Friday, November 2, 2007

black sunday, by mario bava

Unscrambled decided to follow up last week's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with Mario Bava's 1960 horror film Black Sunday (also known as The Mask of Satan). Both deal with women accused of being in league with Satan, although they represent, uh, pretty different takes on the material. Lead actress Barbara Steel(e) plays the condemned Princess Asa, and, like Renee Falconetti's Joan, she's pretty striking-looking:

But when Joan's captors make their accusations, she turns the tables on them, claiming that they're the ones who are agents of the devil, sent in order to test her faith. Impolitic? To be sure. But then we have Princess Asa's response:—"Go ahead. Tie me down to the stake. But you will never escape my hunger nor that of Satan! The unchained elements of the powers of darkness are lying in ambush ... My revenge will strike down you and your accursed house. And in the blood of your sons and the sons of their sons I will continue to live, immortal!"—which makes Joan, by contrast, seem pretty much like, well, a saint. End of comparison!

The purple dialogue should give you some sense of the level of subtlety going on in Black Sunday's script, and there are a lot of ways in which this film is pretty much a piece of schlock. But I can also see why Bava generates so much adoration among aficionados of horror. For one thing, he's clearly the torch-bearer of a certain kind of dark ambience: the film's moody Gothic effects can be traced straight back to the the Universal horror films of the 1930s (and from there back to the German Expressionists). And as far as torch-bearers go, Bava's a pretty good one. He's got a real eye for creepy crypts:

And spooky woods:

And foreboding castles:

which are loaded with shit like with huge fireplaces with secret passages back behind them:

Etcetera. This kind of stuff lost a little bit of its cinematic force once Young Frankenstein (1974) came along and lethally parodied it, but Bava's not at a complete disadvantage: he's operating at a real transitional point between two types of horror. This is an early film (his first), and it's definitely a catalogue of old-fashioned High Gothic effects, but it's worth remembering that Bava is going to go on (along with Fulci and Argento) to be one of the influential Italian giallo directors, who are essentially going to invent the tropes of contemporary gore and slasher movies. And there are hints of that here: Black Sunday is a considerably nastier film than its forebearers were. There are some grisly proto-gore bits during Princess Asa's trial, and the film often lingers on the wet grue and muck of human decay. It's not a zombie movie, exactly, but people do rise from the grave in rather ghoulish fashion. Remember that these shots predate 1968's Night of the Living Dead by a comfortable margin:

As the linkage between two discrete modes of horror, Bava's an interesting enough figure, but the really unique (or, more likely, uniquely Italian) touch is the explicit eroticization of the grotesque. Princess Asa's resurrection is witnessed by a hapless academic; he finds her on a stone slab, writhing, breasts heaving:

His reaction, naturally, is to go for it:

He may be mystically compelled, but he might simply be taking his one shot to make it with an undead Satanic princess. This is the kind of sequence that if you watched it around the time of your sexual awakening it would fuck you up forever. Thumbs up!

Writeups from Unscrambled and Skunkcabbage are forthcoming. Next week: Blood for Dracula (1974), made by Warhol's protege Paul Morrissey.

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