Mario Bava is an Italian Director who is often accredited as one of the OG’s of modern horror cinema. He always had grand, fantastical stories that were showcased in some of the most lived-in and fleshed out sets ever seen in a horror film. They were usually reminiscent of the original Gothic Universal Picture styles, while still adding in that classic Italian style we’ve come to love. He has an ingenious eye to put what he wants the viewer to feel on screen.
“Black Sunday”, AKA “La Maschera del Demonio” begins as we see a whole crowd of people in black hoods as they ride through a storm carrying torches. They are taking an accused local witch and her lover to the stake to be tried and slain. They are her own family who are accusing the two of them for sorcery, vampirism, and murder. With her last words, she damns everyone and proclaims her revenge against them and their future lineage, right before getting a mask full of nails smashed onto her face and buried in a coffin that is overlooked by a cross.
Fast forward 200 years, and we follow a a professor and his assistant who stumble upon the catacomb that the witch and her servant were buried in. They are interested in finding out who this woman was and what she was stashed away for, which ends up unleashing her as she tries to steal the body of her nearest look-alike, who is a princess (and distant relative) that lives in a castle in the town nearby. Sure enough, people begin vanishing, bodies begin showing up in the river, and the royal family does not feel safe in their castle.
It’s a simple tale of revenge, hereditary curses, and nosey trespassers, but Mario Bava is not your average filmmaker. He is able to capture the ambience of the tombs and the castle in such a visually distinct way where you can practically smell the mold in the walls. While the story would be considered typical all these years later, all of the set designs, the tension, the acting, the spooky and classical musical score (which reminded me very much of ‘Creepshow’), and the absolutely lovely black and white shading make this film worth watching. It’s not the most exciting film and it sure takes its sweet time before the horror really begins to take shape, but it’s very mature and its full of admirable confidence.
I admit I’m still new to the world of Bava myself, but this was a very promising and fulfilling entry point that still has power over 60 years later. Come for the brilliant set designs and the beautifully spooky soundtrack, stay for the classy revenge and the masterful craftmanship that develops before your very eyes.
“Black Sunday” is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel & Amazon Prime.
‘Til Next Time,