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on June 9, 2004
(...)
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.
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on February 3, 2004
If you are a true horror connoseur of great horror films, BLACK SUNDAY or THE MASK OF SATAN, belongs in your repertoire of those films which defined what "horror" movies should be about.
Mario Bava's first film is full of eloquent imagery, darkly atmospheric sets and lighting, and an almost palpable sense of doom. Barbara Steele, who went on with Hazel Court, to be the true scream queens of the sixties, is perfect in the dual role of the witch and her descendant; Bava knew that Steele's beauty is not of the usual kind and he used his lens to soften some of her harshness, but yet to ignite those gorgeous eyes. Steele also knew how to handle the camera, how to peer not only into the eyes of her fellow actors, but into your eyes as well.
John Richardson's boyish handsomeness is a perfect contrast to Steele's dark beauty. (Only complaint about DVD is the obvious dubbing, with "radio dj" voices that at times lessened the impact of the movie). The silent stagecoach ride is as many readers have commented one of the eeriest scenes captured on celluloid.
This is a frightening movie, way ahead of its time, and maintains a crude brilliance that is still penetrating today.
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on January 18, 2004
BLACK SUNDAY (aka THE MASK OF SATAN) marks the directorial debut of prolific horror director Mario Bava, and what a debut! The story, a Gothic masterpiece about vampirism being an extension of Satan worship, is quite interesting. Barbara Steel, the first horror starlet, or scream queen, is amazingly beautiful and quite good as the evil Princess Asa, who curses her family after being condemned as a witch, and Princess Katia, her ancestor. A chairjumper every five minutes! It lulls you asleep and then slaps you awake with the next scary moment. True suspense is being built up as the plot goes along nice and slow (even under an hour and a half!) The whole film is gorgeous and really showed me that a black-and-white movie can be just as scary and cringe-inducing as one in bright color.
Yes, Mario Bava is the founding father of Italian horror as we know it! Not only is he a great director, but he is an excellent cameraman and special effects artist, just to name a few other things he did in his movies. Thanks to Bava, we have masterpieces from other great directors as Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED, TENEBRE, INFERNO), Lucio Fulci (DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, ZOMBIE, THE BEYOND), and even Mario's own son Lamberto (MACABRE, A BLADE IN THE DARK, DEMONS 1 & 2). Hell, even the Bavas helped Argento on occasion (Mario directed that awesome underwater sequence in INFERNO, and Lamberto was assistant director on that and TENEBRE). So remember, when you think about how awesome Italian horror movies were back in the day and all the masterpieces that came out of that country, remember Mario Bava. And watch BLACK SUNDAY and all of his other movies!
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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 July 18, 2002
"In the 17th century, Satan was abroad on the Earth and great was the wrath against those monstrous beasts thirsty for human blood that traditions have given the name of vampires."
Such is the opening narration of the Masks of Satan, or Black Sunday. Princess Asa is burned by the inquisition of the High Court of Moldavia, who have also executed her partner-in-crime, Igor Javutic. She curses the House of Vajda, and her face affixed with the mask of satan, a facial iron maiden. There is an effective closeup of her frightened face before the masked executioner slams a heavy wooden sledge onto the satanic mask! Ouch, that's really gotta hurt! She would've been burned at the stake and that would be the end of it, had it not been for a thunderstorm. Instead, she is interred in her crypt and Javutic buried in unconsecrated ground.
Two centuries pass, say sometime in the 1840's. I say that due to the coachman's remark of having fought Napoleon's army, and estimating his age. Asa is accidentally awakened by Dr. Kruvayan, the older of two Russian doctors en route to a medical conference. Soon after, a slew of deaths involving anyone connected with the House of Vajda occur, and Princess Katya, who is a dead ringer for Asa, seems to be the prime target. She is helped by Andrei Gorobek, Kruvayan's younger colleague, who has taken a shine to her, and vows to get to the bottom of things ("We're in the presence of some unnatural mystery.")
Barbara Steele is brilliant here as the gentle but frightened Katya, and as the strong and evil Asa, scoring better in the latter role, with lines such as "Don't you feel joy in the beauty of hating?" and "Come kiss me, my lips will transform you." The scars on her face from the mask are explicit for 1960.
