Monday, October 31, 2011

BLACK SUNDAY (1960) (shown November, 1993)

     Of all the films from my youth, this is the one that has the most unforgettable opening. If you've ever seen it, you know instantly what I'm talking about; if not, allow me to elaborate. BLACK SUNDAY (or LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO {THE MASK OF SATAN}), as it was originally known), starred the lovely and hypnotic Barbara Steele in a dual role. It is also her most famous film, even though she made others with such high-caliber directors as Federico Fellini and Volker Schlondorff. She also starred with Vincent Price in one of the best of the AIP Poe adaptations, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. (Please note: All character names in the review below are taken from the American AIP edition of the film; the version most readers of this blog will be familiar with).

     But let's get back to that infamous opening scene, shall we? The movie opens in Russia in the 1600's. Princess Asa Vajda of Moldavia (Steele) has been accused and found guilty of practicing witchcraft by the Grand Inquisitor, who also happens to be her brother, Prince Vajda. She, along with her accomplice/lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici), are to be burned at the stake for their abominations, but first they are to be subjected to the wearing of the Mask of Satan, so that all who gaze upon their remains throughout eternity will know their crimes. The mask (see poster to the left) is a heavy iron representation of a beast from Hell with spikes on the inside and, with Asa shouting curses on her brother and all his descendents, promising revenge, it is slowly lowered over her face ... then bashed into her skull, full force, by a giant mallet. Unlike most American horror films of the time (who probably would never have even ATTEMPTED such an audacious scene), director Mario Bava goes full-on with the death blow, keeping the camera locked in place for the full horrific effect of the crunching blow to the skull, the agonized scream and the spouting blood - thus making the audience by extension participants and witnesses to the execution. It is a STUNNING opening ... and this all takes place before the opening credits! Asa's curse immediately begins as Satan shows his displeasure of the murder of one of his favorites by bringing forth a downpour to douse the flames that were to burn her and Javuto at the stake.

     Asa's body is taken to the family crypt and laid to rest (mask firmly in place) in a special coffin: one with a glass window over her face showing the Russian Orthodox Cross - the rationale being that even with her witch powers, if she tried to come back from the dead, she would be pinned to the coffin for eternity by the holy power of the Lord's symbol. Javuto receives no such consideration - his body is dumped in an unmarked grave in unhallowed ground, left to rot (with his mask intact) for all eternity.

     Fast forward 200 years to the 1800's - the wheels of time roll on like the wheels of the carriage bringing two doctors through Moldavia en route to a medical conference in Moscow: Doctor Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young protege', Doctor Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), who is eagerly looking forward to his first convention. The older, world-weary physician is bemused by his companion's eagerness. All goes well until their coach loses a wheel on the grounds of the Vajda estate.

     Kruvajan tells Gorobec to assist the nervous driver in fixing the wheel while he stretches his legs, eventually coming to the old family crypt. Entering, he sees the niche containing Asa's coffin and goes to take a better look. A bat swoops down and attacks Kruvajan, who defends himself with his walking stick, slashing every which way to kill the rodent. He inadvertently smashes the top of Asa's coffin destroying the cross and breaking the glass window. Looking inside, he see Asa's mask and reaches in to get a better look, cutting himself on a glass shard. Andre calls to him that the carriage wheel is fixed and they should be on their way, but Kruvajan asks his young friend to come down and witness his discovery. They lift the coffin lid and examine the mask, with  Kruvajan (stupidly) removing it (which makes an awful sucking noise - even 200 years later) from Asa's hole-ridden face (see left), so he can examine the handiwork. While doing this, the blood from the cut on his hand drips into the empty eye socket of the long-dead witch ... which is the final ingredient she needs to slowly come back to life. Cross destroyed, check. Mask removed, check. Blood dripped in empty eye socket, check and mate.

      The driver calls down the stairs to them, begging them to hurry so he can be on his way. As they come out of the crypt, they are stopped in their tracks by the appearance of a beautiful young lady and her large canine companions: the Princess Katia Vajda (Steele again), the exact image of her infamous ancestor. Begging her pardon for the intrusion, they continue on their way. Andre's anticipation for the medical conference has all but gone now, as he daydreams about the beautiful Katia.

      The current Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), Katia's father, is not having daydreams - his thoughts are more of the nightmare variety, as he knows exactly what day it is ... the exact day that Asa was executed two centuries ago. The thought of her curse weighs heavily upon him, as he worries for his son Constantine (Enrico Olivieri) and especially for Katia. Voicing his concerns to the old family butler, he is reminded to put his faith in the Lord, who will look over the Vajda family. Sadly, the old retainer could not be more wrong ...

     The blood from Professor Kruvajan's wound continues to bring Asa back to life, as we see in a truly horrifying sequence: the skin starts to recompose on the corpse's face and the eyeballs start to fill in, first as pulsing liquid rising in the sockets, then ever-so-slowly assuming shape with a pupil and iris, etc. It's a nauseating (but memorable) effect. Once her rebirth is complete, she calls Javuto to rise from his grave and do her bidding. Kruvajan's blood started her transformation but there wasn't enough of it to make her whole ... a setback she intends to remedy.

