Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Black Sunday (1960): Bava's Awesomeness, Let Me Show You It


My dear friends, it is I, the Duke of DVD, and as most of you probably already know, my love for Italian horror is only eclipsed by my love for poncy hats. No one, I'm sure you'll all agree, puts the "Italia" in Italian horror like the great Mario Bava, a cinematographer turned director whose first film is our subject of discussion today. Every single gothic horror movie made after 1960 owes its lifeblood to this cinematic epic, and to complete a viewing is to sit in stunned awe, basking in the glory that is one of horror's pillars.

I must provide a warning here, however: This movie contains lots of talk about burning witches, outfitting witch faces with spiked masks, and the ill treatment of witches in general. If you or one of your loved ones are currently in the employ of Satan, you might find this content objectionable. We at MMMMad Movies apologize in advance and wish to remind you that sometimes art has to be cruel to be kind.

With that out of the way, let us explore, shall we?

Black Sunday opens with a spectacular witch trial. I say "trial" but what I really mean is a good ol' fashioned witch burning. A group of hooded, torch-bearing folks listen to a local noble as he denounces a raven-haired beauty tied to a pole. Lets get this out of the way:Barbara Steele is stunning. STUNNING, I say! We soon find out that it is her own brother that is condemning her for Satanic practices, along with her cohort, who is already dead via "Mask of Satan"ing.

An early publicity still from a Sunn O))) concert.

The witch is a princess, it turns out, named Asa Vajda. She spits a curse back at her brother, crying out: "You will never escape my hunger, nor that of Satan!" From my understanding, Satan prefers gluten-free products due to an allergy. He also likes his witches saucy, and Steele is muy caliente, to be sure.

Basically, the "Mask of Satan" is an iron mask wrought to resemble the Vicar's visage as he rolls out of bed in the mornings after a particularly epic bender. The inside of the mask is studded with 3-inch long spikes. Luckily for us, Bava pulls no punches and we get to see the Mask applied. First, it is fitted onto the struggling witch's face and then a large, shirtless executioner-type dude wielding a mallet the size of a tree trunk walks up and hammers it onto her face, causing instant death.

"Miss, please be still, this Avon Age-Defying Mask(tm) has to be properly applied."

Just to be double sure, the princess is dragged over to a large pyre. As soon as torches are touched to the wood, though, a mysterious downpour occurs, causing the superstitious villagers to flee, the fools! Don't they realize what they are doing?! You can't leave a witch unburned! At any rate, they are at least wise enough to bury her in the family crypt inside a sarcophagus that has a window in the lid, where her masked corpse is forced to stare at a stone cross fashioned out of the top of the coffin lid. At least they get something right!

We then jump 200 years into the future. The stately Doctor Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Doctor Andre (played by the dashingly handsome John Richardson) are traveling via horse-drawn coach to a lecture. Their alcoholic driver is highly nervous and is attempting to cross the foul land as fast as he can. Suddenly, they all pay for his haste when the carriage gets stuck on a fallen tree! The two doctors decide to investigate their surroundings while the driver works to free the vehicle.

"Boris, you fucking clod, hurry up and call AAA."

Soon they hear a mournful howl, which appears to be coming from the ruins of an old church. Going to investigate, they discover that the howling is the work of some old pipe organ pipes. Knocking them down, the older Dr. Kruvajan shows he's not afraid of no ghost. They see an open door leading down into the sub-level of the ruins, so they investigate further. Naturally, it's the crypt of the witch!

"Look Andre, with this handy window we can watch the maggots feast. Andre? Where are you going?"

The two of them gaze through the glass on the coffin, talking with each other about the customs of how this witch was treated, clucking their tongues at the barbarity of it all. Dr. Andre leaves his elder as he goes back to check on the driver's progress with the coach. As soon as he's gone, Dr. Kruvajan is assaulted by a bat the size of a bull mastiff! Beating it with his cane, he fends it off before finally shooting it. It falls on the sarcophagus, where a final blow from the Doctor's cane busts the stone cross on top of the lid. Oh dear...

Mario Bava Presents: The World's Dustiest Bat

Pieces of the cross fall and break the glass window, to boot. The doctor reaches inside the coffin to retrieve a painted triptych he sees inside, cutting himself on the glass in the process. Stupidly, the doctor also unmasks the corpse, his curiosity getting the best of him I guess. Something tells me this sequence of events is about to cause people problems. In fact, this might be best expressed with a Bava tribute haiku:

Busted cross breaks glass
Cut hand drips blood in eye-hole
Satan's bride rises!

