Black Sunday (AKA The Mask Of Satan) marked the official directorial debut of Mario Bava, the godfather of Italian horror cinema. After years of being a cameraman (he hated being called a cinematographer, a she believed it to be a pretentious title), and doing uncredited work finishing up a myriad of low budget Italian exploitation films, he was finally granted the opportunity to make his own film. And what a film it is. So, synopsis time:
Centuries ago, a beautiful witch is sentenced to death by her brother who head up the Inquisition. Before she is executed (by means of having a large metal mask with spikes on the inside hammered onto her face) she curses her brother and his descendents, promising to enact her vengeance for his acts. Before her body can be burned to ashes, a terrible and brutal storm erupts, forcing the Inquisistion to instead inter her in the family crypt. We move forward, and 2 Drs travelling to Moscow unwittingly revive her, and she begins her terrible, bloody revenge on her brothers family.
So there we have it. The plot is pretty simple, although a few twists are thrown in along the way, such as the witch having a doppelganger in the films present. And unlike many Italian shockers that would follow the film actually has an internal logic and makes sense within its own rules.
As an example of European Gothic cinema, Black Sunday is almost without parallel. The rich, black and white cinematography creates a spooky, almost ethereal atmosphere, undoubtedly helped by Bava being his own director of photography. The mist shrouded sets conjure up images reminiscent of the finest Universal “Mittel Europe” settings, and the camera glides through shots with a skill rarely seen in Italian horror. Bava truly was a master of the visual, with each and every shot carefully composed to elicit the maximum effect and value from his relatively small budget.
The film is helped greatly by a good cast, especially the glacial beauty of Barbara Steel, in the dual role of the witch and her ancestor (a role she often hated as it lead her to be somewhat typecast, although her distaste has somewhat lessened over recent years). Indeed, many horror fans remember this film for her performance alone.
Arrow has done an outstanding job with this restoration. Presented in the package are 2 versions of the film: the original European cut entitled The Mask of Satan, and the re cut and rescored AIP American version known as Black Sunday. Both versions look about as good as they ever will, with surprisingly little print damage given how little respect these films were often treated with at the time. My personal preference is for the European cut, as this is Bavas edit.
The extras, as one expects from Arrow are substantial: You get both Blu Ray and DVD copies of the film, an entire separate film “I Vampiri” (recognised as the first Italian horror film made since Mussolini banned them when he rose to power)There is a commentary track with Bava historian Tim Lucas. An introduction by Alan Jones, an interview with Barbara Steel, trailers for the film, and a collection of trailers covering Bavas career. You also get a reversible sleeve featuring either new artwork, or some original Italian art. There is also a booklet enclosed with an all new essay on the film.
5/5 Fiends. Essential.