March 31, 2016

REVIEW: BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

I have a soft spot for classic black and white horror, but beyond Universal’s typical horror oeuvre from the 1930’s and 1940’s, I confess my knowledge is quite slim. In an effort to rectify this, I took it upon myself to lay my eyes on some of the great horror films of yesteryear from other countries. There is a lot to choose from, but for my inaugural post on delving into the world of classic foreign horror, I focused on a film that is somewhat familiar, the trailer of which I have seen over and over for several years in many of the awesome horror trailer compilation videos I had as a kid. Most of these VHS tapes came from sources like Goodtimes Home Video and others, companies that pioneered the business model of distributing iffy-at-best transfers of films that are in the public domain, like Nosferatu or Night of the Living Dead, and making them available to young, impressionable kids such as myself at the local video store.

Black Sunday is the directorial debut of one of the undisputed kings of Italian horror cinema, Mario Bava, and stars Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Arturo Dominici, and Ivo Garrani. Though the film was produced in a country some consider far freer than the United States in social standards, it garnered notice for certain depictions of violence and sensuality that made even the Italians squirm in their seats, and was actually banned in the UK until 1968. An extremely loose interpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1865 Russian horror story Viy, the film borrows certain elements but operates on an almost entirely original screenplay written by Ennio de Concini, Mario Serandrei, and Marcello Coscia, and goes by other names such as The Mask of Satan and Revenge of the Vampire.

The film opens in Moldavia in the year 1630 with the trial of a duo of witches, Asa Vajda (Steele) and her servant, Javuto (Dominici). The sentence of death is passed by her own brother, whom Asa fervently defies by promising that she will one day return to take her revenge on his descendants. A mask with huge spikes protruding from the inside is hammered to her face by a hulking man wearing an executioner’s hood with a huge mallet. Though the two are supposed to be burned at the stake, a sudden rainstorm causes the tribunal to change their plans, Javuto is buried in the graveyard with unconsecrated earth while Asa’s body is placed in the tomb of her ancestors.

Two hundred years later, Doctors Thomas Kruvajan (Checchi) and Andre Gorobec (Richardson) are on their way by means of horse-drawn carriage to a medical conference. They decide to have their driver divert through the woods to save time on their trip; the driver is reluctant to do so, as the woods are considered haunted by the locals since they are precisely the location where Asa and Javuto were put to death. Kruvajan and Gorobec laugh it off as ridiculous, and offer the driver a few coins more to make the trip. Naturally, the carriage suffers a broken wheel on the ill-kept dirt road, delaying their journey and spurring the two doctors to have a look at their surroundings while the driver frantically attempts to make the repair to the wheel.

It is not long before they come across the crumbling tomb of Asa and decide to investigate. Kruvajan is familiar with the legend of Asa and fills Gorobec in on the lore, noting that Asa’s coffin is outfitted with a glass window and a cross perched above it to keep her from rising from the dead. They hear the driver call for assistance with the broken wheel, and Gorobec heads out to assist, leaving Kruvajan in the tomb alone to continue looking around. Kruvajan is then attacked by a comically huge, bloodthirsty bat (probably the only scene in the film that killed my total suspension of disbelief), and in defending himself, accidentally knocks off the cross on top of Asa’s stone coffin and smashes the glass window, cutting himself on the glass. He then pulls out a pistol and shoots the bat, killing it.

Gorobec, hearing the commotion, races back into the tomb to help, and the two leave the tomb. On their way back to the carriage, they come face to face with Katia (Steele, in a dual role), the daughter of the nobleman (and descendant of Asa’s brother) who owns the land. Gorobec is instantly smitten with her. Although resolute in his duty to attend the medical conference with Kruvajan, he wishes he could stay and get to know Katia. The carriage beckons, now repaired, and the two doctors depart. Unbeknownst to them, the blood from Kruvajan has dripped off the shattered glass of Asa’s coffin and onto her corpse, and she begins to revive.

