When Hammer Films revitalised and revolutionised cinematic gothic horror in the late 1950s, showing the rest of the world how to do it with its mix of bright red blood, beautiful women, and vibrant colour, it wasn’t long before the rest of the world caught on. In the US, American International Pictures, with quite a bit of help from Roger Corman, created the celebrated cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price. In Italy, stylists like Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda created visually arresting and atmospheric colour gothics like Bava’s BLACK SABBATH (1963) and Freda’s THE HORRIBLE SECRET OF DR HICHCOCK (1963 - the letter ‘t’ was missed out apparently to avoid any possible reference to Alfred). Freda and Bava worked together on one of the very first of the ‘new wave’ of Italian horror pictures, the black and white I VAMPIRI (1956) which an uncredited Bava finished when Freda allegedly walked off the set. After performing similar duties on a number of other pictures, Mario Bava was finally rewarded with a movie of his own to direct.
The result was LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO (THE MASK OF SATAN -1960), which became a huge success pretty much everywhere under its more familiar title of BLACK SUNDAY. Earlier this year, Arrow Films released a delicious three disc set of Mario Bava’s first film under the latter title but whatever you call it, it’s a slice of black and white European gothic that should be in every horror fan’s collection.
The beautiful Princess Asa (Barbara Steele - at the time not yet iconic, but soon to be almost unwillingly so) is convicted of being a witch. The punishment for this is for her to have the nastiest, spikiest mask seen in cinema at the time hammered onto her face by mallet that looks as if it’s been made out of a small tree. Her paramour and fellow worshipper of Satan, Arturo Dominic, has already been despatched and so it’s up to Asa to vow revenge and curse the descendants of her tormentors before she’s silenced for good.
We flash forward two hundred years to the kind of European gothic landscape that only existed for a few glorious years in 1960s filmland. Doctors Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Andre Gorobec (John Richardson, who later appeared in TORSO for Sergio Martino and EYEBALL for Umberto Lenzi) happen upon a crypt and find Asa’s tomb. There’s a bit of trouble with a bat, blood is spilled, and Asa is up and about again, but not before we’ve seen that nasty mask prised off her face in a shot that’s unusually gruesome for 1960 (the UK censor banned the movie for many years for this, and many other, ‘objectionable’ shots).
Leaving the crypt, the two doctors are confronted by Katia (Barbara Steele again) in a shot that has graced the insides of numerous film books and magazines ever since. It’s not long before Asa has taken possession of Katia and is exacting her long-planned revenge.
Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY is a classic, beautifully filmed and gorgeously atmospheric throughout. The lack of colour means the film doesn’t look quite as lush as 1963’s BLACK SABBATH, but the film still holds up well after all these years.
Arrow’s three disc set gives you no less three films, both on BluRay and DVD. First there is THE MASK OF SATAN, which is the original European version dubbed into English and with its original music score by Roberto Nicolosi. Don’t expect a perfect print because this isn’t - there’s quite a bit of fading and screen fuzziness in places, all of which will have come from the master used and to be honest they are minor quibbles. The second is BLACK SUNDAY, which is the film re-edited and re-dubbed by AIP for US release and with a new music score by Les Baxter. Opinions on which is better will differ. The Nicolosi score is better, but the dubbing in the US version is a little smoother. There’s also an Italian audio track with optional subtitles for anyone so inclined. The third film is one of the special features and is a widescreen transfer of Freda and Bava’s I VAMPIRI. It’s definitely a film of minority interest and including it as a special feature on here is the best thing Arrow could have done with it.
Other extras include an Alan Jones introduction, a Tim Lucas commentary, and an eight minute interview (in Italian with subtitles!) with Barbara Steele. Also included when you select the menu options for I VAMPIRI is a trailer reel of Bava pictures that lasts nearly an hour and is a whole world of Italian movie entertainment in itself. Add in a deleted scene, trailers and the usual lovely Graham Humphreys artwork and this is a winning package for any fan of vintage gothic horror cinema.