Black Sunday October 7, 2017
1 Hr., 23 Mins.
ario Bava’s black-and-white Black Sunday, a treasure trove of atmospheric Gothic terror, is so enthusiastically macabre that it’s almost erotic. The fog machines are cranked and the storm wind sound effect is 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.
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 sure, though, Black Sunday is strictly visually thrilling. Apart from a couple of touches of nicely melodramatic splashes of period dialogue, all exchanges are stilted and made even less appealing by an underwhelming storyline. But this doesn't matter that much — once you've looked at Black Sunday, it's impossible to forget it.
Black Sunday is about a lynched witch, Asa (Barbara Steele), who, after rising from the dead through sheer happenstance, becomes obsessed with getting revenge on the descendants of the people who wronged her — two centuries after her death. One of those descendants, protagonist Katia, is also played by Steele; she becomes the angel who will spend the movie counteracting the elder witch’s devil while the latter preys on new enemies.
The movie is mostly nonsense narratively; some of the storytelling is further foiled by
straight-faced delivery at odds with the plot's inherent silliness. Ardent fans of Black Sunday, however, tend to look at the movie as more meaningful than it probably meant to be — a movie-length allegory for Katia's sexual awakening, personified by a lookalike who dares to go where she hasn't yet before. The witch — or what could be better billed as Katia’s nascent sexual desires in zombie-like form — might be vanquished at the end of the feature, but that shouldn’t suggest that she (or it) won’t be back later. This allusive storytelling likely wasn't that purposeful at the time it was being made, but it does somewhat enrich a movie whose plot is otherwise prone to flatness.
Black Sunday looks so incredible that it immediately becomes a horror masterstroke in a purely aesthetic sense; the sound doesn't even necessarily have to be on for us to appreciate the movie. Like Dario Argento’s malevolently colorful Suspiria (1977) or Tony Scott’s streamlined and sultry 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 of years, its redefinition of Gothic horror remains intact and influential. It also made a star out of Steele, that impish, sharp-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 later surpass himself with such genre masterpieces as Blood and Black Lace (1964), Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966) and Danger: Diabolik (1968). Black Sunday, so gloriously macabre and visually unrivaled, summarizes just how singular Bava’s style was — so singular that his films almost don't have to do anything except energize our eyes to stay with us. A-