We’re back to talk about creatures that lurk in the night once again for our collection Steps in The Dark. Today we’re taking things back to Italy under the direction of Mario Bava. The film we’ll be looking into is Black Sunday, released in 1960. The setting, however, is Moldova, which isn’t all that surprising when considering vampire stories.
Black Sunday – Premise
In the Moldova of the 1600s, the witch Asa (Barbara Steele) is sentenced to death with her lover and buried in the family tomb. Two centuries later, two imprudent travellers accidentally bring her back to life. She will try to take over Katja’s young body, one of her descendants who looks strikingly similar to her.
Just like we did with Nosferatu, we’re back on the subject of vampires and once again considering a black and white film. This time the action has moved to Moldova, a country where vampires aren’t all that rare, as we’ve read in Calmet’s Dissertations, just to mention one example.
In the 17th century, Satan was abroad on the Earth, and great was the wrath against those monstrous beings thirsty for human blood
to whom tradition has given the name of vampires.
No appeal for pity or mercy availed. Brothers did not hesitate to accuse brothers, and fathers accused sons, in the frantic attempt to purify the Earth of that horrible race of blood-devouring assassins.
But before putting them to death, human justice anticipated divine judgement by burning into the flesh of those damned ones the brand of Satan.
Asa, the vampire witch
In this story, the vampire, the monster, comes under a womanly guise. And her powers are tied, just like the witch’s are, to the Devil himself. Asa’s powers seem to come directly from Satan and, even though the prologue makes it seem like she got them from Javutich, later on, we realise that she’s completely in charge of them and of the situation. The reason for that might be that witchcraft is a completely female discipline and in the end, Asa herself is the one who will craft the spell to curse her brother’s dynasty: she swore to come back to life to annihilate his heirs.
The chosen one for this sacrifice is Katja. Two whole centuries later, when the Devil’s mask is removed and the cross that guards the grave is destroyed, Asa can once again activate her spell and try, through Katja, to come back to life.
The Myths of the Vampire
The vampire presented in the movie has many of the classic characteristics that literature before it describes. She falls into a deep sleep at sunrise, she fears crosses and any holy symbol, she sleeps in a coffin. In Asa’s case specifically, the vampire also has the ability to bewitch her victims with a look and to make them do her bidding. The downside of that is that she’s bound to her body because of her own curse, at least until she’s able to steal her heir’s appearance. That’s why she needs others to enact her revenge.
Additionally, this work differs from the better-known vampire tradition in that its vampire doesn’t need to be killed by being staked through the heart, but rather in the left eye or the body needs to be lit on fire so that the demon can no longer awake.
Atmospheres and settings
Mario Bava‘s first movie and its visual effects, to the eyes of a modern viewer who is used to advanced digital VFX, might seem outdated. Even then, though, one can’t deny that the light and shadows effects, the roaring of the wind through the rocks, the soundtrack, and the filming style all had a huge effect on audiences from its own time. In my opinion, older movies like this are perfectly capable of competing against newer horrors.
If one can get over the acting being a bit over the top, especially in the scenes with Katja and Andrej that were still pretty much par for the course at the time, the movie uses its atmospheres masterfully to stir up goosebumps in the viewer. The director brings to the screen a story that catches the viewer’s eye with its deceivingly simple, but totally effective plot. It’s not all that surprising when considering that the original inspiration for Black Sunday comes from Gogol’s The Viy, although the latter’s story is slightly different.
Bava’s movie was a definite success. It became a forefather for the gothic-horror genre in Italy and gave the Bava a considerable push into his ascension to the title of one of the greatest directors of his genre. For that matter, at the time, critics also praised the execution of the gore of its scariest scenes. The movie’s release was banned in the UK where it finally reached the screens only in 1968 under the title The Mask of Satan and only after a meticulous work of censorship, while the uncut version was renamed Revenge of The Vampire. In the US, the title wasn’t changed but the movie was limited to viewers older than 12.
In any case, this film has definitely left its mark in the history of cinema, with Bava’s work becoming a source of inspiration for many modern directors. Coppola used Black Sunday as inspiration for his Dracula, while Burton did the same for Sleepy Hollow.
In conclusion, one has to give credit where credit is due and in this case, all credit goes to Mario Bava.