Black Sunday

3 out of 5

Directed by: Mario Bava

After cutting his teeth assisting in various forms on other films, Mario Bava was given directorial reins, and set to making Black Sunday, a fun bit of vampire horror that remains visually stunning, and entertaining throughout, but perhaps lacks greater impact in a modern viewing; its story themes become more relevant with further Bava context, and the splashes of gore are still effective, though do have the taint of being layered on for effect. It is, in all senses, very much a movie by design: make a horror film; sprinkle in some audience-appeasing moments; push some barriers; and having met those marks, Bava – assisted on set design, and lighting, and etc. – can go to town with the look of the thing, executing amazing in-camera trickery, and gripping tracking / panning shots that feel absolutely wild for the time (1960), and soaking every frame with precise blocking and use of light and dark. So a typical tale is much elevated. 

That typical tale involves vampire witches and resurrection: a voiced-over narrative tells us of the witch hunts, and the capture and execution of Javutich (Arturo Dominici) and Asa (Barbara Steele); both have spike-filled masks garishly hammered to their faces, and are buried / burned, though Asa’s conflagration is interrupted by timely rains. 

Bava announces an m.o. from this opening: it’s all very direct, and sweaty, and moody, shadows cast everywhere and panning and zooming with a 60s precursor to Raimi-esque camera use, and, of course, that brutal, blood-spurting moment the mask gets pounded in place.

Flash forward to two professors (John Richardson’s Dr. Andrej Gorobec, Andrea Checchi’s Dr. Choma Kruvajan) on their way to a conference, their carriage stalled by a broken wheel and happening to be near the tomb of the witch… All scholarly and myth-debunking, they investigate. Maybe professor Kruvajan pulls a Hellraiser and cuts his hand accidentally, dripping blood on the tomb.  

Eventually retiring to a nearby town for the evening, the professors are called to assist the local prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), who’s taken ill; his daughter, Katja – also played by Barbara Steele – looks an awful lot like the witch, and there’s that haunting painting of Javutich, and soon enough people are having their necks bitten and haunting about the castle as murderous wraiths; there’s a ticking clock before witch Aja Steele takes over the body and youth of innocent Kajta Steele. 

Writing this out, it’s a rather effective setup, adapting Nikolai Gogol’s story ‘Viy’, and winding through supernatural witch / vampire film tropes without falling back on them. The slow knitting together of the characters is done well in the script, and those characters’ choices feel logical within the film’s context. Only it never quite seems like Bava is engaged with the story or his actors except on visual and perfunctory levels. Scenes mostly just happen, bouncing between A and B threads of the princess’ family and the professors until they meet; there’s not necessarily artistry in the story’s reveal, the potential for which is in the script (though Bava apparently had his hand in that too). And English / Italian dubbing aside, only Checchi imbues his character with personality; all else appear sleepy, just showing up to hit their marks and read their lines. Even Steele only really makes her presence as an actress known when she’s the witch – she really seems to revel in that iteration of the character. 

And these factors prevent the movie from being a classic due to its internal features, and moreso external ones: it was absolutely different and more aggressive for the time, and the wild, confident visuals – which do still very much impress, and are part of a generally bold film language of Bava’s that does hold up – enhanced that. As part of a Bava retrospective, Black Sunday is, of course, integral. As a one off view, it entertains and has undeniable flair, but one could understandably be left flat by the unengaged storytelling.