Black Sunday / The Demon’s Mask / Mask of the Demon / Mask of Satan / House of Fright / Revenge of the Vampire / The Hour When Dracula Comes / La Maschera del Demonio (1960/1961) ****
Jeez, would you look at all those titles? Count ‘em up-- eight. You know what that means, don’t you? Oh yeah, we are in the presence of an Italian alright. In fact, Black Sunday/La Maschera del Demonio/etc. marks the directorial debut of the famed Mario Bava, who went on to bring us a slew of films, including Black Sabbath, Planet of the Vampires, and Twitch of the Death Nerve (one of my favorite horror movie titles of all time). Whatever you think of Bava’s work as a whole (and he’s one of those directors whom people seem either to love or to hate), I just can’t imagine anyone finding much to complain about in this movie.
This is a film that was seriously ahead of its time. Sure, it’s in black and white, and it’s one of those 19th-century period pieces set in eastern Europe-- the kind that the horror genre was up to its eyeballs in, and had been since about 1922-- but look at the way this shopworn subject matter is handled here. Notice that people in this movie actually do things, instead of just sitting around talking (though a fair amount of that goes on too); notice the way the build-up in the first half of the film really does build something, rather than killing huge amounts of time before springing a monster on us more or less out of nowhere; notice how gory it is-- it uses the gore sparingly, but show me a single other film from 1960 that has anything the equal of the goings on in Black Sunday’s very first scene.
The aforementioned scene has several beefy, shirtless, hooded executioners milling around in a woodland clearing, heating metal things over flaming braziers while a voice-over tells us what’s going on. Apparently, it is the 17th century in Moldavia (eastern Romania, bleeding into what had been the southwestern Soviet Union, for those of you who consistently bombed your geography exams), and the occasion is a once-in-a-century Satanic holiday of sorts, known to the locals as Black Sunday. The Inquisition has chosen this auspicious occasion for the condemnation of a witch named Princess Asa Vajda (I’m only going to say this once-- all the “a”s are broad [as in “father”], and a “j” is pronounced like a “y”) and her servant, Javuto (Arturo Dominici, from Hercules and Revenge of the Barbarians). The authorities clearly took a fairly dim view of witchcraft in those days, because the protocol for executions here is extremely nasty. Not only is Princess Asa (Barbara Steele, who went on to appear in seemingly thousands of European horror cheapies in the 60’s-- The She-Beast, for instance-- and who showed up more recently in Piranha and Caged Heat) branded with a big “S-is-for-Satan” on her back, she is also made to wear the Mask of Satan, which is held onto her face by about three-dozen inch-and-a-half-long spines on its inner surface, and which one of those masked Tom of Finland models has to hammer into place with a big-ass maul. This scene does not pull any punches. Asa’s branding is shown, explicitly, in extreme close-up (I hasten to remind you that the branding of human beings was specifically forbidden by the Hays Code, which was still technically in force in 1961, when Black Sunday reached the US), and when her mask is installed, blood sprays in gouts from around its edges. But before any of this, or the subsequent lighting of Asa’s pyre, happens, she has time to lay a curse on the Inquisitor (who happens to be her brother), to the effect that she will return from the dead to seek revenge once each century by causing the birth of a Vajda with her face whom she will possess for a killing spree on Black Sunday. Moreover, Asa vows to repeat this process until the family line is extinguished utterly.
It turns out that you should take the curses of vampire witches fairly seriously. To begin with, the Inquisitor never does manage to burn Asa’s and Javuto’s bodies, because just as the pyres are lit, a massive thunderstorm erupts, quenching the flames and forcing the Inquisition to settle for burying the bodies according to a special formula reserved for the most sinister of evildoers. It’s enough to make you think they’re under Satan’s special protection. Then, 200 years later, a pair of doctors named Andrej Gorobek (John Richardson, from Torso and One Million Years B.C.) and Tomas Kruvajan (Andrea Chechi, of The Diabolical Dr. Mabuse and Fury of the Vikings) are riding through the Moldavian village of Mirgorod on their way to some medical conference or other. Their hired coach breaks down near the ruins of the Vajda family crypt, and the doctors simply can’t contain their curiosity-- they just have to check the place out. Inside, they find Asa’s sarcophagus, which has both a window and a large Eastern Orthodox cross on its lid, the cross arranged so that it would be visible through the window from the inside. As Kruvajan explains, the idea is that the person so interred would be kept inside the coffin by the sight of the cross-- obviously this coffin belongs to a witch or a demoniac. A moment later, when Gorobek leaves the crypt to keep the coachman company, Kruvajan is attacked by a large bat. The doctor kills the bat, but like the clumsy old fucker he is, he manages in the process not only to knock over the coffin’s cross, not only to break the coffin’s window, but also to cut himself on the glass and bleed all over the body inside. He doesn’t notice that he’s hurt himself, though, because by that time, he’s too busy trying to pull Asa’s mask off. What he sees when he succeeds is one of the most effective visuals in this movie; Asa’s face is scarcely decayed at all, but it is marked by wounds from the nails on the inside of the mask, and her eyes have rotted away, leaving their sockets free to become home to dozens of little black scorpions. On their way out of the tomb, the doctors meet a beautiful girl who calls herself Princess Katja Vajda (also Barbara Steele-- you know what that means). This comes as something of a surprise, given the dilapidated state of the crypt and the chapel associated with it, but Katja explains that her father, the reigning prince (Ivo Garrani, from Atom-Age Vampire and Holocaust 2000), considers the place cursed and will have nothing to do with it. After chatting for a while, the doctors continue on to Mirgorod and their conference.
