Directed by Mario Bava
Starring Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Arturo Dominici, Ivo Garrani
Arrow (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Kino Lorber (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC), Image (US R1 NTSC), Ripley's (Italy R2 PAL), Collection Ciné-Club (France R2 PAL), Umbrella (Australia R0 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
When the malicious Princess Asa (Steele) and her henchman Javutich (Dominici) are condemned by her brother to be burned at the stake, the powerful witch decrees a curse upon the family of Vajda and gets a spiked demon mask hammered into her face as extra punishment. Two centuries later, young doctor Andre Gorobec (Torso's Richardson) and his mentor, Dr. Kruvajan (Checci), are waylaid during a coach ride to a medical conference. Beautiful Katia (Steele again), the youngest in the Vajda bloodline, meets them in a graveyard, the resting place of Asa, while walking a pair of mastiffs and bids them to join her at home where her father (Garrani) is ailing. However, a bat attack before their departure causes a knocked-over cross and some crucial droplets of blood to slowly revive Asa, who summons Javutich from his tomb as well to help her unleash her supernatural fury on the descendants of those who executed her.
After working for over a decade as a cinematographer, effects artist, and assistant director, the legendary Mario Bava made the most of his first official directing assignment with Black Sunday, a gothic masterpiece whose towering status has led many to assume it's still his best film. That's debatable considering the majestic heights he would also reach in later films, but this is perhaps the best introduction to both his dreamlike world of fantastic dread as well as a good starting place for those willing to explore Italian horror filmmaking. Other Italian directors had dabbled in the genre before, but this is indisputably the film that kicked off the country's terror boom that lasted well over three decades. Nominally based on Nikolai Gogol's short story, "The Vij" (which also inspired the excellent 1967 Russian film and even a 1989 semi-remake by Bava's son, Lamberto), this was extremely strong stuff for its time thanks to images of blood spewing from Asa's mask, putrescence simmering within her revived corpse's eye sockets, an eyeball hammered with a spike, and a face roasting in a fireplace. A few shots had to be toned down for the film's successful American release from AIP (who still included a warning notice at the start of the film and arbitrarily excised a few other bits of footage as well), but even in this form it was enough to jolt audiences who were also getting their first taste of Hammer horror and Corman/Poe fantasias.
As accomplished as Bava's visual mastery may have been, this film wouldn't have had quite the same impact without the pivotal central performance by Barbara Steele, an English-born actress who had essentially given up on Hollywood after leaving the Elvis Presley production Flaming Star. By the time the Americanized Black Sunday opened in early 1961, she was back in America making an (uncredited) appearance as a fashion model at the 33rd Academy Awards and making Pit and the Pendulum for Roger Corman, contributing to one of the screen's most blood-freezing final shots. Though she returned to Italy again to work for Fellini on 8 1/2, it's her horror legacy that's ensured her an immortal fan following thanks to Black Sunday and its progeny like Castle of Blood, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Nightmare Castle, The Ghost, and Long Hair of Death. Her mesmerizing, unorthodox beauty still makes her the ideal European horror icon, a jagged yet voluptuous embodiment of the fears and desires of the audience.
The first English-language version of Black Sunday was prepared in Europe under the title Mask of Satan, the one familiar to all English-speaking DVD consumers since the Image release in 1999. The film itself was mostly shot in English on the set, though Steele's real voice was never used for any version. This full-strength edition actually turned up on VHS a few years earlier from Sinister Cinema and caused a bit of a stir in the horror community, but the official Image release really got the ball rolling by offering the film in pristine condition (for the time) along with illuminating extras... but more on that in a minute. Meanwhile the American version, which replaced the sparing Roberto Nicolosi score with a more traditionally aggressive and spooky one by the great Les Baxter, fell into the hands of Orion Pictures, seeing its first authorized home video release paired with Bava's Black Sabbath as a two-platter laserdisc release from Image well before the days of DVD. The AIP cut now resides with MGM, who has stymied efforts to include it (as well as their valuable variants of other Bava films) on any other American releases to date, a fate identical to that of Black Sabbath. The AIP version was announced as an option for the second DVD version from Anchor Bay, but for those obvious reasons, it never came to pass.
A DVD release in Italy contained another little twist thanks to the inclusion of an extra brief scene between Asa and her father, apparently never prepared for any English-language release. It's an inconsequential little conversation that actually disrupts the flow and continuity of the film, so while this might be an interesting alternative for completists, the scene doesn't really work as part of the film proper. The scene was covered in text notes on the Image disc, too, which also contained the original Mask of Satan trailer (which misspells Steele's name, as does the feature itself) along with a gallery of photos and poster art including a nifty day shot of Dominici with his unused vampire fangs.
Of course, in terms of home video history the biggest feature here is first Bava audio commentary by Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas, which has become a mainstay of the film's subsequent English releases and kicked off a series of future Bava commentaries for the future author of the spectacular Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. It's a terrific dry run for the epic study of the film included in his book, laying out some tantalizing theories about directions the film might have taken including speculation different narrative points for Katia's possession. The facts keep coming fast and furious right up until the end, offering a dizzying master class in Italian horror history in less than 90 minutes. The commentary appeared again when Anchor Bay snagged the film in 2007 and released it both as a standalone title and part of their first, five-film Mario Bava box set, which featured a port of the same video master with a little additional damage removal and all of the extras apart from the wild American radio spots featuring Paul Frees, which were included on the Image DVD menu screen.
