Remembering Mario Bava’s
Tristan Shaw celebrates 60 years of Black Sunday, the influential gothic masterpiece and Mario Bava's debut proper...
1960 was probably the greatest year in the history of horror films. In the United Kingdom, Michael Powell ruined his career with the brilliant proto-slasher Peeping Tom. Across the Atlantic, fellow Englishman Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho made audiences afraid of the shower, while B-movie maestro Roger Corman had just started on the first of his celebrated Poe adaptations with House of Usher. Meanwhile, Japan’s Jigoku pushed the gore factor in its colourful rendition of Hell and all its tortures, and The Housemaid in Korea brought horror right into an ordinary, middle-class home. Lastly, in Europe, we fondly recall George Franju’s beautifully eerie Eyes Without a Face, along with Mario Bava’s gothic shocker Black Sunday. (Also known by The Mask of Satan, a translation closer to the Italian title La maschera del demonio.)
The majority of these landmark films were in the thrust of new trends. Horror films were becoming more violent and sexual, moving stories away from the old castles and misty villages of yesteryear to the safety and triviality of the modern era. The villains were increasingly human, seemingly ordinary people like a filmmaker, a housemaid, and a candy-corn munching motel owner.
Compared to its contemporaries, Black Sunday feels closer to an old-fashioned horror picture. It takes place in the 19th century, in an exotic slice of Eastern Europe, with noblemen, vampires, and other gothic staples. While it channelled a Universal monster movie in its aesthetics, Black Sunday was closer in spirit to the blood and sex of Hammer. The story is silly and ridiculous at points, but that’s not the focus here. Bava’s movie thrives on its creepy atmosphere and technical craft. In its day, Black Sunday was shockingly gruesome. Audiences weren’t used to scenes like its iconic opening, in which a witch has a spiked, metal mask hammered into her face.
Technically, Black Sunday was Mario Bava’s directorial debut, although he had already worked as an uncredited co-director on several genre films. In 1959, when the 40-something Bava was offered the chance to direct a feature entirely by himself, he thought about drawing on Nikolai Gogol’s short story Viy. This classic vampire tale—which Bava loved so much that he used to read it to his children as a bedtime story—inspired a 4-page story treatment. Bava’s initial sketch took place in the modern-day. It featured a couple stumbling on Roman ruins, listening to an old man relate the tale of a philosopher named Choma. In the story-within-a-story, the man is harassed to death by a witch and her demons, including a monster called Viy.
Like Black Sunday, this treatment borrowed only loosely from Gogol’s classic novella. In Viy, a philosopher named Khoma Brut kills an old woman who turns out to be an attractive young witch. In her dying breath, the witch curses her killer and promises to return and take revenge. Khoma is confronted by her reanimated corpse and has to try to survive three nights of supernatural hijinks. By the time Bava finished a script with his collaborators, the resemblance to Viy was even weaker.
Instead of placing it in Kyiv, for example, the setting was moved to 19th century Moldavia. The basic ideas of a witch and curse were kept, yet not much else remained. Choma became a doctor, travelling to the countryside for a medical conference with his assistant Gorobec. The vampire-like witch of the movie, Princess Asa Vajda, is executed by her brother for sorcery. Unlike his literary counterpart, Choma has no part in the death of the witch. His mistake is simply poking around in her tomb, awakening her by accidentally spilling blood on her mummified corpse. Back from the dead, Asa uses Choma in a plot against her brother’s descendants, hoping to possess the newest princess, Katia.
While Bava storyboarded his film, its six-week shoot was chaotic. His relationship with Barbara Steele on-set is infamous. How Bava came across Steele—then an unknown American actress—varies depending on who you ask. At any rate, neither Bava nor Steele seemed to trust the other. In an interview with Video Watchdog magazine, Steele noted that she was never given a full script, only snippets day-by-day. “We had hardly any idea what was going down on that film,” she said. “We had no idea of the end, or the beginning, either, not at all.” As customary in the Italian film industry of the time, Steele and her co-star John Richardson spoke their lines in English and were overdubbed into Italian.
On its release in Italy in August 1960, Black Sunday barely earned back its budget of 139,000,000 lire (equivalent to $87,000 today). Domestic critics largely panned it, although some did admit to its impressive cinematography  Outside of the country, the impressions were different. In France, prestigious magazines like Cahiers du cinema and its rival Positif lauded it, praising its camerawork and Bava’s eye for imagery. Over the rest of the decade, it was screened across Europe, playing in Mexico and Japan as well. The United Kingdom, sadly, was late to this ghoulish party. Censors wagged their fingers over the iconic opening mask scene, denying it certification. It wouldn’t be until 1968, recut under the name Revenge of the Vampire, that Bava’s masterpiece could sink its teeth into British horror fans.
To make the movie more “palatable” for American audiences, Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan was also unfortunately edited down for the United States. American International Pictures recognised the film’s potential, paying $100,000 for distribution rights. Aside from branding the film Black Sunday, AIP replaced the soundtrack, re-dubbed all the dialogue into English, and removed three minutes of footage.  Their rebranding was not an outright butchering but has enough excisions to be mildly irritating. Some of the movie’s more violent scenes end prematurely, while a love subplot between Katia and Gorobec was trimmed down. While the Italian dub is no masterpiece, the English dub is also laughably bad, piling campiness on an already absurd plot.
Even in its cut form, however, Black Sunday put a spell on American audiences. Reviews were kinder than in Italy, and commercially, moviegoers made Black Sunday AIP’s biggest hit of 1960. (The studio actually recruited Steele for their adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum the next year.) It introduced Americans and the world at large to Italian horror, and Bava would soon invent the giallo with The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963. In the sixty years since it first hypnotised horror fans, Black Sunday has influenced a number of artists and filmmakers, including Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola. Although its explicit gruesomeness isn’t revolutionary anymore, the film endures thanks to its haunting atmosphere, its striking black-and-white visuals, and its morbid creativity.
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