The doctor, not realizing his grave error (ba-dump--The Vicar), leaves. Outside, the two doctors meet the local princess, the beautiful Katia (also played by Barbara Steele). She's out walking the dogs. The young doc Andre is smitten instantly, as are we all. After a brief conversation, the doctors are on their way, and young Andre leans out of the window to watch Katia fade into the distance. We then cut back into the interior of the stone sarcophagus and see that bubbling blood and maggots are swarming in the empty eye sockets of the now-unmasked witch!

The Cursed Cemetery: Satanic Grotto and Dog-Run

Next we see Katia at home, playing the piano as her brother stands by polishing a hunting rifle. Nearby her father sits before a roaring fire. A suddenly howling in the distance frightens them all, and her father realizes that a painting of the Princess Asa has changed to incorporate more evil. It turns out these are direct descendants, naturally, of the burned witch and her partner, whose painting also hangs in the family room. I normally don't question people's decoration decisions, but whaaaaa?!

"My god, Duke, that'll never fit in my... uh, let's try anyway."

The father tells us all a story about how exactly one century to the day after Princess Asa was buried, a descendant of hers that resembled her died horribly. And now, one century after that, Katia (who also resembles her, natch) is in grave danger. This is a cause for concern by all, obviously.

We then cut to a rowdy tavern, where the good doc and his protege are enjoying the local vodka. A young girl is being ordered by her innkeeper mother to go milk the cow (in the dead of night, wtf?). Obviously the girl is reticent so her mother turns to the elder Dr. Kruvajan and asks for his opinion. Turns out the girl is afraid because the barn is next to a cemetery (!). The doctor reassures the girl, saying the line that will no doubt come back to haunt him: "We shouldn't be afraid of the dead."

While the girl is milking the cow, who is obviously cranky at being woken up for a midnight udder-tug, a deep fog rolls into the graveyard. We see the witch issue the command "RISE!" and up comes her masked Satanic partner, who rips off his mask with his graveyard-mud-soaked gloves and heads off into the woods, oddly enough not pausing to kill the milk maid.

"Oh, hi, uh, is this the tryouts for Man in the Iron Mask 2: Get Maskier?"

Instead, he heads straight to the castle and tries to kill the king (at least I assume he's king), but fails when at the last second the king produces a cruciform, driving the ghostly Satan worshiper away with the power of JAYZUS. Knowing that the king is protected, the Satanic minion goes after Dr. Kruvajan instead, rumbling up out of nowhere in a badass black carriage.

This is pretty much the most awesome shot in any movie, ever, that doesn't feature Paul Naschy.

He whisks the doctor away to the castle and leads him through a secret passage behind the fireplace which leads down into the crypt, which is underneath the church ruins nearby. The witch, still manipulating things from within her stone sarcophagus, finally begins to rise as the doctor tries to flee, in vain. The stone shatters, and the witch is free!

She immediately hypnotizes the good doctor, forcing him to walk over and give her a lingering kiss. I'm afraid I wouldn't have needed any hypnosis. Meanwhile, the king is sweaty with fever, writhing in bed. The good Katia and the prince try to care for him, all to no avail. Suddenly, the doctor comes in, walking like a zombie (no doubt still numb from making out with a 200 year old heretic), and asks the youngsters to leave so that he may care for the king. As soon as they are gone, he gives him the stare of death, literally.

Meanwhile, the Satanic assistant collaborates with his newly awakened mistress. The plan, as it were, is to bring the young Katia down to yon crypt so that the witch can suck the life from her. Elsewhere, Dr. Andre is waking up from too much vodka to find the professor is gone. He learns from the innkeeper that the good doc went to the castle to care for the ailing king. Andre sallies forth into the dawn!

As Andre is passing by on horse on his way to the castle, he sees the young milk maid washing clothes in a fetid river. After he goes on his merry way after receiving directions from her, she notices a pox-ridden body floating near the shore. It's Boris, the hapless coach driver! Poor Boris, done in by Satanic forces no doubt!

Andre arrives at the castle, only to run into the zombified Doc, who speaks cryptically until Andre pulls the triptych from his bag, causing the doctor to flee in a panic. Andre and the young brother scour the castle, eventually finding the secret passage behind the fireplace. Going down to investigate, they discover the witch, freed from her tomb, now apparently breathing and regaining life! Andre runs off to find the local priest, leaving the brother alone with the witch.

"Here, let me help you with this top button..."

He's not alone for long, however, when suddenly the Satanic minion arrives and a rousing bout of fisticuffs ensues, culminating in the brother getting tossed into a handy trapdoor pit, complete with spikes at the bottom. Meanwhile, Andre with priest in tow head to the graveyard and find the opened grave, and the Mask of Satan that the minion tossed aside. Choice line from the priest: "Sometimes Satan, in his capacity for evil, plays tricks with the dead!"

"Thank you for the birthday card, but why is it addressed to Father Grizzly Adams?"

