Influenced by Universal's classic horror films of the '30s and British Hammer films of the late '50s, Black Sunday (released in Italy as The Mask of Satan) is a dark fairy tale, with horror queen Steele as the definitive embodiment of erotic horror. With shocking violence (tame by today's standards) and visual emphasis on tombs, secret passages, ominous castles, and unseen forces, the film offers a wealth of memorable imagery and inventive technique. Redubbed, rescored, and harshly edited for its American release in 1961, Black Sunday is presented on DVD in the original English-language director's cut of The Mask of Satan, never before available in the U.S. The perfect movie to watch on a dark and stormy night, this timeless classic is the Citizen Kane of horror films, entirely worthy of its lofty reputation. --Jeff Shannon
This is certainly a minor stylistic masterpiece. It creates atmosphere that is thick, foreboding, and claustrophobic. The story, however, is not worthy of such a lush, lavish treatment. It just doesn't possess any emotional depth. The whole film is Barbara Steele's eyes. They possess power that the film as a whole simply does not. The fog the film is enveloped in is not pervasive enough to mask the bitter emptiness of the tale being conveyed. It is difficult to criticize the film on its cinematic qualities. Nevertheless, the story does not mesmerize, tantalize or excite beyond those moments when Asa is moaning in her blood ecstasy. Indeed, my grandest (futile) wish was for Asa to slaughter them all and then to hit the road looking for more victims to prey upon.
Barbara Steele weeps, shrieks, sighs, faints, screams, moans, gasps, and is undeniably fascinating to watch. She is far more interesting as Asa. As Katia, she is a cipher. She's drained of life and hysterical to boot. Asa has activated her will (if the undead can even be said to possess a will--the will of Satan?). Katia is receptive, helpless and boring. She's just a lonely princess longing for her prince (yawn). It isn't Ms. Steele's fault--the character is simply dismal. She's the "good" girl--she doesn't have to do anything, except mope about in a perfectly awful hairdo. The rest of the cast are perfectly plastic--save for Arturo Dominici as Javutich. He's a fine match for Ms. Steele and wondefully terrible. He has presence that the others lack.
Still, the film is simply gorgeous. The story might not be my glass of Absinthe, but the film is still visually stunning. It lacks emotion and depth--but it makes up for it somewhat in the sheer power of its images. Obvious films that clearly map out the binary opposites at play are just not that intriguing. When you know from the start that virtue will win and evil will be destroyed, it kind of takes the thrill out of the whole thing.
Black Sunday is the movie Ed Wood always wanted to make. A four-cheese pizza with extra provolone is still not nearly as cheesy as this "horror" film, from which the only horror can be gleaned at the unintentional humor to be found throughout. But still, for the fan of Italian horror cinema, Black Sunday (as many of Bava's films) is a must-see, simply because Bava was the man who inspired giallo, and the tangents off giallo which gave rise to the films of the great triumvirate of Italian horror directors (Argento, Fulci, and Lenzi).
If you can piece together a plot summary for this movie, you're a better man than I. But I'll give it a shot: in the 1700s, a witch (Barbara Steele, recently of the ill-fated attempt to remake the ark Shadows TV series) is executed by the Inquisition (weren't they gone by then?) in a startlingly brutal manner: they hammer a spiked mask over her face. Two hundred years later, a professor of history (Andrea Checchi) and his eager assistant Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) stumble upon her tomb and remove the mask, freeing her spirit. Now, it just so happens that her many-times-great granddaughter Katja (also played by Steele) is still living in the witch's house with her family, and the two of them happen to look remarkably alike... you can see where this is going, no?
Fans of the Italian horror masters will find the geneses of such things as Fulci's obsession with "eye shots," Argento's sweeping cinematographic spectacles of murder, and Lenzi's brutal execution techniques. And some of the scenes do inspire the viewer to disgust, at least (when Checchi pulls the mask off the witch's face being a perfect example), but as a horror film, it falls pretty flat. The later Italian directors refined the style into something better. **