Today: February 22, 2024

Black Sunday

Given the weird combination of industrialised torture and distasteful nostalgia that plagues contemporary horror, it is easy to forget that the roots of the genre lie not in grimy power tools and terrified hipsters but in the decaying castles, guttering candles and ancient curses of gothic literature.

Given the weird combination of industrialised torture and distasteful nostalgia
that plagues contemporary horror, it is easy to forget that the roots of the
genre lie not in grimy power tools and terrified hipsters but in the decaying
castles, guttering candles and ancient curses of gothic literature.
Made in
1960 and inspired as much by the gothic imagery of the Universal monster movies
as by the blood-drenched spectacle of the more contemporary Hammer films, Mario Brava’s first film Black Sunday is a welcome reminder of quite
how effective gothic tropes can be when they are put to use by a talented and
visionary director.

The film is set in Moldavia where
two aristocratic doctors stumble into a ruined chapel. Inside the chapel is a
tomb containing the remains of Asa Vajda (Barbara
Steele
), a 17th Century noblewoman who was executed for the
crimes of incest and Satanism. Displaying the sort of high-handed disrespect
for the beliefs of others that would make even Richard Dawkins blush, the older
of the two doctors (Andrea Checchi)
desecrates the noblewoman’s tomb and destroys the wards imprisoning her
restless spirit. Free for the first time in centuries, Asa seduces the old
doctor and uses him to elbow her way into the life of her distant descendent
and doppelganger Katia. Inspired by Katia’s beauty, the younger of the two
doctors (John Richardson) sets aside
his scientific education and teams up with a wild-eyed priest to defend the
woman he loves and expose the sordid secrets of the Vajda clan.

The tone of Black Sunday is set by an
absolutely magnificent opening scene in which gleaming muscular executioners
burn the flesh of a witch and then hammer a bronze mask onto her face while a
hooded inquisitor rants on and on about perdition and criminality amidst
screams and jets of blood. Shot on what is evidently quite a small and
cliché-ridden set, Bava sends his camera scurrying round rotting trees and
through the eyeholes of a mask in a way that perfectly captures the weight of
an immense darkness struggling to get in. Despite coming from two very
different cinematic eras, the brutality of the violence and the dark
romanticism of the sets complement each other in a way that is often entirely
absent in films of this era.

Many period horror films such as
Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein attempted
to improve upon traditional Hollywood gothic by shooting in colour and making
use of the Technicolor reds made famous by Powell
and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. The problem is that
while these vibrant reds looked amazing when spilling from someone’s throat,
they looked absolutely nothing like the colour of real blood. Combine this
cartoonish hyper-realism with the fact that the aggressive lighting required by
Technicolor cameras made it almost impossible to shoot a dark film and it is
easy to see why the movement into colour collapsed 1930s Hollywood gothic into
the camp silliness of Hammer horror.

Bava’s Black Sunday treads a
similar path to Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher and Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast in that it conjures up a world in which modern
sensibilities are entirely out of place and where morbid fears and demented
prejudices rise up and assume terrifying forms. The extraordinary thing about
this film is that, despite being over fifty years old and alluding to films
that are pushing ninety, it makes all of these antiquated images and symbols
feel as young and beautiful as the witch herself.

Released as part of a limited
edition Dual-Format run, Arrow Films’ Black Sunday comes with an alternate cut
of the film, a compelling introduction and an absolutely fascinating commentary
track. Also included is the first sound-era Italian horror film I Vampiri, a film that Bava took over
when its original director walked off set. While I Vampiri itself is only
so-so, the decision to include it in on the disc is inspired as the
contemporary setting and procedural plotting makes you appreciate Black
Sunday’s luxuriant style just that little bit more.

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