Although a great film, Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava’s attempt to reignite the horror genre in Italy, I vampiri (US: The Devil’s Commandment), failed miserably at the box office when released in 1957. By all accounts this was largely due to their fellow country-people’s lack of faith in the idea of a homegrown horror film. At that time the Gothic was an all but moribund form anyway, with even ‘atom age’ sci-fi monster movies being on the downturn.
Before I vampiri had even played to its first audience, the pair had of course moved on to new projects. Freda quickly returned to historical epics like The White Warrior (1959) and Bava was back on cinematography and special effects duties, for the Steve Reeves Hercules movies (1958/59) and The Day the Sky Exploded (1958).
Meanwhile, over in Gran Bretagna, a small studio by the name of Hammer Films, spurred on by the runaway success of TV adaptation The Quatermass Xperiment (US: The Creeping Unknown, 1955), hit upon the idea of bringing Frankenstein and his accursed monster back to the big screen in colour. The result was of course international smash hit The Curse if Frankenstein (1957), which shocked Italy under the name of La maschera di Frankenstein – ‘The Mask of Frankenstein’. Suddenly, Gothic horror films were back.
However, when Bava and Freda next joined forces, the Quatermass films and 1958’s The Blob formed their inspirations rather than the rejuvenated Gothic form. Caltiki – il mostro immortale / Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959) was again directed by Freda – at least initially – with Bava as DoP and special effects coordinator. While sources seem to differ slightly on this, Freda maintained that he discontinued work on the film at least partly to help his friend realise himself as a director. He also had little enthusiasm for its out-of-this-world subject matter. “There are monsters, space jellyfish,” he told Antonio Bruschini, author of Horror all’italiana. “That’s Bava’s stuff, honestly, it’s his genre.’
So, while the true extent of who did what remains unclear – both principal players are no longer with us – Caltiki once again saw Bava completing Freda’s work; again, uncredited as director. And, after their experience with I vampiri, Freda and Bava credited themselves as ‘Robert Hamton’ (sic) and ‘Marie Foam’ respectively, to disguise the film’s origins in a country not exactly synonymous with monster movies.
From Caltiki, Bava swiftly moved on to another cinematography and special effects gig, this time working with none other than the once-great Cat People (1943) director, Jacques Tourner. The Giant of Marathon (1959) was another Steve Reeves peplum epic, coming hot on the heels of the muscle-man’s international Hercules smashes.
When Tourner became ill – or possibly just couldn’t handle the madcap antics of the Yugoslavian soldiers acting as extras on the film – Bava was once again asked to step in and complete the epic. Again, he found himself uncredited for this work. However, so pleased were Galatea Films with his rescue job that they gave him virtually carte blanche to develop and direct whatever he saw fit; the only proviso being, naturally, that the budget be kept low.
A lover of fantastical themes already, Bava had enjoyed (and noted the recent success of) Terence Fisher’s Dracula (US: Horror of Dracula, 1958), or Dracula il vampiro as it was known in Italy, and decided that his directorial début proper would be a horror picture. Thus La maschera del demonio (1960) was born (a play on the Italian release title of Curse of Frankenstein) and Italian popular cinema would never be quite the same again. Not only would it ultimately guarantee Bava a revered place in the pantheon of great horror directors, but it would also make a star out of an unknown 23-year-old English actress going by the name of Barbara Steele.
An avid reader of Russian literature, Bava took Nikolai Gogol’s supernatural novella ‘Viy’ (Вий) as his starting point, although little of this ended up on screen. A ‘true’ adaptation of Gogol’s tale wouldn’t be seen until the 1967 Russian film of the same name by Konstantin Yershov, but the elements that do survive – a resurrected witch and a stranded student – form the basis of a narrative that would go on to be hailed as a Gothic classic in its own right.
As a voice-over situates us in a time “before the dawning of the age of reason”, we see a muscular figure in executioner’s garb heating an iron in a raging fire. Behind him, gnarled, leafless trees can be glimpsed through heavy mist. As the camera pans along to the right, we see a succession of robed figures holding burning torches. Cut back to the fire, where the iron is drawn out and two more executioner figures flank the first as he approaches a rack. On it is tied a raven-haired woman, her face obscured as she is trussed facing the other way, and beyond her another figure lies bound and prone. Beyond both, a dozen or so torch flames and several silhouettes represent the grim congregation that has come to bear witness.