The first Blu-Ray release of Black Sunday from Kino Lorber arrived in September of 2012, functioning as sort of an HD-era cousin to those earlier releases as it includes the audio commentary and European trailer while also adding on the American AIP trailer and TV spot for good measure (plus bonus Bava trailers for Baron Blood, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Lisa and the Devil, and House of Exorcism). This is an even crisper transfer of the English-language European version with all the violence intact, and the European English dialogue and music track (with Nicolosi's score) as the sole audio option. (Too bad the Italian audio has never been made available in English-speaking territories as it's the most elegant of all the options out there, even if it's the least faithful to the actors' lip movements.) This looks extremely close to the 35mm print of the film exhibited by rights holder Alfredo Leone since the late '90s, and it's difficult to imagine the film looking any better without a very expensive restoration overhaul. The opening scene still looks (intentionally) dark and murky, but after the credits (bearing the Mask of Satan title with a caption identifying the one on the actual packaging) things generally sharpen up for a bold and pleasing presentation that demonstrates how far transfer technology has come. There's also some damage in the opening shot, but after that it's mostly smooth sailing as far as clarity goes. The formerly tricky layers of darkness in the night scenes are easier to appreciate here, and crucial shots like Javutich's crawl from his grave and the great nocturnal shot of his coach passing through the woods now have the visual power they once only possessed on the big screen.
However, that turned out to be far from the definitive Black Sunday; as of now, that honor easily goes to the 2013 Blu-Ray from Arrow in the UK (packaged as a dual-format release with a DVD), which plays like a Bava fan's ultimate wish list come true. You get the European Mask of Satan version from the same source, right down to that burned-in "(Black Sunday)" subtitle on the opening title card; the appearance is very close though a tad brighter with a bit more gradation and detail in darker areas; for example, compare this frame grab from the Arrow one with this shot from the Kino one. (For the record, the first five frame grabs seen in this review are Kino ones; the last two are Arrow ones.) Here we have the usual European English track (with optional English subtitles) and, finally, the Italian version with its own translated English subtitles as well. It's really a huge treat to be able to have both versions in one place, and having the Italian edition in HD is something many thought would never happen. On top of that you get another bit of a home video miracle: an HD version of the genuine Black Sunday, AIP's original version with the opening text crawl, the Les Baxter score, and the completely different American dub. This marks the first commercial availability of that version in well over two decades, and it's terrific to finally have it back looking so good. Though there hasn't been a massive clean up here, the transfer for this looks very good indeed; it looks like portions of the HD transfer for the main version have been laid in here over what might have been damaged spots, but much of it is undeniably a new HD version of the AIP cut, sometimes looking a bit brighter and with a different gray scale compared to the European version.
All of the previous extras are carried over for the Arrow disc - Tim Lucas commentary, the three trailers and TV spot, and so on, while the deleted scene from the Italian release is tossed in as well. Then there's a nice three-minute video intro from the always articulate and well-informed Alan Jones, who sketches out the background behind the film's creation. However, there's another major new extra: a previously unreleased video interview with Steele from 1995, conducted by Sergio Grmek Germani and running just under nine minutes. She dramatically discusses the making of the film (both with and without sunglasses at random), including a feisty discussion of the opening sequence which she feels she played "too British" and should have done more "like Callas." Tucked away at the end of the extras but also substantial is the inclusion of I Vampiri, historically cited as the first real Italian horror film (in the sound era); this gothic tale of an ancient, bloodsucking noblewoman in Paris causing mayhem in the press by using her scientist lover to procure young girls to keep her young. Begun by director Riccardo Freda but finished by Bava, it's essentially ground zero for Italian gothic horror but plays today a bit more like a police procedural at times. Still it's historically significant and obviously required viewing for Euro horror fans, presented here from a standard def master (most likely the same one used for the Image DVD in the U.S. years ago) with optional English subtitles. The film's American theatrical trailer is also included under the title The Devil's Commandment, a version which was spiced up with extra, newly shot footage (including one sexy miss getting it while taking a bath). Finally and certainly not to be overlooked, the set rounds out with a terrific 22-title Bava trailer reel including Hercules in the Haunted World, Erik the Conqueror, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Black Sabbath (AIP version), The Whip and the Body (Italian version), Blood and Black Lace (U.S. version), The Road to Ft. Alamo, Planet of the Vampires, Knives of the Avenger, Kill, Baby Kill!, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (looking weirdly jerky), Danger: Diabolik, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, the underrated Five Dolls for an August Moon (no, seriously, they finally dug up a trailer for this one!), Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, Bay of Blood (the usual Carnage version), Baron Blood (AIP version), Four Times That Night (the rare English trailer), Lisa and the Devil, Rabid Dogs (the Lucertola Media DVD promo), and Shock. Easily one of the most essential Euro horror releases around.
Updated review on February 5, 2013.