial debut. Nothing else he made matched its critical or box office success. Black Sabbath (also available on Netflix) was probably the closest he came to recapturing the magic before his death in 1980.

* Sometimes one “e” is just not enough.

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