While two of the brutish figures hold the woman down to brace her, the iron-bearer turns around for a signal, which is given when the apparent leader of the robed entities outstretches his arm to point. In response, the executioner forces the hot iron into the small of the prone woman’s back. As he does so we cut to a lingering close-up of the brand sinking into her flesh, the brand that we now see forms an ‘S’ – for Satan. But the worst is yet to come.
Her accuser is her own brother. “Too many evil deeds have you done to satisfy your monstrous love for that serf of the devil, Igor Javutich.” As he says this name, we cut to the figure on the other rack – clearly dead, wearing a strange devil-face mask. “May God have pity on your soul,” he continues, “in this, your final hour.”
Our attention is soon stolen by the sight of the grotesque mask on the ground, which one of the lumbering executioners bends down to collect. The executioner turns the mask around, revealing to the viewer’s horror that it contains a number of spikes of at least six inches in length covering the surface of its interior. As he approaches Asa, and the viewer, with this terrifying prospect, she at first writhes in fear, but then finds her resolve.
“My revenge will strike down you and your accursed house and in the blood of your sons and the sons of their sons, I will continue to live – immortal!” she raves. “They will restore to me the life that you now rob from me!” As the executioner places the fatal mask on her face, she continues to rave. A second approaches, wielding a long-handled mallet. The Son of Vajda gives the signal and the mallet comes crashing down onto mask and face, a geyser of blood spurting up out of the mask as lightning flashes.
Cue title sequence. Before even the opening credits had begun, it must have been clear to audiences in 1960 (not until much later in the UK) that they were seeing a film quite unlike any they had seen before. There is so much going on here that it’s difficult to digest at once. Aside from the unprecedented brutality of the scene, it furnishes the viewer’s imagination with so much to run with that it is immediately compelled by the narrative.
The forces of ‘good’ here are the aggressors; the sinister robed figures, in fact more reminiscent of the ‘Satanists’ seen on lurid paperback covers of the day, and those brawny, masked executioners with their unwholesome BDSM connotations, come across as self-righteous, sadistic fanatics, using their church as justification for the worst kinds of oppression. The viewer’s sympathy, at least initially, is not with them but with the darkly beautiful woman, Asa (Barbara Steele, of course), that they have bound and tortured. We are told she has committed “evil deeds” but what were they to warrant this? And what on earth is “monstrous love”?
She is by her own admission a servant of Satan, a witch, but the viewer still shares in her rage at her betrayal at the hands of her own brother and can’t help but admire her defiance in the face of a situation where any normal person would be whimpering like a baby. And who cannot identify with a character that it seems has risked everything for love, even if this love is deemed “monstrous”?
It is this confusion of feelings – much more acute to the more conventionally religious mindset of nearly sixty years ago – triggered by the content of this shockingly violent pre-credits sequence, that propels La maschera de demonio into the realms of the uncanny. The words ‘good and evil’ or ‘light and dark’ seem to no longer carry any meaning in this mist-wreathed twilight world.
Of course, from this point onwards the narrative becomes more formulaic and recognisable. How could it not? But this doesn’t mean Black Sunday ceases to be transgressive and interesting. After we have seen “the fury of the elements” extinguish the pyre that burns Asa’s body and see her interred into the family crypt, we are quickly whisked away to two hundred years hence, where we meet Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Andre Gorobec (John Richardson); two doctors, one a veteran and the other a recently graduated student, on their way to a medical convention in Moscow. Here we have our heroes; two unproblematic figures to identify with, complete with cowardly comic relief coach-driver.
While Bava’s stark cinematography and Giorgio Giovannini’s gorgeous set design have been consistent from the outset, nothing can quite prepare one for the breathtaking look of the ruined Vajda family crypt when the two doctors enter it. As beautifully shot as the castle interiors of I vampiri were, this represents a leap from even them, channelling Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) to an even greater degree. Reaching the bottom of the cobweb-strewn steps the camera pans around 360 degrees to allow the viewer to discover it with the characters, effectively smashing down the fourth wall and placing us, too, in this forsaken place.
It is soon after this, as they leave the crypt (little suspecting that they have just inadvertently resurrected Asa), that we meet Katia for the first time, also played by Steele, with the iconic shot, as seen in a thousand monster magazines, that has her wearing a long black cloak, flanked by two huge dogs on leashes, and framed by the ruined archway entrance to the crypt. Even though he has just seen her very image lying in the tomb, rotten and crawling with insects, young Andre is immediately besotted; the viewer is equally fascinated.
Aside from this, one of the most arresting sequences is that where Asa’s devoted lover, Javutich (Hercules villain Arturo Dominici), rises from the grave by the force of his newly arisen mistress’s will. During a raging thunderstorm, the earth heaves and Javutich’s filth-encrusted hands emerge to pull out the rest of him – a terrifying figure in a Satanic death-mask that lumbers off into the night. A masterfully evocative scene worthy of the very finest of Universal’s thirties classics.
