2018 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 13: Black Sunday (1960)

Day 13 of the Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge is And on the 13th Day There Was Only Black and White. Greyscale is also acceptable. There was no choice for me other than the master’s finest work: Mario Bava’s seminal Black Sunday.

This was Bava’s directorial debut — although he had already directed several scenes without credit in other films. By 1960’s standards, this is a pretty gory film, leading to it being banned in the UK and chopped up by its US distributor American International Pictures.

In the 1600’s, the witch Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele, creating her legacy as the horror female supreme) and her lover Javuto are put to death by her brother. Before she is burned at the stake and has a metal mask hammered to her face, she curses their entire family.

Several centuries later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan and his assistant, Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson, Frankenstein ’80) ae traveling to a medical conference when their carriage breaks down. Of course, they’re in a horror movie, so they wander into an ancient crypt and release Asa from her death mask and getting blood all over her face.

That’s when they meet her descendent Katia (also Steele), whose family lives in the haunted castle that of the Vajdas. Gorobec instantly falls for her and really, can you blame him?

All hell literally breaks loose, with Asa and Javuto coming back from the dead, possessing Dr. Kruvajan and concocting a plan to make Asa immortal by stealing Katia’s youth. Can good triumph against evil? Can you kill a vampire by stabbing wood into its eye socket? Which one is hotter, good or evil Barbara Steele?

A lover of Russian fantasy and horror, Bava intended this film to be an adaption of Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 horror story “Viy.” However, the resulting script owes more to Universal Studios-style gothic horror. AIP cut or shortened the branding scene, blood spraying from the mask after it was hammered into Asa’s face, the eyeball impaling and the flesh burning off Vajda’s head in the fireplace. And in the Italian version, Asa and Javutich are brother and sister in an incestuous relationship.

Black Sunday has left quite an impression on fans and filmmakers alike. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula contains several shot-for-shot homages, as does Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. And Richard Donner based the cemetery scene in The Omen on the moment when Barbara Steele appears with her hounds.

For a director who is so well known for his work in color, Bava has just as much skill in black and white. The sets were actually created in monochrome, with no color, to add to the dark mood.

My favorite scene in the film is when Bava creates a split screen effect where Steele’s two roles come together, as Asa intones, “You did not know that you were born for this moment. You did not know that your life had been consecrated to me by Satan. But you sensed it, didn’t you? You sensed it… That’s why my portrait was such a temptation to you, while frightened you. You felt like your life and your body were mine. You felt like me because you were destined to become me… a useless body without life.”

You can watch this for free with an Amazon Prime subscription or on Shudder.

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