Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Review #611: 'Black Sunday' (1960)

Loosely based on Nikolai Gogol's short story Viy, Mario Bava's first credited feature has become renown over the years for it's mixture of cinematographic beauty and bloody horror. Bava would go on to have an impressive career in the horror and peplum genres after receiving international recognition for Black Sunday, as well as catapulting lead actress Barbara Steele to stardom and helping her gain her reputation as the 'queen of horror'. The film begins with vampire witch Asa (Steele) being killed by her brother, who sledgehammers an iron mask with spikes on the inside onto her face. A couple of centuries later, Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) are on route to a medical conference when they stumble across the coffin of Asa. They accidentally awaken her when Kruvajan cuts himself and lets the blood drop into her mouth, allowing Asa to seek revenge on the descendants of those that wronged her.

Above all else this is a master-stroke of technical wizardry, encompassing the gothic beauty of the Universal horrors, and adding the blood-letting and sexual undertones of Hammer. Black Sunday is certainly more gory that any of Hammer's efforts (the sledgehammer opening is still quite wince-inducing), but by today's torture-porn standards, it's very mild. It is easy to why audiences were terrified by this film back in 1960, as although the film is by no means scary, the intensity of the atmosphere, brought on by the wonderful sets and camerawork, is successful in transporting you somewhere else entirely. You will accept the hokey plot and unexplained supernatural themes (is she a vampire, a witch or an undead entity?), and accept this as something much more - a work of art.

It's a setting seen a thousand times before - in literature as well as film. This is a world of midnight carriage rides through the woods, twisted trees with outstretched branches, creeping fog engulfing tombstones, old, tattered cobwebs, and old paintings coming to life. I would go as far as saying that Black Sunday is the only film from its era that succeeded in sucking out any elements of camp from this sort of setting, and creating a genuinely unsettling atmosphere. Bava achieves this by puncturing the film with sudden bursts of graphic violence, such as a steak through the head, that catches you off guard, and mixing this with the obvious sexual connotations, it becomes something far more sinister. Having influenced generations of film-makers with its innovations in sound and lighting, Black Sunday should be seen by all horror fans, and, in my opinion, deserves to be respected far more than it already is.

Directed by: Mario Bava
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi
Country: Italy

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Black Sunday (1960) on IMDb

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...