Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (aka “La maschera del demonio” or THE MASK OF SATAN) is a crown jewel in the world of gothic horror. Its cinematic depiction of dark poetry and stylish sadism made it one of the most influential of all European horror films, and it seemed to be the one all others aspired to (along with Terence Fisher’s HORROR OF DRACULA, made shortly before this). British actress Barbara Steele imbues her portrayal of the vampire/witch with a demonic majesty never before brought to the screen. Indeed her skeletal, high-cheekbone facial features, a landscape of puncture wounds with wild, thick lips (promising the joys of eternal Hades) are forevermore a landmark symbol of 1960s Italian Horror, of which she would become the queen of. The American International Pictures (AIP) version of the maestro’s landmark maiden voyage now sees its way to Blu-ray disc, courtesy of Kino Lorber.
In the 17th Century, Moldavia is a land of twisted barren trees surrounded by thick fog and ubiquitous gloom. Princess Asa (Barbara Steele, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) of the aristocratic Vajda family and her serf, Javuto (Arturo Dominici, CASTLE OF BLOOD), have been found guilty of witchcraft and acts of sorcery. Asa's own brother, the Grand Inquisitor, sentences both to death at the stake. As a bronze mask lined with sharp spikes is placed up to her face, Asa curses her brother and his descendants for the centuries to follow. Scores of robed priests carrying torches observe as one massive blow from a sledgehammer strikes the mask, impaling the witch to the stake. An attempt to set the two ablaze is thwarted by the fury of a sudden nocturnal storm, as the priests carry off the bodies of the two heathens for burial. Two centuries later, Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi, ERIK THE CONQUEROR) and his young associate, Dr. Gorubec (John Richardson, ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.) are on their way to a medical convention when their carriage breaks down in front of a ruined chapel. Inside they discover an ancient crypt with a stone tomb illuminated by moonlight. Kruvajan's inspection of the sarcophagus reveals the body of Asa the witch still wearing the devil's mask. A huge bat flies out from the darkness and attacks the doctor as he beats it with his cane, damaging the tomb and shattering a window recessed in its lid. He wounds his hand, allowing blood to flow onto the empty eye sockets of Asa's corpse. After the doctors exit the crypt, the blood starts reviving the cadaver.
At the castle of Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani, HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMAN), the family patriarch sits in fear with his daughter Katia (Steele, as the mirror image of her ancestor, Asa) and son Prince Constantine (Enrico Olivieri, THE RIVER GIRL) since it’s now the anniversary of the execution of Asa and Javuto and the one day in which Satan supposedly walks among the living. Back in the crypt, Asa summons her undead lover Javuto to rise from the grave, still covered with the devil's mask as he emerges. His rotting shroud falls aside as he pulls the flesh-clinging mask from his face and lumbers off into the night. The undead Javuto abducts Dr. Kruvajan, who is soon beckoned by the dormant Asa to embrace her, as he too becomes a vampire. With Javuto now on the side of darkness and the village in a panic over the recently discovered casualties, it’s up to young Dr. Gorobec to be Katia’s protector, and that’s no easy task when she’s sacrificial fodder to revive her identical vengeful witch of an ancestor.
Beautifully shot in black & white by Bava himself, BLACK SUNDAY is a compellingly chilling classic, and a lyrical nightmare to behold, especially when watching it late at night. Bava’s first directorial effort complements his great talent for visuals, as his camera effortlessly glides through the fogbound soundstages and crumbling, cobwebbed-filled crypt sets. From its opening, sadistic execution scene (imitated in numerous genre films to follow), there’s a string of memorable shots and aura of early cinema gore throughout, some of which had to be trimmed for the American version released by AIP (the film was reportedly banned in England until 1968 where it was first issued as REVENGE OF THE VAMPIRE). Defined by its superior atmosphere and the otherworldly art direction by Giorgio Giovannini, BLACK SUNDAY is no doubt the genesis of the Italian horror cycle and arguably the best of them all.
Kino has previously released the uncut European version with a different international English track (with a print source bearing THE MASK OF SATAN title) in a Blu-ray edition which includes a Tim Lucas commentary (last Fall, Kino leaked out copies of a double feature Blu-ray of the AIP versions of BLACK SUNDAY and BLACK SABBATH, which was quickly pulled from circulation and cancelled: Kino is promising a single Blu-ray release of the AIP version of SABBATH some time in 2015). This U.S. version of BLACK SUNDAY is more or less meant as a companion piece to Kino’s release of the Euro version, but note that this is the cut of the film seen by baby boomers when AIP released it theatrically 1961, with it soon becoming a late-night TV staple for many of us who grew up watching it on the boob tube well into the 1980s.
The AIP version presented here contains distinct English dubbing done at Titra Sound Corporation in New York (Steele’s actual voice is not heard in any version of the film). After the classic early 1960s AIP logo and fanfare, in typical AIP ballyhoo fashion, it starts with a scrolling “warning” prologue and does of course read “Black Sunday” as the onscreen title. This version is actually around three minutes shorter than the European cut, and a number of the gorier and more violent scenes are trimmed. Some of the bits excised or shortened included the "S" hot-pokered into Asa's back, the blood spewing from the demon mask after it is hammered onto her face, the eyeball impalement of the buried Kruvajan and the gruesome burning of Vajda's face after he falls into the fireplace. There are also some changes in the dialogue, and of course, Roberto Nicolosi’s score is replaced with a grandiose one by AIP house composer Les Baxter, and it’s arguably preferable to the original (Baxter would re-score a number of Bava films that AIP released, following this).
Mastered in 1080p HD from original 35mm elements, Kino’s presentation of the AIP version of BLACK SUNDAY nicely replicates what played in American drive-ins and hardtop theaters back in 1961. The film has been presented in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio and the black & white image has strong detail, well-balanced contrast levels, and very deep black levels. Some minor speckling can be found on the print source, while grain is well-managed throughout. At times, white levels appear a bit blown out and several darker scenes appear a bit too dark, but all in all, this a very attractive Blu-ray presentation of the film, and looks similar to what Arrow Films released in the UK. The English language track is presented DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono and sounds pretty terrific, with clear and easy-to-follow dialogue and Baxter’s score also having good fidelity (no subtitle options are present). Extras here are limited to trailers for Mario Bava titles available on Blu-ray from Kino: BLACK SUNDAY (AIP’s trailer), A BAY OF BLOOD (under the title “Carnage”), BARON BLOOD (AIP’s trailer), HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, LISA AND THE DEVIL and THE WHIP AND THE BODY (French language trailer). (George R. Reis)
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