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on January 6, 2002
Chilling and compelling even after 40 years.
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Vampires, witches, gothic castles, crumbling crypts and the odd dead body. If this movie had werewolves, it would be the perfect Halloween movie. But even without lycanthropes, "Black Sunday" is a brilliant little chunk of gothic horror. Mario Bava's solo directorial debut is rich in atmosphere and beautifully filmed, and it has plenty of very-graphic-for-1960 violence that is genuinely disturbing. The only problem is that the English language dub is... AWFUL.

In the 1600s, the Inquisition condemned the evil witch Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and her brother/lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici). They were both executed with iron devil masks nailed into their faces, but not before Asa curses her brother (the grand Inquisitor) and vows to return. Two hundred years later, a carriage breaks down outside her crypt, and Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) wander in. Wouldn't you know, Kruvajan accidentally cuts his finger and the drop of blood revives Asa's corpse.

And fortunately for her revenge scheme, her brother's descendants still live nearby. Before long, she has sicced the undead Javuto on the family of the fearful Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), particularly his daughter Katia (Steele again). Oh, and shes turned Kruvajan into her vampire slave. Gorobec must join forces with the local priest to stop the witch and her minions before she can use Katia's blood to fully resurrect herself.

"Black Sunday" is absolutely soaked in gothic atmosphere -- black leafless trees, vast shadowy castles, ruined cobwebbed crypts with eyeless corpses, and a perpetually stormy night. Mario Bava takes full advantage of this, crafting beautifully eerie scenes with his use of light and shadow. The film is like a string of beautifully horrifying tableaus, like illustrations from a gothic novel. Just looking at it is an experience.

It's also pretty disturbing. Granted, the gore isn't much compared to the "Saws" and "Hostels" of current horror cinema, but they're still pretty disturbing (burnings, eye-stakings and iron masks hammered into faces). And there's a vampiric element in this story, but Bava doesn't overplay it with cheesy fangs or other cliches -- it feels more like Eastern European folklore than Hollywood, where vampirism was both subtler and more alien.

But there is one big problem: the dialogue tends to be cheesy and clunky, especially during big dramatic scenes ("You too can find the joy and happiness of hating!" -- which was apparently a bowdlerized version of the original line).

This was actress Barbara Steele's breakthrough role, and she's quite good (if a bit hammy) in the dual role of the innocent Katia and the malevolent Asa; certainly she has plenty of stage presence. The other actors do good (if a bit hammy) jobs as well, particularly Dominici's silent blank-faced menace, Enrico Oliveiri, and Andrea Checchi as an inquisitive man of science.

"Black Sunday" is the ideal Halloween movie for people who are tired of the same ol' Hollywood horror -- an eerie movie about witches, curses and vampires.
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on December 22, 2003
Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960)
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. **
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on August 19, 2009

This is one of the few classics I'd love to see a REMAKE of.
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