It’s fair to say that post-1960 cult cinema would be vastly different without director and cinematographer Mario Bava. His catalog covers a wide range of genres, including fantasy, peplum, spy spoofs, historical drama, action epics, Viking films and spaghetti westerns. He also helmed a number of classic horror films, including some genre forerunners, effectively creating both the slasher and the Italian giallo film. Though he co-directed a number of Riccardo Freda’s films, including the first Italian horror sound film, I, Vampiri (1956), Bava’s first solo endeavor was The Mask of Satan (1960), more widely known as Black Sunday. This classic film about witchcraft, satanism, and resurrection has recently been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films in the most decisive edition available thus far for fans of this great director.
Bava’s stunning directorial debut stars Barbara Steele, John Richardson and Arturo Dominici. Loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Vij,” this is one of the finest gothic horror efforts from any period. In the 1600s, Moldavian princess Asa Vajda is tortured and burned alive by her own brother for witchcraft, satanism and vampirism. In revenge, she curses their family line with her dying breath. Two hundred years later, Kruvajan and the young Gorobek, a pair of skeptical doctors traveling to a conference, accidentally revive Asa when their coach breaks down outside her mausoleum. Asa soon possesses Kruvajan, determined to destroy the Vajda family and drain the blood of her identical descendant, Katia, to gain immortality. Gorobek, who has fallen in love with Katia, is desperate to prevent this.
Building off his mentor Riccardo Freda’s efforts in I, Vampiri, Bava blends the shadowy expressionism of Universal Studios horror and the gothic splendor of Britain’s Hammer Studios to create a unique masterpiece. Stark black and white cinematography captures swirling fog, crumbling crypts and medieval castles, using gothic tropes to their best effect. Bava’s technical effects were ahead of their time, depicting graphic shots of witch burning, desiccated corpses reanimating and rising from the grave, a mask hammered onto a woman’s face and a stake through the eyeball (Bava’s unique take on vampire legend).
The Mask of Satan also introduced genre fans to the iconic Barbara Steele. Her distinctive beauty marked most of the major Italian horror efforts of the period – Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), Antonio Margheriti’s Castle of Blood (1964), Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (1965), etc. Her depiction of the evil Asa and the innocent Katia represents some of the themes Bava would return to throughout his career – the illusory, often treacherous nature of appearances and the troubling effects of sexuality.
In the ‘60s, American International Pictures (AIP) released a cut, English-language version of the film known as Black Sunday, which was also re-dubbed and re-scored. Arrow has restored the film to its original, international print, which includes the missing footage and original music. The print is available in its original aspect ratio of 1.69:1 from a MPEG-4 AVC codec with a 1080p resolution and looks absolutely beautiful. It is very similar to the U.S. Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, but Arrow has also included the cut AIP print in their release. Though the details, colors and blacks look amazing, there are slight age-related issues – fading on the edges and some slight scratches – but these don’t take away from the overall viewing experience. Both the Arrow and Kino Lorber Blu-rays are worlds ahead of the previous DVD releases.
There are three LPCM 2.0 audio tracks – English for both versions of the film and Italian for the original European print – as well as optional English subtitles that have been newly translated. The lossless English tracks sound great, but keep in mind that whatever language you watch it in, the original recording was overdubbed in accordance with common practice of the day.
The disc’s special features are all that anyone with a passing familiarity with Arrow could hope to expect. The audio commentary with Tim Lucas – Bava scholar, Video Watchdog editor, and author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark – is absolutely wonderful, as are all his commentaries for Bava films. For anyone interested to know more about Bava or European horror in the ‘60s, this is an excellent place to start. Film critic Alan Jones introduces the film, there is an interview with Barbara Steele, and a deleted scene with notes from Lucas. There are also a number of trailers, such as the U.S. and Italian trailers for The Mask of Satan, two for I, Vampiri, and a trailer reel of all Bava’s major films. The cover artwork from Graham Humphreys is reversible and packaging includes a collector’s booklet with essays from Alan Jones and Matt Bailey, as well as more illustrations, stills, and poster art.
Though this release is Region B only, it is absolutely the ultimate version of The Mask of Satan. This three disc set includes the Blu-ray, as well as two DVDs with the different versions of the film available in English and Italian. “You will never escape my vengeance, or Satan’s!”
– By Samm Deighan