Column: The Vault of Secrets: Black Sunday (1960)

Orrin Grey

Black Sunday (1960). Director: Mario Bava. Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where, every other week, we’ll be unearthing a classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight, we’ll be examining the first of a pair of similarly-titled Mario Bava thrillers, Black Sunday, starring horror legend Barbara Steele, in not quite her first film role but pretty close. The version I watched is from the Mario Bava Collection.

I’ve said before in this column that I came to these classic movies late in my life. I didn’t grow up with any of them. So, as I do these columns, I’m often seeing the films I discuss for the first time. This is one of those. Even as I’ve begun to really explore the great vintage horror cinema, there are still weird gaps in my viewing and one of those has been, until recently, the large amount of Italian horror. After watching a few films by Dario Argento, I decided it was time to go back to the man that inspired him and check out Mario Bava. The always-amazing Gemma Files recommended that I start with Black Sunday, which I’d been meaning to watch, anyway, ever since it made the list of Mike Mignola’s ten favourite horror films, so I was excited to finally give it a shot.

It opens incredibly strong, with an oft-imitated sequence of inquisitors branding and torturing a woman and her servant (in the original Italian version, he was her brother and there were apparently themes of incest that were excised from the American releases), and imprisoning them in the “Mask of Satan”, a sort of Iron Maiden-like mask that is, without a doubt, the movie’s most indelible image, and rightly so. The sequence when the mask is pounded in is still cringe-inducing, and the entire opening is as atmospheric and potent as anything you’re ever likely to find.

Black Sunday (called by the much better title of ‘The Mask of Satan‘, originally) never really surpasses those opening moments, but it’s pretty solid throughout, if a little slow in places. The shadows are dark and rich, the castle and crypt sets as impressively Gothic as any you could ask for, the photography generally sumptuous. Though based on Nikolai Gogol’s story “Viy”, the film really feels like an homage to the Universal movies of the 30s, more than anything, and there are a lot of great sequences throughout. It’s the kind of movie where a lot of time is spent panning around empty rooms, but there’s a definite and pervasive atmosphere to even those shots.

That’s it for tonight’s installment of the Vault of Secrets, but be sure to join us next time as we tackle what might be Mario Bava’s most famous film, though it’s hard to say since its title is so similar to this one’s.