But it doesn’t take a Dr. van Helsing to know that bleeding on a vampire has consequences, and sure enough, while the movie has us get to know the Vajda family and accompanies the doctors in their merry-making at the local inn, the camera repeatedly returns to Asa’s coffin. If there is any visual effect in this film that hits harder than our first look at the witch, it is the process which these glimpses reveal to us, in which her empty orbits gradually fill up with blood, which then congeals to form a new pair of eyes. (I again remind you that this was made in 19-fucking-60!) When her eyes are fully formed, Asa awakens and commands Javuto to rise from his grave and bring her victims whose blood she can drink to regain her full powers. The Good Part has begun.
For his first trick, Javuto goes to the castle and gives the prince such a scare that he remains bedridden for the rest of his extremely short life. When Katja and her brother, Konstantin (Enrico Olivero, from The Dragon’s Blood), send one of their servants into town to fetch a doctor, Asa’s pet revenant kills the servant, and goes to Mirgorod to collect Dr. Kruvajan himself, so that his mistress can have an agent in the Vajda household (he naturally takes the doctor to Asa first for vampirization before letting him go to the castle). You don’t need me to tell you what’s going to become of the prince under the care of a vampire doctor, nor do you need me to tell you that Dr. Gorobek isn’t going to need much time to notice the disappearance of his mentor. Obviously, Gorobek figures out pretty quickly where Kruvajan went, and just as obviously, the discovery that the trusted older doctor vanished without a trace on the very night that his “patient” died of unexplained injuries comes as a tremendous shock to Gorobek. Such behavior is so unlike Kruvajan, in fact, that the younger doctor is even willing to listen to a local priest who contends that a vampire is at work. Conclusive proof comes swiftly, when the exhumation of what should have been Javuto’s body unearths Kruvajan instead. This scene could be seen as foreshadowing of the entire course of Italian horror movie development over the next thirty years. This priest, you see, knows what must be done to destroy a vampire. No, it’s not what you think, although it does involve wooden stakes. In what any Lucio Fulci fan will recognize as the great Italian tradition, the priest prescribes a stake through the eye as the only proper remedy for vampirism. Holy shit! An honest-to-God Italian eyeball-gouging in 19-fucking-60! How fucking visionary is that?!
You know what else is visionary about this movie? The goddamned body count, that’s what! It may not be very high by modern standards, but there aren’t exactly a lot of characters in this movie. And it isn’t just Expendable Meat that gets the axe, either. Fully half the people whom we’re supposed to care about get taken out, plus another casualty or two among the Meat. When our heroes go head-to-head with Asa and Javuto, the bodies start falling! And by the way, there’s one more little visionary touch in Black Sunday-- nudity. Not real nudity, mind you, but how’s this for sheer genius in the field of circumventing the censors: Castle Vajda naturally has a fair amount of artwork hanging on its walls, and some of that art inevitably takes the form of portraits of both Asa and Javuto, so that the characters can recognize them when they return from the dead for revenge. And guess what... one of those portraits is a nude painting of Asa. Against all odds, Bava has found a way to show us Barbara Steele with no clothes on that the censors wouldn’t think to object to! Aren’t the Italians great? In short, what we have here is a film not to be missed, and for once, it seems that a sizable proportion of the horror-film-watching public agrees with me, as opposed to just the schlock-wallowers with whom I more often see eye-to-eye.