BluRay/DVD Reviews

BLACK SUNDAY (La Maschera del Demonio)

By • Dec 14th, 1999 •

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Galatea-Jolly Films (Italy)
Shot at Titanus Studios from 3/20/60-4/6/60. Premiere in Rome 8/1.60. Released in USA by American -International Pictures in February 1961.


Image Entertainment has unleashed on DVD the most satanic valentine to gothic cinema ever conceived – and at least in this writer’s opinion, the greatest horror film ever made. Black Sunday is not merely equal to the best of Murnau, Whale, Freund and the classic Universal Pictures tradition, but surpasses all contenders with M.C. Escheresque visuals informed with the dark poetry of stylish sadism. Barbara Steele imbues her portrayal of the vampire/witch with a demonic majesty never before brought to the screen. Indeed, her skeletal facial features, a landscape of puncture wounds bearing forth wild, burning eyes and thick, cruel lips (promising the joys of eternal Hades) is itself the very ensign of Italian fantascienza of the Sixties.

Though most afficionados of the genre are well-acquainted with the details of its plot, a brief summary shall follow here.

The tale begins in the wilds of medieval Moldavia, a land of twisted barren trees surrounded by thick fog and ubiquitous gloom. Princess Asa of the aristocratic Vaida family and her serf, Javutich, have been found guilty of witchcraft and acts of sorcery. Both are sentenced to death at the stake by Asa’s own brother, the Grand Inquisitor. As a bronze devil’s mask lined with sharp spikes is placed up to her face, Asa curses her brother and his descendants for the centuries to follow. Scores of robed priests carrying torches observe as one massive blow from a sledgehammer strikes the mask, impaling the witch to the stake. An attempt to set the two ablaze is thwarted by the fury of a sudden nocturnal storm. The priests carry off the bodies of Asa and Javutich for burial.

Two centuries later the elder Dr. Kruvajan and his handsome young associate, Dr. Gorobec, are en route to a medical convention. Their carriage proceeds through spectral forests and breaks down in front of a ruined chapel. Inside they discover an ancient crypt with a stone tomb illuminated by moonlight. Kruvajan’s inspection of the sarcophagus reveals the body of Asa the witch still wearing the devil’s mask. A large bat flies out from the darkness and attacks the doctor. Kruvajan beats the animal to death with his cane, in the process damaging the tomb and shattering a window recessed in its lid. He wounds his hand in the fury of the moment. Drops of his blood fall into the empty eyesockets of Asa’s corpse. After the doctors exit the crypt, the blood begins to revive the cadaver.

Back at Castle Vaida the elderly prince sits in fear before the burning embers of a massive fireplace. His daughter Katia (the mirror image of her ancestor, Asa) seems rather apprehensive as she plays a melody on the piano. Her brother, Prince Constantine, notes that wolves seem to be present despite the lateness of the season. Prince Vaida, already in the grip of fear, begs his children to retire for the night, noting that this day is Black Sunday, the anniversary of the execution of Asa and Javutich, and the one day in each century when Satan walks among the living.

Back in the crypt, Asa summons her undead lover, Javutich, to rise from the grave. Fierce winds howl throughout the night skies, punctuated with thunder and lightning, responding to her otherworldly command. The earth above Javutich’s grave heaves with inexorable, supernatural force. Talons wet with the slime of the grave force their way through the dirt. The face of Javutich covered with the devil’s mask emerges. His rotting shroud falls aside as he forces the mask from his face and lumbers off into the night.

Javutich abducts Dr. Kruvajan and speeds away to Castle Vaida in a hellish frenzy. Through a secret passageway he leads the doctor to the crypt and vanishes. There he stands once again before the tomb of Asa which rumbles, shakes and finally explodes before his apoplectic eyes. Asa beckons the doctor forward and Kruvajan helplessly complies. In one of the film’s best scenes, he bends over her body and the two share a lengthy, necrophilic kiss.

The next morning, Dr. Gorobec arrives at the castle searching for Kruvajan. He receives an icy reception from Prince Constantine who informs him that Prince Vaida, despite the presence and then disappearance of the elder doctor, passed away during the night. Gorobec is taken aback in disbelief and conveys his puzzlement at Kruvajan’s peculiar behavior. Princess Katia invites Gorobec to stay overnight to assist and protect the family in its grief. Katia and Gorobec exchange romantic glances and the young doctor unhesitatingly agrees to remain within the Vaida walls.

As the royal family prepares for the funeral, Kruvajan appears in Gorobec’s bedchamber. He warns the young assistant not to meddle in the unfolding drama and flees from the room.

Gorobec & Constantine discover a secret entry to the crypt through the castle fireplace. Soon before them is the body of Asa lying on the shattered tomb breathing menacingy. Gorobec rushes off to the village seeking the assistance of the local priest. Javutich appears in the crypt and murders Constantine. The vampire then abducts Katia and presents her unconscious body to the resuscitated witch. Asa drains away Katia’s life force and transforms into the likeness of her innocent descendant.

Gorobec and the village priest arrive at the castle. The young doctor searches the palace for Katia and instead faces the enraged Javutich. A fight to the death ensues and Gorobec hurls the sorcerer into a pit filled with glistening spikes.

Gorobec then faces the bodies of Asa and Katia who now appear indistinguishable from each other. He attempts to embrace the one he believes is Katia, but her cloak slips away revealing bones covered with decay and putrescence. Gorobec gasps as the witch commands him to become her next victim, promising him “pleasures that mortals cannot know.”

The priest bursts into the crypt with a throng of villagers. They overcome the witch, bind her to a stake and set a pyre beneath her ablaze. Gorobec weeps over the lifeless body of Katia as the priest consoles him. The princess revives in Gorobec’s arms and the two share a long, romantic kiss. The film closes as the screaming and shrieking witch is engulfed in flames, thus ending her reign of terror forever.

Aside from the drop-dead gorgeous quality of the print itself, the audio commentary by Tim Lucas is superb. His ardent love of Mario Bava and true appreciation of his genius singing throughout the spoken text, one is simply overwhelmed at his encyclopedic command of facts in the creation of this masterwork. (His observations and personal vision leave us breathless for what shall follow in his work-in-progress, the long-awaited book on the career of The Maestro.)

The disc includes so many divine extras – a never-before-seen trailer for the film, a photo and poster gallery, the transcript of a deleted scene from Italian to English — leaving even the most fanatical admirer in a state of ecstasy.

However, a most noteworthy missed opportunity in this stellar effort is Barbara Steele’s participation in the audio commentary. Her Black Sunday anecdotes and insights conveyed over our many years of friendship would have ranged from the hilarious to the sublime. The presentation of the film in the beauty of its Italian language would have been a certain plus (or at least the presentation of the deleted scene from all but the indigenous print). Lastly, the inclusion of the American-International Pictures release containing the unfairly maligned Les Bexter score would have been the proverbial frosting on Miss Havisham’s cake.

This effort nonetheless merits a five-star, full-thrust knockout. Watch for Image Entertainment’s next installment in the Mario Bava Collection this April (the FIRST Italian horror film, I Vampiri (The Vampires). The following month will be the presentation of Operazione Paura (Kill, Baby, Kill!) with another audio commentary by Tim Lucas.

Barbara Steele (Princess Asa/Katia),
Arturo Dominici (Igor Javutich/Javuto),
John Richardson (Dr. Gorobec),
Ivo Garrani (Prince Vaida),
Andrea Checchi (Dr. Kruvajan),
Enrico Oliviere (Constantine).

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