In another nearby grave they find the body of the poor doctor Kruvajan and drive a spike into his eye-socket, presumably preventing any further reanimation. The two then race back to the castle as the Satanic minion drags Katia down to the crypt. The witch visibly drains her life, causing the witch's own face to look fantastic while ravaging the face of poor young Katia. Bava uses some killer camera work here, in one frame showing both people played by Steele at the same time. Amazingly groundbreaking stuff.

"Hmm, you know, I could make out with myself..."

Andre arrives just in the nick of time, but the Satanic minion is having no interruptions. Fisticuffs ensue yet again, the two going at it like a couple of prize pugilists. The trapdoor pit once again comes into play, but before the minion can shove Andre into it, a not-so-dead brother comes flying up out of the pit, high enough to grab the minion and pull him down to his doom. The brother then expires in Andre's arms, the poor thing was just tuckered out.

Back in the village, a posse is roused, presumed by me to be heading to Broadway, but no! They instead head to the castle, torches in hand. The witch is once again dragged off toward a hastily-erected pyre. Andre, though, is in mourning. They were too late to save poor Katia, whom he is in lust with. As the flames begin to flicker around the witch, it seems all is not lost yet. Katia breathes!

Just a good ol' fashioned witch burnin' and weenie roast.

In the end, dispatching the witch with the purifying fire of JAYZUS cured everyone's ills. Note to self: Applying a Mask of Satan is not enough; burn any and all witches. Andre and Katia kiss. Fin.

I would try to talk about Bava's opus here but I fear I would run out of superlatives. Suffice it to say that this movie, shot entirely in black & white, is beyond beautiful. It holds up just as well today as it did in 1960, and is simply stunning. Bava uses composition like no other, and his work in this film is still being felt today.

The acting is fantastic as well, and no person does it better than Barbara Steele. Playing two roles, each completely different from the other, she shines like a star. Every single scene she's in the eye just gravitates to her, and Bava's camera obviously loved her. The others as well, especially Andre, carry out their roles with enthusiasm and skill. The crew was definitely firing on all cylinders, that's for sure.

The special effects, also, were superb. From the opening application by mallet of the Mask of Satan to the nail being driven into Dr. Krujavan's eye socket, everything was wrought in disgusting detail, and the camera wouldn't let us flinch away. Bava basically holds your head in a vise-like grip, forcing you with his unyielding, grave-cold hands to watch what he wants you to watch. We love this, oh yes we do.

In the end, how can I give this film anything else than the highest of honors: 3+ Thumbs Up. Any reader of his blog who doesn't have this film in their collection is truly missing a gem.

4 comments:

Planet of Terror said...

Hands down, one of the most beautifully shot films ever committed to celluloid. Excellent review.

Geo said...

Oh Duke, bless your most benevolent heart for this review. It’s a wonder the poor organ hasn’t exploded from your bosom with your munificence. Please consider a visit to the cardiologist poste-haste, for surely mortal flesh isn’t suited for such grandiosity.
Mario Bava is the Mac Daddy of European horror directors, and I count this film as his greatest achievement. Every scene -- nearly every composition, every camera movement, every artful lighting effect -- is a delicious treat. What I so respect about the man, and what is so evidenced in all his works but I think especially here, is that he was a craftsman who’d mastered many of the filmmaking trades -- camera, lighting, effects, art direction, set design, editing, etc., etc. And man, he put it ALL together for this one. I count it equal to the greatest of horror films, "The Bride of Frankenstein", "The Wicker Man", “Night of the Living Dead”, and others of that rare ilk.
It’s one of those films you can slip in the DVD player once or twice a year, and not just gain an appreciation of some facet with each repeated viewing, but experience an appeal that doesn’t diminish with familiarity. Even looking at your screen grabs here (and I’m sure I’ve seen the film a half-dozen times in the last 3 years) is a delight.
Then there's Ms. Steele...
Has any straight male ever watched the witch Asa awakening in her tomb -- her cold, refined beauty ravaged with the gore-holes from the spiked iron mask -- and not felt the most unsettling inner-churnings of simultaneous desire and revulsion? Take a poll -- every truthful guy out there would admit, “Yeah, I’d hit that anyway.”
Thank you again for the review, dear Duke. A trifling suggestion, but your final line could be amended to say that, "Any reader of this blog who doesn't have this film in their collection is not at all MMMMad, but sincerely mad."

prof. grewbeard said...

i can really tell you really like this movie, but i can really relate! a passionate review indeed...

MarkusWelby1 said...

I agree that this is absolutely must own. Perhaps one of the greatest zombie rising from the grave scenes in all of cinema in my humble opinion. I try and recommend this to all who appreciate fine horror.

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