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April 2000

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Rereleases
Black Sunday
directed by Mario Bava
distributed by Image Entertainment
[DVD]


   BLACK SUNDAY is a film that aches with nostalgia. It is also a significant entry in horror genre as well as film history itself. I can remember being 7 years old and you had to be 12 to see it in 1960. Looking back, I'm not sure I could have handled it even at 12. The nude portrait of Barbara Steele that hangs in the castle alone would probably have sent me to the Catholic confessional. How strange to remember all the crossed wires induced by the ripening sado-masochism of those times - I thought it was just my own twisted boy-mind.
   Now we can see BLACK SUNDAY in a European print that was clearly a British issue, dubbed as with the American print. This means more gore and a few extra scenes of narrative. Gone, however, is the lush Les Baxter score and it is difficult not to miss that "White House" logo (or whatever it was) that marked an American International Pictures release. Even stranger, the movie is now called MASK OF SATAN (from LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, director Mario Bava's original title) on the title card. Still, this particular print grows on you.
   If you've never seen this picture, the plot involves the centuries-later return of a witch (or maybe a vampire, it's somewhat muddled) who was burned at the stake. Also back is her demonic lover, who apparently only got the Mask of Satan, an iron maiden-like spiked mask put on the face and slammed home with a mallet. The witch, Barbara Steele, also gets the Mask, and the wounds it gives her are central to the haunting images of this film (bugs crawl out of them, for one. This is the beginning of Barbara Steele's reign as Queen of Horror. She is an actress with a unique beauty and intelligence, known primarily for her large and wide-set eyes. The American movie posters say it all with a comic book style drawing of her: brunette, with stark raving eyes like a Goth Keane painting. I'm jonesing for that poster. Also recognizable is leading man John Richardson, known later for his Hammer entries SHE (with Ursula Andress) and ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. (with Raquel Welch). For an obscure leading man, he did pretty well.
   The greatest interest, to me, is the addition of a commentary by Video Watchdog's editor-publisher Tim Lucas. Lucas knows his Bava and certainly knows this film - it 's one of the best commentaries I've heard, rife with anecdotal detail and mise-en-scene perception. I had already been aware that Bava produced some remarkable and inventive shots (he was his own cameraman), but without the sound his style completely comes to life. Lucas makes sure you miss nothing. The movie is an atmospheric black and white, with Bava as a sort of horror Welles/Fuller, and I don't make those comparisons lightly. I will not pretend that some of the leaden dubbing and confused, plodding story line can't make B tedious, but stepping out of these aspects with Lucas, one can see what makes this film so remarkable. Inventive dollies, cranes and lighting are everywhere: a magnificent 360 degree pan in Steele's crypt; a dizzying cork screw down on the vampirized Baron in bed; an almost Kurosawa/THRONE OF BLOOD-like image of Steele's ghostly reflection appearing in a pond at night. Lucas further enlightens us on how certain chilling effects were achieved out of bargain basement solutions.
   Whether it's your first time or a re-visit, check it out. Further Bava material is in the works, but I'm really hoping for PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and his ghosted CALTIKI.

Marc Olmsted


 


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