As for Igor Javutic, the painting of him resembles a painting of Vlad the Impaler I've seen in a book on Dracula, and Arturo Dominici is perfect realized as a live incarnation of said painting.
Horror is not just madmen slashing away at nubile young women, but the tense atmosphere created by the dark forces at work. The resurrection of Javutic is just one example. And the scene where the Prince of Vajda notices the change in the painting and sees the mask appear in his hot toddy is accompanied by dramatic music, most of which is chilling. However, in scenes between Andrei and Katya, some romantic Rachmaninoff-sounding piano comes on cue.
Black Sunday really set the stage for effective horror films. It's full of scary effects: eerie wind blowing, a thunderstorm with lightning, invisible forces at work, secret passages, vampires with claws, and realistic corpses. And its being shot in black-and-white gives a boost to the cinematography and lighting.
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on May 8, 2002
The incredibly photogenic original Goth queen, Barbara Steele, couldn't have asked for a better film debut than this atmospheric black-and-white classic by famed director Mario Bava. She gets to play both the innocent and beautiful ingenue Katya, and Katya's evil twin ancestor, the diabolical witch, Asa.
Steele's performance is half the reason to watch this conventional black magic/ghost/vampire tale, the other half being Bava's cinematography and skillful direction. This is an especially violent film, opening on the execution of Asa and her evil manservant, Javuto, by the nailing of spiked devil masks to their faces (the original title of the film was Mask of Satan). The visuals in this, and all other, scenes in the film are archetypally perfect. The actual framing and composition of each shot is beautifully done, throughout. The scenery is lush, the makeups unsettling - especially the resurrected Asa, with the holes in her face from the mask - and many of the effects are equally disturbing, especially one in which Asa's naked ribcage is exposed.
European horror cinema of the 1960s was the best the genre ever produced, and this was one of its premiere features. Highly recommended not only for horror fans, but for serious film students as well.
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on March 18, 2002
This film was made in 1961 which featured the british horror queen Barbara steel.. and the story was based on the short Vampire story from the classical russian author Nikolaj Gogol 19th century. The film told us that the story of the Witchmaster and his girl friend princess ASHA from Moldavian eastern europe were burned in the 16 th century but 300 years later they came back from the grave to revenge their death.
Mario Brava was a very good italian director especially in the horror films during the 60's. Thats why I said that the old italian or british hammer horror films
were much much better than the hollywood cheap modern scray tales. I said well the old british and italian horror films are much better than the modern
hollywodd one, because the stories had a full classical literary meaning and the interpretation was absolutely excellent, which the modern Hollywood scarry
films are not interrested in it.
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on June 27, 2000
In 1960 Mario Bava directed his first and best film,La maschera del demonio(The Mask of Satan)In North America it was released as Black Sunday.The story concerns a 17th century princess who is executed for witchcraft & vampirism.Two centuries later she is accidently resurected by doctors on the way to a medical convention.The witch(Barbera Steele)kills one of the doctors & makes him a slave of Satan.She wants the body & soul of her look-alike ancestor(Steele) & must destoy Dr.Andre (John Richardson) to get it.This is a true horror movie with a gothic atmosphere that Bava's later color films lacked.Also this is the widescreen European version which is superior to the US release.Errie music along with scenes cut from the American version make it so.The only downside is the bad dubbing and occasional ticks in the film (The US version uses Steele & Richardson to dub their lines & have digitally remastered the print)
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on January 25, 2000
For years one of my best friends (JBII) spent a fortune combing the backs of horror magazines for any private collector or small time production which had this nearly forgotten classic from the early Sixties. The Gothic atmospheric quality, eerily complemented with a soundtrack equally now available, adds to the relief of this one finally being recognized to be out on the market. An overhauling of the Gogol story, "The Vij," it is the prototype of the witch-entering-the-soul-of-the-descendent story. As Princess Asa only the ravenhaired queen of Sixties' horror, Barbara Steele, could scare the hell out of us with her coming back scenes--including a mask filled with blood, scorpions, and thoroughly terrifying eyes which mean business when focused! A must see for classic horor lovers. We here in Pittsburgh loved it on "Chiller Theatre."
