From the moment Black Sunday introduces itself, we’re hooked: In this land of romanticized evil, the shadows engulf and the close-ups are otherworldly. The movie creates a cohesive, transportive nightmare world where gargoyles, witches, and demons are as common as carbon dioxide.
To be certain, though, Black Sunday is strictly visually thrilling. Apart from a couple touches of nicely melodramatic, faux-regal splashes of dialogue, all exchanges are stilted and made even less appealing by an underwhelming storyline. Though I suppose part of its inability to grab us by the lapels plot wise can be blamed on the robotic dubbing on the part of its distributors, we can still blame the credited screenwriters, Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei, for sticking with a storyline fit for any subpar ‘30s Universal horror money-grabber.
In Black Sunday, we bear witness to lynched witch Asa’s (Barbara Steele) obsession with getting revenge on the descendants of the people who wronged her – two centuries after her demise.
Such necessitates lots of mad cackling, wonderings by characters aplenty if that spooky noise they heard in the background was the wind, and a smattering of boos and attacks from behind. One of the descendants, protagonist Katia, is even played by Steele, an angel to counteract the elder witch’s devil.
But the plot is mostly nonsense, increasingly foiled by straight-faced delivery. And that’s excusable — I figure Bava never intended the film to be as scary or resounding as anything Hitchcock’d been making at the time, and always intended to simply make a Gothic horror picture comprised of not much else besides sumptuous visuals.
Ardent fans of Black Sunday, however, continue to indulge a theory that presumes the film is actually an intellectual one. Theorists explain that Asa’s waking up from the dead coincides with Katia’s coming of age, and, as such, must be an allusion to her sexual blossoming. The witch — or what could be better billed Katia’s sudden sexual desire — might be defeated at the end of the feature, but that shouldn’t suggest that she — or it — won’t be back later. I don’t buy it, mostly because it’s frankly unbelievable that a movie of Black Sunday’s quickly made, low-budget sort be thinking about anything deeper than the pit that make up the empty eye sockets of Asa’s corpse.
But we don’t have to look past the movie’s exterior to feel persuaded to call it a horror masterwork. Like Dario Argento’s malevolently colorful Suspiria (1977) or Tony Scott’s streamlined and sinewy The Hunger (1983), we can enjoy the movie purely as a pleasuring of the senses. There was nothing like it in 1960, and though a splashing of rip-offs plagued cinemas for the next couple years, its redefinition of Gothic horror remains intact.
It also made a star out of Steele, the mysterious, shark-toothed beauty, and announced Bava as a new genre maestro. (Before directing Black Sunday, Bava had only worked as a cinematographer and would occasionally finish the work of directors who would abandon a set in the middle of production.) Bava would surpass himself with such genre masterpieces as 1966’s Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966) and Danger: Diabolik (1968). But Black Sunday, so gloriously macabre and so visually unrivaled, summarizes just how well Bava’s movies prevail — and how singular his style was. A-
1 Hr., 23 Mins.
Black Sunday October 7, 2017
ario Bava’s black-and-white Black Sunday, a carouse of atmospheric Gothic terror, is so rapturously macabre that it’s almost erotic. The fog machines cranked and the storm wind sound effect amplified to level five, brooding, raven-haired characters scurry about vast castles and labyrinthine forests for nearly the entirety of the movie’s 83 minutes, as if starring in one of Edgar Allan Poe’s night terrors.