In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.
Beginning with a warning from the producers stating they “feel a moral obligation” to inform the audience that the film they are about to see will “shock you as no other film ever has” and followed by one of the strongest cold opens of any horror film, Black Sunday is a feast for the senses. It is a film so clearly made by a master of the camera. Every composition is flawless, the images indelible, and the fluidity of the shots mesmerizing. It is both a throwback to the stylish look of the Universal classics and a foretaste of the terrifying feasts to come. It also introduced the world to two great horror icons, one in front of the camera and the other behind it.
The film begins in seventeenth century Moldavia at a medieval execution by the Inquisition. The narration tells us that “one day each century, it is said that Satan walks amongst us. To the God-fearing, this day is known as Black Sunday.” Accused of witchcraft, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is put to death as a high priestess of Satan by the Grand Inquisitor of Moldavia—her own brother. The bronze, spike lined “mask of Satan” is driven onto her face with a giant war hammer, but not before she calls down a curse upon him and all who would defy her. “My revenge will strike down you and your accursed house. And in the blood you give your son, and his son, and his son will I continue to live immortal…and I shall return to torment and destroy throughout the nights of time!”
This remarkable sequence sets the stage beautifully for the film to come. It is filled with mist, flames, black robed and hooded figures, and gnarled, black, dead trees that reach their skeletal fingers through the frame. The whole film is dominated by images like these along with gothic ruins, ancient graveyards, and cobwebbed crypts. In many ways, the story follows the basic structure of a Dracula film, but rather than the Count travelling from an Eastern European location, two doctors travel to one. Several trappings of the vampire film are also engaged including blood drinking and rejuvenation through it, a superstitious and hyper-religious peasantry, and the power of crucifixes and religious iconography to repel Asa and her undead servant Javuto (Arturo Dominici). But the matters of plot are far less important in Black Sunday than images, mood, and atmosphere.
When young Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) and his mentor Dr. Kruvajon (Andrea Checchi) discover Asa’s tomb, the atmosphere is palpable and evokes the dungeons that house the coffins of Dracula and his vampire brides in the opening of the 1931 film. When Dr. Kruvajon removes the mask of Satan, he finds that Asa’s body and face are still intact, though swarming with scorpions and vermin. A few droplets of Kruvajon’s blood inadvertently dripped onto Asa’s waiting body begin to revive her. The moments of Asa’s eyes reforming and her body awakening still carry an eerie power after sixty years.
Later, Asa’s servant Javuto, who suffered the same fate as Asa, is called from his unconsecrated grave to do her bidding. His resurrection scene is one of the film’s most memorable moments as he pushes aside the earth that has covered him for two centuries and pulls the mask of Satan from his face before disappearing into the mist. His foreboding presence is incredibly powerful on screen. Despite his great size, he manages to take his victims by surprise, thanks to a series of secret passages in the Vajda estate, as well has his uncanny abilities for silence and stealth. In many ways, Javuto is something of a gothic prototype of the stalker killers found in so many gialli, which director Mario Bava would help invent, and slashers that were to come.
Pulling the strings from behind it all, Asa is the true terror of Black Sunday. With her undeniable vampiric qualities, Asa is able to coerce complete loyalty from those who fall under her spell, which they seem to do willingly. She summons Dr. Kruvajan to “look into my eyes” and though her face is filled with the holes of her spiked death mask, she is irresistible. Like Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee as Dracula before her, Steele as Asa is every bit as fearsome and alluring as either of them.
English actress Barbara Steele had played a few supporting parts in minor films before Black Sunday, but here she plays not just one, but two memorable leading roles. As the high Satanic priestess, she is formidable and terrifying. As Katia, the daughter of Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), descendent of Asa’s executioner, she is vulnerable and imbued with great sadness. Steele is absolutely captivating in both roles. She possesses a unique and mysterious beauty that she uses to great advantage in both roles. Her large, smoky eyes are at turns sinister and sad. She is particularly measured as Katia. We never quite know what she is thinking or what she may be hiding. As Asa, she passionately delivers the best kind of “scenery chewing” performance. Both are utterly memorable and both reason for the start of her career as one of the great actors of classic horror.
Following Black Sunday, Steele would appear in a number of AIP films like The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Italian horror films like The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962-the name in the title changed as to not infringe upon the famous director) and Castle of Blood (1964). In the 1970’s, new generation horror filmmakers David Cronenberg and Joe Dante cast her in their early films Shivers (1975) and Piranha (1978) respectively. Outside of the genre, she worked with such filmmakers as Federico Fellini in 8 ½ (1963) and Louis Malle in Pretty Baby (1978). She remains one of the most memorable and iconic performers of all time, but particularly for fans of the macabre.
Director Mario Bava was already an experienced cinematographer by the time he made the leap to directing and continued to photograph his own films. His experience in that role is crucial to the success of the film and one of the reasons why Black Sunday is one of the great feature debuts of horror. Between himself and production designer Giorgio Giovannini, the film has an unmistakable and unforgettable look. Lighting is precise, compositions perfect, and camera moves have great intentionality. The camera work is sometimes elaborate, sometimes simple, but always serves the purposes of the film. Compositions draw the eye and sometimes misdirect for the sake of a scene. Bava was well aware that film is a magic trick, and he has several up his sleeve in Black Sunday.
One of my favorites is used twice in the film. At one point, Asa draws Katia to her crypt in order to steal her essence and gain eternal life. As the lifeforce drains from Katia, she appears to grow old as Asa appears to grow younger. To achieve this, Bava employs a technique that is simple but incredibly effective—and only possible in black and white. It had been used before in the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Fredric March for the early part of his transformation from the good doctor into the semi-simian Hyde. The scene is lit with two gelled lights on dimmers with old age makeup that matches the color of one of the gels applied to the actor. As the dimmer is switched from one light to the other the age makeup either appears or disappears as needed for the scene. The effect works remarkably well both in this scene and in the film’s fiery climax.
Bava would soon gain a reputation as one of the great directors of Italian horror. Many of his films would help shape the sub-genre known as giallo and greatly influence the slasher films of the late 70’s and 80’s. Black Sabbath (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964), Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966), A Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), A Bay of Blood (1971), and many more are considered classics and among the most influential films for the horror genre ever made. His films are often more stylish than substantive but are also incredibly entertaining and groundbreaking. His contributions to the genre simply cannot be overstated. He was one of the true masters of his craft.
The influence of Black Sunday specifically was strongly felt at the time and continues to ripple out to this very day. It made a direct mark upon the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe films made at AIP (American International Pictures) and the Hammer films of the 1960’s, as well as the Amicus anthologies of the following decade. As previously mentioned, the character of Javuto has links to Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. His appearances from the shadows as light slowly increases on him are very much like the famous shot in which Michael Myers appears from the darkness behind Laurie Strode before he first attacks her in Halloween (1978). Even today, the recently released Fear Street films seem to draw some influence, intentional or otherwise, from Black Sunday.
It is remarkable how well the film holds up even to this day. Though it may no longer be able to “shock us as no film ever has,” it certainly still has the ability to entice us. This is largely due to the imagination of Mario Bava and the engaging nature of Barbara Steele in the leading roles. Upon this most recent watch, I still found aspects of it quite unsettling, which is a testament to the creativity and audaciousness of the filmmakers. The reputation of Black Sunday has only grown over the past sixty years. May it continue to grow for sixty more.