Directed By: Mario Bava
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi
Tag line: "Once every 100 years the undead of hell terrorize the world in an orgy of stark horror"
Trivia: Barbara Steele didn't see the script in advance. She would be given pages daily
Directed by Mario Bava, 1960’s Black Sunday opens in 17th century Moldavia, where Asa (Barbara Steele), a member of the aristocratic Vajda family, and her faithful assistant Javutich (Aturo Domnici), stand accused of practicing witchcraft. Sentenced to death for their crimes, the two are taken to a field, where Asa’s own brother oversees their execution. In retaliation, Asa puts a curse on her brother and his descendants, promising that he will “never escape” her vengeance, or that of Satan. When the deed is finally done, Javutich is buried in a nearby cemetery, while Asa’s body is placed in a chapel adjacent to the Vajda estate. Fearing the power of her black magic, the locals put a cross on Asa’s crypt, which, they feel, will prevent her from ever returning.
Two centuries later, a couple of doctors; Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Gorobec (John Richardson) are on their way to a medical conference when their coach breaks down. While the driver is repairing the damage, the two men go for a stroll and end up inside the chapel where Asa’s body lays. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Kruvajan is attacked by a bat, and in his attempts to kill it he accidentally shatters the cross sitting atop Asa’s crypt. With the cross gone, Asa is free to return to the ranks of the living, and once back, sets her sights on draining the life force of Katia Vajda (also portrayed by Steele), one of her brother’s descendants. Hoping to destroy this evil before it spreads, young Dr. Gorobec, who’s fallen in love with Katia, tries to save the day. But is he strong enough to defeat such a formidable foe?
From the opening sequence, where we witness Asa’s execution (which also features the film’s most graphic scene: the Mask of Satan, with several long spikes attached to the back of it, being hammered onto the poor girl’s face), it’s easy to see why Black Sunday is considered a classic of the horror genre. What impressed me most was the overall atmosphere; from the get-go, Bava establishes a dark, foreboding tone that he manages to maintain through much of the picture. Black Sunday is also stylishly shot. Prior to sitting in the director’s chair, Bava worked as a cinematographer, and his penchant for moving the camera in new and interesting ways resulted in some fascinating scenes. What’s more, the set pieces are gorgeous, and Bava ensures we get a good look at all of them (when Kuvajan and Gorobec first enter the dilapidated tomb, the camera spins 360 degrees, revealing every nook and cranny of this terrifying locale). All this, combined with Barbara Steele’s superb performance as the evil Asa (arguably the sexiest witch in cinematic history), helped transform Black Sunday into one of the most influential horror films ever made.
Simply put, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday is a gothic masterpiece, and I loved every minute of it.