Black Sunday (Kino Lorber, NR)

Black sunday_75The truth is, Black Sunday doesn’t get many points for originality of plot, but Bava’s secure command of the cinematic image more than carries the day.

 

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Mario Bava was a cinematographer before he became a director, and it really shows in his work. Visuals are central to the effect of his films, while other elements like the script tended to get short shrift. Fortunately, a horror movie can succeed on visuals and atmosphere alone, and a case in point is Bava’s first movie as a director, Black Sunday, for which he also served as cinematographer.

Black Sunday opens with a bang, Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and her boyfriend Javuto (Arturo Dominici), along with a number of other Satan worshippers, are being tortured by people in black hooded robes. To be specific, the black-robed ones nail spiked masks to their victims’ faces while a silly voiceover tells us that those being executed are in fact vampires. Okay, all evils are the same in the dark…or something like that.

Jump forward two hundred years, and a coach carrying two physicians, Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), is hurtling through the Central European countryside. They’re in a hurry and bribe the coachman to take a shortcut, with predictable results. A wheel on the carriage is broken, and while it is being repaired, the learned gentlemen wander into a ruined church nearby. Kruvajan disturbs Asa’s tomb by accident while fending off a large bat, and drips some of his blood onto her face, which brings her back to life, although not immediately.

A striking young woman, Katia Vajda (also Steele), lives nearby in a castle which the local folk believe is haunted. It’s certainly full of impressive family portraits, including one that looks just like Katia. Javuto is also awakened from his grave, and things don’t go well for the humans in their vicinity for awhile. The truth is, Black Sunday doesn’t get many points for originality of plot, but Bava’s secure command of the cinematic image more than carries the day. Black Sunday frequently looks like something Val Lewton might have produced—all shadows and unusual angles—if Lewton had had a more literal mind and had been assigned to do a vampire film.

Black Sunday was banned in several countries, including the UK, upon first release (1960), and even in the America International Pictures version presented here it includes some serious nightmare fuel images. (It’s also been dubbed, not very well, into English, and has a different soundtrack than the Italian release.) For all that, while watching it, my dominant reaction was to admire Bava’s cinematography, rather than to be frightened. Rather surprisingly, there’s not much sexual innuendo (a blouse does get ripped, but not to much effect), but perhaps that got lost in the re-editing. Anyway, it holds up well to viewing today, and is essential viewing if you care about the history of horror movies.

This is a re-mastered version of Black Sunday as recut by American International Pictures and represents what American audiences saw when this film was first released in the United States. It is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, who released the Italian version of this film on Blu-ray in 2012. The only extras on the disc are trailers for six Bava films appealing to similar tastes: Black Sunday, A Bay of Blood, Baron Blood, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Lisa and the Devil, and The Whip and the Body. I don’t usually consider trailers much of an extra (they’re basically advertising for other films), but in this case, they’re worth watching as little time capsules that capture what distributors thought would attract audience members to this type of film back in the day. | Sarah Boslaugh

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