Later that evening, Katia is at home with her father, Prince Vajda, and her brother, Constantin. As wolves begin to howl outside, Vajda notices that the paintings of Asa and Javuto, which still hang in the great hall, have mysteriously changed in appearance. This inspires great fear in him, as he is intimately acquainted with the legend of Asa promising to return from the dead to wreak havoc on the family. He even notes that one hundred years ago, an earthquake struck the area, breaking open Asa’s tomb, as if she were trying to escape. Even worse, the princess of that time, who also bore more than a passing resemblance to Asa, died under mysterious circumstances. Vajda is told by the family’s head servant Ivan that there is protection in the cross of Christ, and that he must keep it with him at all times.

Asa, who is still reviving in her tomb, calls out to her servant Javuto, commanding him to rise from the grave. In one of the most chilling scenes of the film, Javuto slowly erupts from the ground in the graveyard and removes the mask which was nailed to his own face, and heads off into the night. He makes his way to Prince Vajda’s castle, where a terrified Vajda uses the cross to ward him off. Hearing the commotion, Constantin and Katia enter, and seeing their father in a mad fit of horror, immediately send another servant, Boris, for the doctors Katia met earlier that day. Javuto, meanwhile, finds Kruvajan, who has taken an evening stroll before turning in, and tells him that his services as a medical doctor are needed. Kruvajan leaves with Javuto. As they leave, they are witnessed by a local milk maid, the innkeeper’s daughter. Javuto takes Kruvajan to Asa’s tomb, and he is horrified to see that she is alive. As she hypnotizes him, she tells him that she needs the rest of his blood in order to continue rejuvenating. (As an aside, it should be noted here that the mythologies of witches and vampires is constantly blurred in this film from this point on; Asa is clearly a witch, but appears to have the power to drink blood and turn her victims into vampires. It is less clear if Javuto is a warlock himself, or simply some kind of vampire servant.) She then drinks his blood.

Later, Kruvajan is led to Vajda’s castle, and though Constantin and Katia are none the wiser, we (the viewers) know pretty much immediately that something is not right with him. He orders everyone to leave and get rest, saying he will stay the night with Vajda. As soon as they are gone, he moves in menacingly on the sleeping prince. The next morning, Constantin enters Katia’s room weeping, and she knows immediately that her father is dead. She rushes out to her father’s room against the bidding of her brother and finds her father’s corpse in bed, a look of terror frozen onto his dead face and two tiny puncture wounds in his neck. When the search the guest bedroom for Kruvajan, the doctor is nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, Gorobec is searching for Kruvajan back at the inn, but to no avail. He learns from the innkeeper that her daughter witnessed Kruvajan leaving late last night to tend to Prince Vajda, who had suddenly taken ill. Gorobec borrows a horse and races to the castle where he is met by Constantin and Katia, who explain the circumstances of their father’s death and Kruvajan’s strange disappearance. At the same time, a group of villagers washing their clothes in the river discover the body of Boris along the river’s bank, killed in exactly the same manner as Prince Vajda. This compels them to head to the castle, and once there the milk maid is able to identify the driver of the carriage as the man in the painting of the great hall, Javuto. Constantin invites Gorobec to stay at the castle until they solve this strange mystery. Gorobec then heads to the local parish priest, who is watching over the body of Boris, and explains everything that he has learned. While he doesn’t tell Gorobec anything just yet, it is plain from the look on his face that the priest is already beginning to piece together what is happening.

That evening, a secret passageway opens behind the fireplace and out step Javuto and Kruvajan. Javuto instructs Kruvajan to go and do Asa’s bidding, and Kruvajan stalks the castle, searching for Katia, whom Asa wants in order to attain immortality. He happens upon Gorobec, who questions him about his whereabouts for the last day. Kruvajan, seeming to have a bit of humanity left in him, pleads for Gorobec to leave so as to avoid danger. Gorobec shows Kruvajan a holy relic which causes him to retreat. Gorobec follows, but Kruvajan escapes. In front of the fire place in the great hall, Gorobec and Constantin find the two family hounds bleeding to death, their throats torn. Gorobec begins to suspect that something awful has happened to Kruvajan, and that he is responsible for the dogs’ deaths.

