This is the first entry in 366 Weird Movies’ List of “Beautiful Films.” Consider this a sub-category; one that takes neither beautiful nor weird at face value, but openly views these two descriptions as genres which often go hand-in-hand—far more than one might imagine.
I will continue this list throughout the new year, and am open to suggestions from readers or peers in adding titles.
Black Sunday (1960), AKA Mask of Satan, marked Mario Bava’s directorial debut after twenty years as a cinematographer and uncredited assistant director. This Gothic fairy tale, (loosely) inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Vij (faithfully adapted as Viy), proved the ideal launch for a director who began life as a painter and son of a cinematographer. Additionally, Black Sunday was the first true starring vehicle for Barbara Steele, making her the first (and, to date, the only) authentic female horror icon. Although both Bava and Steele had long careers following this, neither would ever make as good a film.
Bava’s painterly credentials serve his cinematography well: the forests, crypts, and castles are drenched in lush black and white. Mists, cobwebs, and rotting trees, filtered through Bava’s lens, compose a sensuous ruin. Setting a pattern that he would follow for the rest of his career, Bava’s visual storytelling is far more innovative than is the narrative, which is solid, but routine and simplistic enough to have spawned a plethora of imitators. Contemporary audiences will likely find the story less appealing than 1960 audiences did, in part due to its many offspring, and in part due to its its status as a homage to the Universal horror classics. Black Sunday is put over with such distinctive vigor that few will be concerned by its familiarity.
The casting of Steele is primarily a visual choice. Pauline Kael describes her as “looking like Jacqueline Kennedy in a trance, playing both roles in such a deadpan manner that makes evil and good all but indistinguishable.”
Although never given a role which proved her actor’s mettle, Steele stood apart from cinematic “scream queens” in using her physicality to both seduce and frighten audiences, perhaps best summarized in Bava’s extreme closeup of her acupunctured face during an erotic resurrection, which is quite possibly the most pronounced scene of its kind.
Georgio Giovanni’s art direction cannot be underestimated in making the film a highly influential cult hit that gave birth to an entire school of European filmmaking.
Kino’s uncut Blu-ray edition boasts a sumptuous transfer that finally does justice to Bava’s chiaroscuro lighting. It also, thankfully, restores Roberto Nicolosi’s original, intensely innovative score, along with several minutes of deleted scenes. The AIP version (buy) (which has different dubbing and Les Baxter’s vastly inferior score) features an interview with Steele, commentary from Bava biographer Tim Lucas, and trailers.
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Barbara Steele had a significant role in Fellini’s “8 1/2”, but “Black Sunday” remains her best headlining performance to date, and certainly her best within the horror genre.