BLACK SUNDAY / THE MASK OF SATAN. Gothic horror for the ages
A film director is often associated with a screamer who summons everyone to the set through a megaphone, loudly and firmly gives commands, and gets angry when things don’t go according to plan. However, Mario Bava is remembered by acquaintances as an extremely composed and humble man. On the set, he never raised his voice but always had a clear vision that he could realize even on a minimal budget. His technical skills were admired by collaborators and observers alike. He was considered – certainly not without exaggeration – a genius. Despite creating a variety of films over twenty years in terms of genre and style, he remains primarily in memory as a master of gothic horror and giallo-style thrillers. When asked about his best work, most cinephiles would answer: Black Sunday, also known as The Mask of Satan. This film marks his solo directorial debut, achieving such significant box office success that it sparked a trend for gothic horror in Italy.
As the 1950s came to an end, several filmmakers sought to enter the new decade with something unconventional, creating groundbreaking productions that anticipated their time. In 1960, there were surprisingly many such films. The most famous, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, made in the USA. Equally important are Michael Powell’s British Peeping Tom, Georges Franju’s French Eyes Without a Face, Roger Corman’s American House of Usher, Nobuo Nakagawa’s Japanese Jigoku, and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. All of them belong to the horror genre. Interestingly, another Italian gothic film, shot in color, was also made the same year – Giorgio Ferroni’s Mill of the Stone Women – a very successful but unfortunately completely forgotten production.
Since the 1930s, Mario Bava, the son of a cinematographer and a pioneer in special effects, had been working with the camera, unaware of the career development that awaited him. The turning point came in the 1950s. Completing films started by others at an express pace (without exceeding schedules and budgets), producers realized he was director material. For his debut, he took on Nikolai Gogol’s novella Viy, but the screenplay by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei is hardly a direct adaptation. It’s more of a tribute to pre-war classics of horror cinema produced by Universal. The Italian director doesn’t create a new genre here but refreshes the ossified patterns of gothic literature, drawing on Balkan legends of vampires and the undead.
However, what most impressed contemporary critics and continues to captivate is the visual aspect. Through set design and lighting, an incredibly unreal atmosphere was created, akin to the aesthetics of German expressionism, as unsettling as a dense forest with no visible way out. Reportedly, Bava participated in the script development, but his greatest strength was his technique – the tricks he employed with a modest budget showcase his skilled hand… Trees with outstretched, seemingly alive branches. The perforated face of the main character. Removing the mask from a corpse, revealing a swarm of tiny scorpions. Hollow eye sockets filled with membrane. A face reflected in a pond… There are many excellent scenes, realized through the creativity of the director and his father, Eugenio Bava, who assisted in creating special effects.
Black Sunday is worth watching twice. The first time, you can follow the plot, narrative motifs, character behavior, and acting. Then the film may be disappointing. The second viewing will bring satisfaction if you pay particular attention to the visual side. Mario Bava studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, and the aesthetics of the frame were always more important to him than the plot. His truly painterly films, of course, were the colorful ones because color is crucial in painting. But even in this debut black-and-white film, characteristic features of a painter-artist are noticeable: the use of different perspectives, creating mood through contrasts, distorting the world, and an expressive style.
As I mentioned earlier, the film initiated a trend of gothic horror in Italy, but to be fair, one must also mention I Vampiri (1957) by Riccardo Freda. Due to its gothic elements, this film is considered a pioneering achievement in Italian genre cinema. However, this fact does not diminish Bava’s status as a pioneer, as he played important roles in I Vampiri as well. Above all, he contributed to the film as a cinematographer, and along with set designer Giorgio Giovannini, he helped create an atmosphere of horror. It was something new in Italian cinema because horror films were not previously made in this country. However, Freda did not complete the film, and precisely Bava, although not credited in the opening credits, directed part of the material. He delivered the finished product on time, thereby saving the producers from additional costs. The film, a hybrid of crime and horror, is moderately engaging but contains a great transformation effect – Gianna Maria Canale transforms into Mrs. Hyde.
A more significant influence on Mario Bava’s subsequent career was Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958), as it was through this film that the Italian filmmaker became interested in making gothic horror films. Although he couldn’t shoot Black Sunday on color film (unlike Hammer directors), he did a lot to generate interest. In Italy, the production costs were covered, but it was the American market that proved more favorable for the director. Many positive reviews came from there, and profits grew rapidly. It’s amusing that American distributors bought the rights to the film for an amount higher than its budget. Although the film was shortened, the title was changed, and different music was added in the United States, it did not lose its character, as its strength lies in visual presentation. Mario Bava was aware that he had better chances of success abroad, so he enlisted actors with Anglophone names, Barbara Steele and John Richardson.
Barbara Steele’s name is worth dwelling on. Among aficionados of classic horror, she is an iconic and cult figure. This British actress played her first significant role in Black Sunday, or more precisely, two very distinct roles: a 17th-century Moldavian princess and her distant descendant. In one film, she showcased two faces: the vengeful witch and her potential victim. The performance turned out to be highly successful, leading to numerous offers from directors such as Roger Corman, Riccardo Freda, Federico Fellini, Lucio Fulci, Antonio Margheriti, and many others. She can be aptly described as the queen of horror, as she dedicated much of her energy to the genre. Her black, long hair and large dark eyes gave the characters she portrayed a dark nature, but her sensual silhouette and the right expression could suggest simplicity and dignity. Therefore, the dual role in Bava’s debut was a very accurate casting choice and one of her best roles.
Today, Black Sunday may not make as much of an impression, considering the plethora of diverse and increasingly thrilling horror films produced over the sixty years since its premiere. However, it is undoubtedly worth exploring such cinema, if only for the sake of Mario Bava, an outstanding and versatile filmmaker: director, cinematographer, and effects genius. Anyone who had the opportunity to know him personally recalls him with admiration and respect. Works like The Whip and the Body (1963), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964), Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), and Bay of Blood (1971) showcase his mastery of technical aspects. The tension is artfully built not through dialogues or acting but through beautifully shot scenes and unconventional shots. Although he also directed films based on dialogue and acting (such as Rabid Dogs from 1974, discussed in an article about poliziottesco).
Black Sunday may not be as groundbreaking for cinema as Citizen Kane (1941), but it does share something with Orson Welles’s film—they both belong to the best directorial debuts in the history of cinema.