Director – Mario Bava
Cast – Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Enrico Olivieri, Antonio Pierfederici
Release Year – 1960
Reviewed by John of the Dead
His first credited directorial effort, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday is often mentioned as one of the best horror films of all time and of the 1960s, coming from one of horror’s greatest directors. An epic in storytelling and direction, this witch-themed experience is heavy in the atmosphere Bava is known for, and with engaging elements of all sorts this makes for a film that lives up to its tremendous reputation.
When Katia Vadja(Barbara Steele) and her lover Javuto are convicted of witchcraft in the year 1630, she vows to return from the grave one day and achieve vengeance against the descendants of her executioners – before suffering death via an iron mask nailed onto her face. When traveling doctors en route to a medical conference stumble upon Katia’s tomb the unknowingly unleash her from what should have been eternal slumber, she seeks to destroy her killers’ ancestors as promised by possessing the body of one of her own look-alike descendants, Princes Asa Vadja(Barbara Steele – lulz Bava).
Based on Nikolaj Gogol’s short story “The Viy”, this screenplay, adapted by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei, is a well-paced experience with plenty of character play, twists and turns, and most importantly…good horror. It’s not a new tactic for a condemned person to be resurrected from the dead and exact revenge on those who they felt wronged them, but this idea is used to full potential as we follow Katia’s vengeance-fueled quest to drink Asa’s blood and deceive those she is targeting. I enjoyed that there were numerous main protagonists in this film, and despite them all sharing screentime and attention I did not feel that any of them were not used properly or simply wasted characters – each provided their own positives and helped move the story. The horror provided is great, beginning with the awesome opening sequence where we watch first-hand as Katia and Javuto have iron masks nailed onto their faces, followed by numerous deaths brought on by the deceiving Katia and brooding Javuto, all winding up to a powerful climax heavy on the horror in the same vein as the opening act.
Mario Bava does a fantastic job in what was initially his first credited feature film, giving us the same fantastic atmosphere that later developed him into possibly the most influential horror director of all time, and a master in the art of atmosphere. Shown in black and white, Bava makes use of engaging sets and near-perfect lighting to provide a high level of visual enjoyment; visual enjoyment that also happened to consist of some darn good horror. The kill sequences were enjoyable and shot in a fairly shocking (for the time) full-frontal fashion that I heavily respect Bava for employing, and with great performances from all of the actors involved (including Barbara Steele as both Katia and Asa) Bava completes his early masterpiece of horror in incredible fashion.
Overall, Black Sunday is a horror epic from one of the genre’s most influential filmmakers that gives us a fantastic story bettered by incredible direction. Bava shows that at the inception of his directing career he had the necessary qualities to deliver good horror – qualities he possessed for nearly three decades.