The next morning, Gorobec finds Katia walking the grounds of the castle alone and joins her. The two confess their love for one another. Meanwhile, Ivan heads into the great hall, he discovers that a draft from the fire place has caused the flame of a nearby candle to alight one of the tapestries now covering the paintings of Asa and Javuto on fire. He picks up a large candle extinguisher and begins beating at the tapestry to put out the flames, and in the process punches a hole through the canvas of Javuto’s painting, revealing a large wooden lever hidden within the wall of the castle. As Gorobec arrives in the great hall, he finds Ivan and Constantin examining the lever behind the painting. Constantin turns the lever, which activates the secret passageway behind the fire place, and he and Gorobec climb through to investigate, instructing Ivan to keep watch and make sure the door doesn’t close. As they investigate the secret passage, the door suddenly closes and Javuto appears, strangling Ivan with a rope.

Further into the passage, Gorobec and Constantin discover that it leads directly to Asa’s tomb. Upon viewing Asa’s body, they notice that she is breathing and recoil in fear. Gorobec proclaims that he must speak with the priest immediately, and instructs Constantin to go back to the castle and watch over Katia. Gorobec heads out of the tomb while Constantin races back through the secret passageway, only to discover that it has been sealed off. Javuto appears, frightening Constantin, while a trap door suddenly opens beneath his feet and he plummets down into the darkness with a scream.

Gorobec and the priest hurry to the graveyard and find Javuto’s grave, which they find freshly unearthed, and upon opening the coffin, find the body of Kruvajan. The priest proves that Kruvajan is now a vampire by placing a cross on Kruvajan’s forehead, which summarily burns the flesh. The priest then puts Kruvajan’s soul at peace by ramming a wooden stake through Kruvajan’s eye, breaking the evil spell and setting Kruvajan’s soul free. Armed with this new knowledge, Gorobec rushes back to the castle to protect Katia and put an end to the witch once and for all.

Back at the castle, Katia is searching or Constantin, Gorobec, and Ivan, unaware of what all has just transpired. She enters the room where her father’s body lies in an open coffin, and is horrified when he awakens and attacks her. Javuto appears and easily overpowers Vajda, shoving his body into the fireplace where it catches fire, killing him. Javuto then takes an unconscious Katia to Asa’s tomb. There, Asa grasps Katia’s wrist and begins drawing the life force out of Katia’s body and into her own, further reviving her.

Meanwhile, Gorobec returns and meets Javuto in the secret passageway in battle. As the two fight, a hand rises out of the trap door and grabs Javuto, yanking him down to his death. It is Constantin, who had but only enough life left after his fall to climb back up and kill Javuto; he dies immediately after. Gorobec then dashes into the tomb where he discovers Asa standing over the body of Katia. Asa lies to Gorobec, telling him that she is Katia and that Katia is Asa, and insists that he plunge the stake through her eye to finally kill her. Gorobec believes her and is about to do so…until he notices the cross hanging around Katia’s neck. When he places it on her flesh and it doesn’t burn, he reaches out and yanks open the robe covering Asa, revealing a putrid skeleton. Just then, the priest and the villages flood into the tomb, and Gorobec instructs them to burn the witch. They drag a screaming Asa out of the tomb while Gorobec laments over Katia’s body, thinking her dead. Asa is finally burned at the stake as she was supposed to have been two centuries earlier; as she dies, life returns to Katia, and an overjoyed Gorobec rushes to her side and kisses her passionately, the nightmare finally over for them both.

Black Sunday is a remarkable film, one that holds up even by today’s standards. Director Mario Bava pulled double-duty as the film’s cinematographer, and the end result is a striking masterpiece of horror that at once calls to mind the hallmark fog-swept crypts of classic Universal monster films while also managing to be a completely original and engaging tale for fans of classic black and white horror. It’s just visceral enough to be terrifying, yet doesn’t rely on heavy gore to pull the weight, instead opting for a fresh take on the classic themes of vampirism and witchcraft, something which many recent horror films seem to be revisiting in the past couple of years. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and find a copy of this gem, pop some popcorn, turn off the lights, and give it a watch! And don’t forget to come back and let me know what you think!