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on October 26, 2003
Italian director Mario Bava exploded onto the horror scene with the wonderful black and white film "Black Sunday," also known as "The Mask of Satan" (a title I prefer because it does such a better job describing the movie). This picture borrows heavily from a Nikolai Gogol short story called "The Vij," and while I am not familiar with the story, the movie succeeds fantastically at conveying a bleak atmosphere of horror. "The Mask of Satan" was Bava's official directorial debut, giving viewers a chance to see the genius that was to come from this excellent filmmaker. Bava didn't merely direct films, however. He also worked on all aspects of movie making during his long career. The director even helped his son cut his teeth in the business immediately before his death in 1980. Fans will miss Bava terribly after viewing just a few of his films, as he was one of those rare Italian horror directors who could truly deliver the goods.
"Black Sunday," set in Romania, opens at an unspecified date in the seventeenth century. Some of the local nobles decide to get together and roast a couple of Satan's followers, but this barbecue bears a special meaning for the House of Vajda because one of its own is on the spit. The beautiful Princess Asa Vajda fell under the evil spell of the dark one, along with her unseemly lover Javutich, and both now face a painful execution. In order to insure that these two sullied creatures wear the mark of their crimes, Asa's own brother orders a metal mask of Satan nailed to their faces. Unfortunately for the Vajda family, Asa casts a curse on the family immediately before her execution, promising to come back from the dead and plague her relatives throughout the centuries. After carrying out this sordid task, the people present attempt to burn the corpses, but a rainstorm conveniently whips up and prevents the destruction of the bodies of these two satanic worshippers. In order to rid themselves of the bodies, the House of Vajda orders Asa interred in the family crypt with a few conditions: a glass pane and a cross must be placed on the sarcophagus in order to keep Asa firmly in her coffin. Javutich's corpse doesn't fare as well; his body ends up in a grave in the cemetery. All's well that end's well after this incident, as Asa and Javutich waste away the centuries in their tombs.
Flash forward two hundred years. Two doctors traveling to a medical conference stumble upon the decaying Vajda crypt. In a fit of scientific defiance to peasant tradition, one of the doctors named Kruvajan bumbles around Asa's coffin and causes some damage to it. From this point on, Bava takes his viewers on a roller coaster ride of creepy imagery, walking corpses, vampiric transformations, and oppressive atmosphere rarely seen in even the best of horror films. As the horror of "The Mask of Satan" unfolds, we meet the various characters who will play witness to the resuscitated curse on the House of Vajda: Doctor Gorobec, the young, heroic companion of Kruvajan destined to save the day; Katia Vajda, the present princess of Vajda; and her fearful father and brother. Katia's father knows about the curse of Asa, and he spends a significant portion of his time worrying about it. Moreover, several people remark on the amazing resemblance between Asa and Katia Vajda as seen in an old portrait of the Satan worshipping princess. Does this similarity have anything to do with the Asa's seemingly renewed deathbed curse? Probably, and the fun comes from watching it unfold through Bava's masterful use of cinematography, sets, atmosphere, sound effects, and gruesome special effects.
That Universal horror films influenced "The Mask of Satan" is so obvious it really doesn't need mentioning in the editorial review on this site. Throughout the movie, I continually recognized these similarities. Perhaps the surprising revelation here is that Bava's film is markedly better than many of the influences he supposedly borrowed from. Check out the coach moving through the forest in complete silence, or the trip Javutich and the doctor take through the castle. These are superb effects accomplished without the benefit of CGI or fancy prosthetics. Additionally, every movement of each character seems choreographed for maximum creepy effect. I kept wondering how Bava managed to get his actors to move so SLOWLY while making it look so natural. Special mention goes to the eerily effective Barbara Steele, the actress who plays both Asa and Katia. I wouldn't go as far as a few horror fans and say that this woman is drop dead gorgeous, but she is pretty and the make-up effects used on her face give her a ultra creepy appearance when she is playing Asa. I could go on and on about the things I liked in this movie. Everything works masterfully, giving "The Mask of Satan" a classic feel right from the start.
The DVD version of the film I watched carries a "Special Edition" label, meaning that you get a Mario Bava biography and filmography, a trailer, a photo and poster gallery, and a commentary by Bava historian Tim Lucas. The package claims this is the uncut version of the film, always a good thing when you decide to watch a horror movie. Mario Bava went on to make a slew of films in a wide range of genres, but so far "The Mask of Satan" has been my most satisfying experience with this director. With Halloween right around the corner, this film would nicely fit the bill for a home horror movie marathon.
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