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Black Sunday (Blu-Ray Review)

Kino Lorber releases Black Sunday on Blu-Ray… Part of their Mario Bava Collection

Director : Mario Bava
Starring: Andrea Checchi, Barbara Steele, Ivo Garrani, John Richardson
Type: B&W
Year: 1960
Language: English
Length: 87 min
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Disks: 1
Region: A

When it comes to horror films, each decade has given us a distinct representation of the genre, but no decade was as revolutionary as the 1960s. Sure, the ‘70s introduced us to a dirtier, far more brutal and merciless face of horror with films that continually pushed the envelope in terms of shock value. But it will always be the ‘60s that served as the springboard for that ‘70s genre “re-imaging” and everything to follow. New, daring filmmakers were taking chances in their storytelling during this time, and it hasn’t been the same since.

As far as plots were concerned, nothing was particularly groundbreaking. We’d been there before. Creaky, boarded-up haunted houses. Cemeteries hidden beneath gnarled, overgrown weeds. Crumbling ruins. Gothic castles, dungeons, secret labs, torture chambers and crypts. We had visited all of these places and watched the monsters that inhabited them lumber about, causing screams of fear and terror both on-screen and in the audience.

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But somewhere between 1959 and 1960, a line had been drawn in the sand. Not yet a thick one, but one unmistakable nonetheless. The world was a much darker, meaner, and more gruesome place than cinema had previously let on, and it seemed that 1960 would be the year to segue us into that new realm of genre.

Again, little had changed in terms of the storytelling. Vampires still seduced their prey…only now, the prey was more than willing to expose her neck to the bite (as well as a plunging, cleavage-filled neckline). Madmen were still murdering screaming young starlets…only now, it was graphically up-close and personal, and in such vulnerable places as the shower.

And a then-unknown young Italian director/cinematographer named Mario Bava would reinforce this new wave of horror with his gothic masterpiece Black Sunday. He would drive the point home with a very big hammer – against a mask lined with spikes.

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The Film

Based very loosely on a Russian short story by Nikolai Gogol titled “Viy,” Black Sunday begins with a witch named Asa (played venomously by Barbara Steele in a career-defining role) and her brother Javuto being executed for sorcery by their eldest sibling in 1630. Before meeting her gruesome fate, she swears revenge on her brother and any descendants that follow.

Jump ahead two centuries, and we meet a doctor and his assistant wandering around the crumbling ruins of the crypt that Asa was buried in while their carriage is repaired. They find her body, curiously preserved in its coffin and recognize her peculiar burial as a medieval tactic against resurrection and witchcraft. Accidentally smashing the cross that was placed above the tomb to keep Asa immobile, the doctors unwittingly awaken the witch who uses her evil sorcery to lure victims to the crypt to feed on (she’s also a vampire of sorts), resurrect her brother Javuto and exact the revenge she vowed on her descendants 200 years ago.

Having worked over 15 years before Black Sunday as a cinematographer and stand-in director for numerous other films, Bava proves within the first few frames that he has a keen eye for capturing the proper mood for a film of this sort. It’s not just the bleak landscapes and shadowy graveyards and castles that evoke a Poe-style dread. There’s visual flair here that’s clearly influenced by cinematography greats like Gregg Toland and Stanley Cortez. There’s a unique style at work that captures things in a menacing, yet beautiful way. At a glance, Black Sunday has the initial look of a classic Universal Monster picture. The film would continue to inspire filmmakers to this day (Tim Burton is just one such director who cites it as a direct influence on his work).

But there are also those “other” elements at hand here…

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Bava would introduce a new level of violent imagery in Black Sunday that caught audiences and critics off guard. So off guard, in fact, that the United States censors removed over three minutes of its original running time. England even went as far as to ban the film outright for 8 whole years. Considering the time of its release, it seems understandable. Audiences simply weren’t used to seeing blood surging from the eyeholes of a spiked mask hammered into a screaming face. Nor were many prepared to see fire melt a face down to the bone, or empty eye sockets suddenly bubble with glowing, white retinal fluid.

