It's about time they made a movie (over 40 years ago) about a woman justifiably burned at the stake. I think those pitchfork mobs with torches were always given a bad rap. I mean, in the original Frankenstein they aren't portrayed in a very positive light and yet were acting in the right, in my opinion, since that behemoth murdered a little girl. I'm sure there are other pictures featuring these kind of mobs, usually taking place in eastern europe someplace, where they are portrayed as a bunch of raving, puritanical, monsters that are completely unsympathetic to the monster they are chasing. And then there is that Joan of Arc broad who probably deserved what she got as well. Know-it-all bitch. Also, the salem witch trials. You're telling me not a single one of those women was a witch? Or, at least, not rightfully god fearing like a real american woman should be? The only way to cure that type of blasphemy is through a purifying fire my friends. Yet, history, and the movies, looks down upon these mobs. Have you ever heard the term "mob mentality" used to refer to something good? Didn't think so, at least not within the last century or so. I think there's safety in numbers. It saves you from having to come up with your own opinion, formulate your own ideas. Also, if you're wrong you can just blame it on the other guy. Let's bring back the pitchfork mobs is what I'm saying.
Anyway, Black Sunday is the first picture Mario Bava directed and probably the best. Filmed in stark black and white, set in Moldavia (eastern europe somewhere on the road to Moscow). The film begins with one of those purifications by fire that I mentioned earlier during the seventeenth century. The strangely beautiful (I'd do her but she's pretty weird lookin) witch, Asa (Barbara Steele), and her lover, fellow satanist Javutich, have been sentenced to death by an angry mob (led by Asa's own brother). This is a great fucking scene, the best in the picture. Perhaps one of the best ever filmed. The atmosphere just oozes out of every frame, glorious fires, stakes, fog, crickety looking trees and a hulking, hooded executioner carrying a rather large mallet. Asa is sentenced to wear the "mask of satan" (alternate title for the movie). It's just a mask really, except for the metal spikes on the inside. Asa quickly curses her brother, her ancestors, etc before the mask is placed upon her face. That's not really the worst part though. Those nails haven't gone too deep into her flesh yet so here comes the big executioner with his hammer to really pound their point home. Her scream is cut short the instant the hammer connects and blood gushes from the eyeholes. Not exactly what you'd expect to see in a picture released in 1960. Unfortunately, the fires were put out by the devil's rain that immediately followed and the mob dispersed in a mad panic. They had to settle for burying Javutich (his mask was placed upon his face before the movie even started) in a graveyard "reserved for murderers" and Asa was laid to rest in the tomb beneath her families castle. Her crypt even comes with a window so she can see the cross that will "keep her nailed down forever".
I won't say that Bava completely blew his load with this first scene. I'm pretty sure he rested up for a few hours before continuing. The next load just wasn't quite as big. How could it be? The rest of the picture is still pretty good though. Two centuries later, Dr. Kruvayan and his protoge, Andre, are traveling through Moldavia on their way to Moscow for some sort of science-y conference. The wheel on their carriage falls off and the wander around while the drunken, imbecilic driver fixes it. They stumble upon Asa's crypt, Kruvayal fends off the worst looking bat in film history, destroys the cross above Asa's crypt (accidentaly, while fending off the bat), shatters the protective glass window and cuts himself in the process (accidentaly, while fending off the bat), etc, etc, you get the idea. His blood drips into Asa's eyeless sockets allowing her to return to the realm of the living. Barbara Steele also plays the role of Katja, Asa's doppleganger and ancestor. Asa's goal is to possess Katja and reawaken her love, Javutich, so they can live happily ever after (forever) while causing murder and mayhem amongst humankind.
It's undeniable that Tim Burton took some of his visual style from Bava and, in particular, Black Sunday. This picture looks very much like his Sleepy Hollow. We even have a protagonist, Andre, who is unabashedly a man of science although, in the end, he's a little easier to convince than Depp's Ichabod Crane was. The castle of Asa's ancestors (now occupied by Katja, her father, her brother, etc) is one of those classic gothic castles with hidden passageways, trap doors, and flammable tapestries. Every frame is perfectly set designed from the trees to the roads. It all looks artificial, but that only serves to enhance the otherworldly atmosphere. I thought the score was terrific but since I'm pretty much tone deaf I'll leave it for others to describe. It would have fit in perfectly with the scores from the old Universal monster movies.
It's hard for me to judge the performances. The picture is dubbed, sometimes badly, and who knows how closely the lines being said match up with the original screenplay. Steele, as the witch, is creepy when she's telling her victims to "look into my eyes". As Katja, however, she is much less interesting. Her exchanges with potential love interest Andre, include lines like "I feel like I'm being consumed hour by hour like this garden" to which he responds, "you mustn't give in to despair." Then, I think they banged (off screen). A little too soap opery for my taste. Arturo Dominici played the guy-witch, Javutich, and he was a pretty scary fuck. Looked kinda like Gary Oldman only with horrible pock marks (an unfortunate side effect of "the mask of satan", Asa had them too). Unfortunately, for a guy that's been dead for a couple centuries and with all the powers of satan behind him, he's not a very good fighter. His skill set involves rolling around on the ground. Andre is far from what I would call masculine (the guys a pussy pretty much, a love struck motherfucking pussy) and yet he holds his own with the guy/man-witch/demon/whatever.
There are, I'm sorry to admit, a few moments of unintentional hilarity. One being when the castle dogs have had their throats slit by a possessed victim of the witch (2nd straight movie where a dog dies!). Well, I don't know, I guess there's a pool of blood on the floor but those dogs still seem pretty happy and alive. They almost saved the scene with a quick cut, but I am pretty sure the one on the left rolled over to have its tummy rubbed. I also loved how the answer to all of life's problems (and horrors) can be solved with drugs. Katja, upon seing a hand reaching through the drapes of her balcony, shrieks in terror. Her brother and Andre rush in and can't find anything: "All clear, I'll get the sedative". Again, this just might be an issue with the dubbing.
Minor quibbles aside, this is a great picture that you can get lost in if you appreciate some great atmospherics. There are some terrific effects work here; Asa's reforming, scorpion infested eyes, a burning corpse, Asa's exposed rib cage (mid transformation). Andre though is a pussy throughout. When he thinks Katja dead he intones "my life is finished now..." Jesus man, get a hold of yourself. You just met the broad five minutes ago. Plenty of fish, or hookers, in the sea. Hell, even Asa is looking pretty fine. Just wait a few hours and I'm sure she'll be fully operational. I bet she's dirtier than Katja too. Those satanists always are. Alas, we'll never find out because here comes yet another angry mob with torches, a mere two hundred years after the last one. I wonder if masturbation was invented yet? And, if so, was it a stake burning offense? My advice for Andre would be to add Katja to ye olde spank bank and just move on.