Black Sunday was the first official director's credit for Italian cinematographer Mario Bava, and the film that launched his career as one of the master stylists of European genre film. Though he was by no means a neophyte and had quite a career as DP behind him, and had even stepped in to finish a couple of productions abandoned by their directors, Black Sunday is the foundation stone of his reputation, and what a foundation stone!
Shot in gloriously expressionist black-and-white, and retaining merely a couple of starting points from a short story by Russian master Nikolai Gogol, Black Sunday puts a pair of travelling physicians in 19th century Eastern Europe crossing paths with the tomb of a 17th century witch burned at the stake, whose curse on her lineage has lingered on - and whose undead spirit is accidentally freed by the men of science. As the horror of two centuries ago is unleashed again on the remote countryside, Mr. Bava elicits a mesmerizing performance from British then-newcomer Barbara Steele, playing both Asa, the evil, unhinged witch, and her great-grandniece Katia, a gentle, melancholy girl caught unwillingly in the family curse.
On paper, it all seems to be another piece of classic Gothic silliness - but plotting was never the forte of genre and exploitation, and any Gothic lives or dies mostly on the mood and handling. Mr. Bava's admirably visual, strikingly elegant compositions, as his camera roams the studio sets that remind nothing so much as Hollywood's concept of the "exotic", create just the eerie, ominous mood that the tale needs to work on-screen. The black-and-white cinematography (by the director himself) is a gorgeously rendered, almost tactile game of shadows and light; no wonder many observers put Black Sunday as a heir to the seminal Universal monster movies of the 1930s, though its sensual, garish tone is closer to Roger Corman's cycle of Poe adaptations.
Mr. Bava's camerawork and staging is first-rate, with an attentive collaborator in veteran editor Mario Serandrei (who is also one of the credited writers), resulting in a film that so visually luxurious and rich that even non-genre fans will find themselves fascinated by its texture and perfectly judged rhythm. Exploitation cinema has never been so stylish and inspired as when Mr. Bava took care of it.
LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO
Cast Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici
Director and cinematographer Mario Bava (b&w); screenwriters Ennio de Concini and Mario Serandrei; based on the story by Nikolai Gogol, "Viy"; composer Roberto Nicolosi; designer Giorgio Giovannini; costumes Tina Loriedo Grani; editor Mr. Serandrei; producer Massimo de Rita; production companies Galatea and Jolly Film
Screened April 9th 2014, Lisbon, DVD