This is my first exposure to the work of Mario Bava, but based on Black Sunday, I need to start seeking out his other films right quick. The Italian horror master's 1960 debut is stylish and spooky, a little bit sexy and a little bit scary, the right combination for a ghouls and witches story.
Black Sunday opens in the late 17th Century, as the Vajda family burns one of their own, alongside her lover, for being a minion of Satan. It's a gruesome death. A metal demon's mask is nailed to their faces before they are burned, so that anyone who looks upon their corpses will know why they have died. Unsurprisingly, the devilish lovers drop a devilish curse on the Vajda family for this indignity. No matter how long it takes, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and Javuto (Ivo Garrani) will have their revenge.
Jump ahead 200 years, and the traveling Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant Andre (John Richardson) urge their coachmen to hurry them to their destination. Despite his warnings that the way they have chosen for him will take them through treacherous and mysterious territory, they take that path anyway. The coach throws a wheel just outside a rundown cathedral. While they wait for the driver to fix their ride, the two learned men explore the ruins, discovering it is actually a mausoleum, and uncovering the witch's grave. When a bat attacks Kruvajan, he accidentally breaks the seal on her casket, unwittingly unleashing the curse. People will soon start dying in increasingly macabre manners.
The Princess' ancestors still live in their family home. This includes her doppelganger, the dark and lovely Katia. Barbara Steele, with her large eyes and sharp features, has a face made for ghost stories, and her performance as both the innocent girl and the avenging spirit works both sides of the equation perfectly. The dual role has the interesting effect of making it so we never trust Katia, while we also have a strange sympathy for Asa. After all, regardless of what the witch was dabbling in, the root of her evildoings was love. Javuto, devoted even beyond the grave, has traversed the years to protect her from any that might prevent her resurrection. And, of course, there are sparks between Katia and Andre. It's no surprise that his affection will prove more powerful than crucifixes and spells, and it's fitting that in the climax, not only does he wrestle with Javuto over a pit of despair (both literal and metaphorical), but he must decide which Barbara Steele is the one who stole his heart. (Random Thought: Since we're talking romance and fate, I am surprised that Javuto and Andre weren't doubles, as well; it'd have been neat to see the stiff-backed Richardson playing an evil twin.)
Black Sunday, which is alternately known as The Mask of Satan, was loosely based on a story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Bava uses these classical origins to build a foundation of respectability, only to crack it open and show the lurid drama that lays just underneath. Though arguably tame by today's standards, the way the director works around the restrictions of the era actually makes those details--the dripping blood, the heaving breasts--all the more salacious. As any horror fan can tell you, suggestion is almost always more effective than direct expression, the unseen is scarier than the seen, what is hinted at more unnerving than what is explicit. Bava and Ubaldo Terzano share director-of-photography credit, and their black-and-white images are gorgeously staged. Dark and stormy skies allow for creeping shadows, and an unknowable emptiness lurks around every corner. Evil could be hiding anywhere.