Much of the film’s power comes from the young Steele’s depiction of Asa, contrasted with her role as ‘good’ descendent, Katia. As Asa she is at once seductive and terrifying. Even as she lies on a slab, her face still covered in puncture marks from the hideous mask, she seduces Kruvajan with her malefic influence. She writhes orgasmically as she drains the life force from Katia and appears to derive a sexual frisson from every act of evil. Katia on the other hand is ‘innocent’ and ‘safe’ and hence a hell of a lot less interesting to anyone but Andre. Bad girls really do have all the fun it seems; but of course they must lose everything in the end.
Scenes dealing with Andre and Katia’s budding romance are rather flat and unconvincing; the only romance with any resonance is between Javutich and Asa. The specifics of their “monstrous love” are never elaborated upon, allowing this loaded phrase to work on the imagination; whatever form it took in their previous life must have been something pretty amazing. Evil, murderous swine they may be, but they remain devoted to each nother across the two centuries that have passed.
While a masterpiece in many ways, standing proudly alongside the Universal classics and the best of Hammer’s output, La maschera is still not without its flaws. For example, the narrative can’t seem to decide on its own lore; Asa is apparently a witch who regenerates herself by draining the life-force of others as opposed to a literal vampire, but when villager ‘Boris’ is discovered, murdered by Javutich, he is found to have puncture marks on his neck. As mentioned above, the Andre/Katia romance seems bereft of any real charge and secondary characters like Katia’s brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri) appear as cardboard cut-outs.
Many tropes that would recur in Bava’s subsequent work are present here; the corrupted family unit devouring itself from the inside, the castle with dark secret passages and trapdoors (the fireplace secret passage from I vampiri returns, as it would do again in 1964’s The Whip and the Body), the study in female evil. La maschera sets the template for Bava’s genre work to come – not to mention the direction that Italian horror movies would take for the next 30-odd years.
It also made a horror icon out of Barbara Steele, and, while she only starred in a total of nine Italian horror films of the many made throughout the sixties, her name and image will be forever synonymous with Euro Gothic cinema of the period. One thinks of Steele and immediately thinks of Bava, despite Black Sunday being the one and only time she worked with the director. It launched her career; a typecast one, for sure, but one must ask if she would really have achieved her almost mythical status working in other genres. After all, it doesn’t tend to be her smaller roles in more ‘prestige’ fare like Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) that she’s worshipped for.
Unlike I vampiri, La maschera del demonio was a tremendous success, both as domestic release and export, making the Italian horror film suddenly a saleable prospect and flooding US drive-ins with Euro product for the next twenty years. For its US release, the film was picked up by none other than AIP impresario Samuel Z. Arkoff, who came up with the master stroke of retitling it Black Sunday – the title by which it is still best known to English-speaking audiences to this day – with a tagline urging potential viewers to “Stare Into These Eyes – discover deep within the unspeakable terrifying secret”.
The MPAA urged Arkoff to make considerable cuts. Knowing that these would lessen the gruesome impact of what he immediately knew was a hot property, he negotiated with the body to get many of these waived, mollifying them with an unprecedented warning banner stating, “not recommended for those under 13 years of age”’. However, the film didn’t come off quite so lightly in the UK; when Britain’s answer to Arkoff, Nat Cohen of Anglo-Amalgamated, submitted it to the then ‘Board of Examiners’, as led by John Trevelyan, they forced Cohen to make extensive cuts, and even after these were made they still refused the finished product a certificate. Essentially banned, Black Sunday didn’t see the light of day in the UK until 1968, when a tatty cut version limped out under the yawn-inducing title of Revenge of the Vampire.
Bava would of course go on to make many more fine films in the genre over the 60s and 70s, but his next foray into horror wouldn’t be of the Gothic variety. La ragazza che sapeva troppo / The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) would instead employ his mastery of light and shadow in marking the dawn of a whole new subgenre; the giallo. However, before this he would revisit the peplum, with one such being Ercole al centro della terra / Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). Soaked in Gothic elements, this one would see him work with the star of the film that had spurred him on to make his masterpiece in the first place. Hammer’s Dracula himself, Christopher Lee.
Following on from Black Sunday, the next great film in the Italian Gothic cycle wouldn’t be made by Bava, but by none other than his friend and mentor, Riccardo Freda. With a top-billed Barbara Steele in the starring role.