Thursday, 30 December 2010
Black Sunday / La Maschera Del Demonio
(Mario Bava, 1960)
Ok, I’ll level with you: right up until I sat down to write this, I’d been torn as to which Mario Bava film to include on this list, “Kill Baby Kill/Operazione Paura” (1966) or “Black Sunday”. The former is probably my favourite Bava horror, its haunting imagery, stunning Technicolor production design and delirious psychedelic plotting all second to none. “Black Sunday” by comparison is somewhat stagey and linear in its non-setpiece scenes, its black & white photography admittedly brilliant, but perhaps not truly representative of a director best known for his use of colour. But on the other hand – “Black Sunday” has the immortal iconic value of it jaw-dropping opening scene, its status as the all-time definitive example of ‘60s gothic horror, and, most importantly, it has Barbara Steele.
I thought long and hard, I considered reviewing both of them side by side, but… “Black Sunday” wins, I think. “Kill Baby Kill” might be a masterpiece, but it’s a pretty obscurist masterpiece. A jewel in the crown for aficionados of loopy Euro-horror cinema maybe, but probably too disjointed and strange, too specialist in its appeal, for many. “Black Sunday”, on the other hand, is a film for everyone! Watch it with the family, and bar the door if they try to leave! Who in the world could watch that opening sequence for the first time and not be completely floored?
Words failing me, I am forced to quote from “The Satanic Screen: An Illustrated Guide to The Devil in Cinema” by Nikolas Shreck (not that one), which I conveniently happened to find knocking about in a pile of old books this week;
“‘One day in each century it is said that Satan walks among us. To the God-fearing this day is known as Black Sunday,’ a portentous voice has told us. Surely this is that day, and the face that glares at us from the screen, transfixed in a seeming ecstasy of evil, is Satan incarnate in bewitching mortal form. The glaring depths of her eyes radiate pure hatred, but strangely, this in no way obscures their beauty. A predatory joy in her savage expression imbues the pale visage with an inhuman quality. Her lips are thin, yet sensuous. Wild black hair frames the pale cheekbones. A study in chiaroscuro, her luminous portrait is delineated in shadows worthy of the brush of an unknown master. The exquisite face is cruelly marred by a pattern of wounds, impressed upon her flesh by the spiked mask she has worn for centuries.”
Quite so! Thanks for that, Mr, uh, Shreck.
The unforgettable moment of stylised violence that closes the film’s prologue makes clear that “Black Sunday” is going to be extremely strong medicine for its era, and it is slightly unfair I feel to claim, as many reviewers have done, that “Black Sunday”s script subsequently follows a hackneyed, predictable path, the film drawing its power entirely from Bava’s virtuoso direction and stunning production design. That may seem an accurate enough assessment from a modern POV, but it is easy to forget that to a great extent “Black Sunday” defined the gothic horror conventions that we now see as hackneyed. It is often assumed these kind of films have been around forever, such is their anachronistic hoariness, but it seems to me that throughout most of the ‘40s and ‘50s, there was little resembling gothic horror to be found on-screen. The Hammer films of the late ‘50s, whose success presumably inspired the Italian film industry to start bankrolling horror flicks, can to some extent take credit for pioneering the kind of self-conscious archaicism and theatrical mannerisms seen here, but “Black Sunday” is still probably the earliest film I’ve seen in which the conventions of full-blown ‘60s gothic (the “come, you must be tired from your long journey” syndrome, you might call it) come into full bloom. Not that that’s necessarily a recommendation I hasten to add, but for those such as myself who feel irresistibly drawn to this weird sub-genre, it’s an interesting point to note.
Something else I’ve noticed about “Black Sunday” – something it shares with just about all of the later, less vital Italian gothics that appeared following this film’s success – is it’s reliable on an unremittingly dreamlike, incorporeal atmosphere that almost completely undermines the importance of a linear narrative. Just as in the films of directors like Ricardo Freda or Antonio Margerheti, or indeed Bava’s later gothic reveries in “Kill Baby Kill”, “Whip & The Body” or “Lisa & The Devil”, it is almost impossible to recall the precise details of what went on in “Black Sunday” a few hours after viewing. After a certain point, who did what to whom when and what it meant simply ceases to matter: what you remember of the film is rather the incredible images, burned upon your waking mind with a strength that seems to plunge them straight through to your sub-conscious. And also, you remember the overall feeling of the film, as if it were some dream that seemed incredibly important, but that you just can’t quite recall the details of, until they return the next night, ready to bite.
In the avalanche of cheaper, less celebrated horror films and giallos that went on to characterise the next two decades of Italian cinema, this incorporeal spirit is often mistaken for bad filmmaking, as movies are written off as lazy, slow-moving, incoherent. But Bava, in his indisputably masterful realisation of this film, proved once and for all that there is a lot more to the Italian approach to horror than simply random, woozy-headed weirdness. It is incredible in fact that a thriving commercial industry could be built up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, centring around the obsessive presentation of this kind of disturbing, almost subliminal, oneiric imagery. Chuckle all you like at those Italians with their barmy, gas-huffing scripts, but they know a thing or two about what makes us tick - the dark magic of “Black Sunday” runs in their veins.