Black Sunday (1960)

Black Sunday, 1960; directed by Mario Bava; Starring Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi

An Italian, black and white gothic horror film from 1960, Mario Bava’s first solo directing effort was, for its time, so shocking for its gore and violence that it was banned in England until 1968.  It opens in Moldavia (perhaps in the 1600s) where we see a brother condemning his own sister to death for witchcraft. She places a curse on her brother and all his descendents and then an iron mask with spikes is hammered onto her face before she is burned to death at the stake.  That curse is, of course, the preoccupation of Black Sunday.

200 or so years later, 2 doctors on their way to a medical conference (who knew such things existed in the 19th century!) find themselves stranded in the very village where all this occured when a wheel on their carriage breaks.  A series of coincidences resurrects the witch Asa and she wreaks havoc on her descendents, including a great great great niece who looks just like her, and the surrounding villagers.

Bava is considered one of the masters of horror – he is often credit with inventing the Italian Giallo film  with Blood and Black Lace, which in turn heavily influenced the modern slasher film – another genre Bava is sometimes credited with originating with his Bay of Blood.   Bava also made an anthology film, with a turn by Boris Karloff as our host,  called Black Sabbath – which is cited as a major influence on the naming of a certain British Heavy Metal band.   And though Bava is generally known mostly for his striking use of color imagery, the monochrome Black Sunday is often consider his masterpiece.  Apparently it was a huge influence on directors like Francis Ford Coppola (who apparently re-created entire scenes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992) and Tim Burton borrowed parts of that opening sequence for his own Sleepy Hollow.

Though an Italian production, the dialogue was all dubbed in English after it was purchased by American International Pictures for display in the US in 1961.  Black Sunday is also the sort of black and white horror film one might catch late at night on Svengoolie.  While it has it’s cheesy moments, part of its enduring power  is that it is genuinely scary at times.  It’s imagery may seem tame by today’s standards, but it was very shocking for audiences in 1960.  There are still moments that will make on do the “did I really just see that” double take.

We’ve mentioned before here on Pop Teez the idea of a horror movie as a nightmarish fever dream, where maybe not everything makes sense.  Bava, as it seems all the great Italian Horror directors are/were, was a great creator of these fever dreams. So settle in, get yourself some popcorn, maybe some sour candies, turn out all the lights and give this a fitful view.  Like many great filmmakers, Bava subscribed to a philosophy of “show me don’t tell me” and here he shows us a Sunday that is truly black indeed.  One might say delightfully black.

Dr. Vorhees