And yet, despite its rather gruesome approach, critics and audiences were quite taken with Bava’s first credited foray into horror. Why shouldn’t they have been? Unlike many other films since that use the shock value alone to sell tickets, Bava told a genuinely frightening story, and he told it with a hauntingly beautiful visual style. The gruesome shocks in the film merely punctuated the suspense and terror he had already built.

Steele’s dual performance is remarkable as well. She plays both the wide-eyed witch Asa, filled with seething hatred and evil, as well as her identical descendant, the innocent but haunted Katia. Though only minimal make-up was used to distinguish the two characters, Steele more than makes up for it with two very distinct performances. Polar opposite of each other, Asa and Katia look like two sides of the same coin – one side, clean, demure and innocent, the other, a rough, callused and vile creature that somehow still manages to come across disturbingly alluring. Chalk that anomaly up to Steele’s ability to make even the most frightening of characters oddly attractive.

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Video

The presentation is a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer in its original, theatrical 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. Some have taken issue with Kino’s policy to NOT manipulate their image transfers with digital interference. In the case of Black Sunday, there’s only a couple of instances early on that seem to have a noticeable softness to the image, but frankly, this is the best the film has ever looked. The source print is in great condition (only a small scratch or two, and some barely noticeable specs), and the image is crisp. Blacks are rich and deep, which is necessary to the overwhelmingly Gothic visuals. Film grain is completely intact. The HD mastering, from an archival 35mm print, is fantastic and does the film full justice. This is how we used to watch movies before the era of video.

A few people have noted a slightly “solarized” quality to certain sections of the film, which likely arises directly from the source material, rather than from the digital transfer. But this is not too bothersome.

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Audio

The audio, on the other hand, is about as good as previous releases and will likely never sound better than this. It’s dubbed in English (sometimes painfully), and there are only a couple of brief moments that sounded a little muddled for my tastes. The 2.0 mono soundtrack is crisp, for the most part, but there’s obvious age to the sound here. Nothing entirely distracting, but again, this is likely the source material, and no fault of Kino’s. Like the video transfer, the source audio is in good shape for its age.

Extras

With the exception of some additional trailers for other Bava films (Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Baron Blood, Lisa and the Devil and The House of Exorcism), everything is mostly identical to previous releases of the film from Image Entertainment and Anchor Bay.

You still get that insightful and in-depth Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog and the foremost expert on Bava, having penned the incredible 2007 book “Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark.” I doubt there’s a person alive who knows more about Bava’s films than Lucas, and the commentary is a must-listen for Bava enthusiasts.

Also available from previous releases are the Original U.S. Theatrical Trailer (2:06), the International Trailer (3:26), and a TV Spot (0:21).

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Curiously missing though, are the Poster Art/Photo Galleries, and the biographies for both Bava and Steele, all of which were included in the discontinued releases by Anchor Bay and Image Entertainment. It would have been nice to cart those over, as they’re unlikely to have taken up much data space.

Frankly, I’m a little disappointed a few exclusive features weren’t created for this release. Possibly an interview with Steele, or maybe a second commentary track with her would have been a nice touch (although it would have, likely, been difficult to get her to participate). An overall retrospective featurette could also have been a key bonus feature – something that examined the film’s initial notoriety, and its influence on the genre since its release over 50 years ago.

Bottom Line

Black Sunday is a cornerstone film for horror enthusiasts, and the perfect way to introduce audiences to Italian horror. It’s required viewing for genre fans, and a necessary starting point for those who want to acquaint themselves with the legendary director’s body of work.

Regardless of its age, it’s still a relevant and shocking piece of Gothic art, and is a perfect film to watch on these last chilly days before Halloween. If you hadn’t picked up any of the previous releases of Black Sunday, the release of this new remastered Kino edition is your opportunity to rectify that. On blu-ray, the film looks better than it ever has before.

– by Jason Marsiglia

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Jason S. Marsiglia

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