     Javuto goes to the castle and appears before the Prince, but fails to kill him because of the crucifix the Prince is wearing. Katia and Constantine find their father in a state of near-comatose shock from the encounter and, remembering the doctors who passed through, send their servant to the inn to get help. Javuto kills the butler and takes his place, then arrives at the inn in a carriage, asking for a doctor and saying the Prince is ill. Unsuspecting, Kruvajan returns to the castle, but instead of being led to the Prince is led (via a secret passage behind the fireplace) to Asa's coffin and locked in with her. Asa calls Kruvejan to her and he hypnotically obeys. "Look into my eyes", she intones. "Embrace me. You will die, but I can bring you pleasures mortals cannot know".

     This is a good place to mention the wonderful trailer for the AIP American release of the film. It was very well cut, giving a excellent idea of what you were getting yourself into. It also has one of the (unintentionally) funniest pieces of narration for a horror movie that still makes me smile whenever I hear it. The trailer has convinced you that you need to see this example of sheer horror, to see if your nerves can stand it, when it comes out with this gem, "Satan ... wearing strange robes ... and fighting with all the furies of Hades ... arouses the countryside to a frenzy of black terror!" Maybe it's just me, but I LOVE the "strange robes" part! :) See for yourself!

       Doctor Kruvajan has paid with his life for his night of bliss with Asa and is now her vampiric servant. She sends him to finish the job Javuto started. He tells the family that he will treat the Prince, ordering them to remove the crucifix so the Prince will 'sleep better' and sends them to bed, promising to stay up all night with their father. Instead, the next morning Katia and Constantine find him dead (in a horrible state) and Katia swoons into a faint. Constantine sends for Gorobec, who is confused as to where his colleague disappeared to. News arrives from the village of another dead body, and Andre goes to consult with the village priest, who tells them of the villager's concern regarding the return of Princess Asa from the grave. Andre scoffs at this, until they go in search of Javuto's grave and find the body of Kruvajan, bloated with blood. The priest puts an end to the vampiric doctor the old-fashioned way: no stake to the heart for this fellow - instead, the priest brands him on the forehead with his cross ... and then proceeds to jam a stake through his right eye, pinning him to the casket for eternity.   

     Realizing the horror is real (FINALLY!) and fearing for the safety of the lovely Katia, who is alone at the castle, Andre hurries back. Unfortunately for him, he has been gone too long and events are rapidly building to their awful climax. Javuto has killed off both the butler and Constantine, the latter being tossed into a pit of wooden spikes in the cellar of the castle. Katia, the dutiful daughter praying by her father's coffin, is terrified when his revivified, vampiric corpse arises and comes after her. Begging him to stop, he replies, "I am no longer your father. My blood is no longer your blood. Spirits of evil have rendered that tie between us forever ... and an accursed poison flows in your veins!" Javuto intercedes, as Katia's blood is meant for Asa, not the Prince, and kills her father by throwing him into the roaring fireplace, setting him aflame.

     Javuto brings Katia down the secret passage to her final confrontation with her evil ancestor - she is no match for Asa's hypnotic powers and the witch begins to drain Katia's blood and life energy to make her transformation complete. When the process is finished, Asa will murder Katia and take her place as the new Princess of Moldavia, spreading her evil anew.

     Andre arrives back and races through the castle, frantically searching and calling out for Katia. Seeing the charred corpse of the Prince in the fireplace, he spies the secret passage to the crypt and rushes down it, only to be confronted by Javuto, who slowly strangles him on the edge of the pit of spikes where Constantine met his doom. Just as all seems lost for Andre, Constantine's bloody hands reach out of the pit and drag Javuto to HIS death - the last sacrifice of the young Prince before he dies.  

     Andre arrives at the crypt, and mistakenly taking in the near-complete transformation before him, almost succumbs to Asa's entreaties to kill the witch before them. The priest has roused to villagers to the outside of the crypt, where they have prepared a bonfire to finish the job that was started 200 years ago. Asa tells Andre to drive a stake through the unconscious creature's heart and drag it away to the stake to be burned, so they can be together forever. He is about to do so when he stops at the last second, realizing the 'witch' is wearing a crucifix necklace - something the evil being should not be able to do. As the priest and villagers enter the crypt, Andre whips around and confronts Asa, tearing off her robe and revealing her rotting, skeletal body with it's foully beating, fully exposed heart (yet ANOTHER jolting moment for one not expecting it)! The villagers grab the shrieking fiend and send her to Hell via the stake. Katia comes back from the brink of death and relaxes in Andre's arms, with the Curse of Vajda finally lifted ... at a very high price.

     This is a perennial Halloween favorite at my place, readily available on DVD and a film that holds up extremely well today. However, know your audience before showing them BLACK SUNDAY - it's too easy to fall into the trap of, "oh, it's an old black and white film, how scary can it be?" - it is still a masterfully done, creepy piece of horror cinema. BLACK SUNDAY was Mario Bava's first (and many, myself included, say his best) directorial effort. Before he turned to directing, he was a famous cameraman and used his vast knowledge of the cinematographer's style to make his debut feature a thing of dark beauty.

     I have barely touched on the plot and settings of the film and of Mario Bava himself. There are more detailed and better tellings of the film out there, but none more so than a book by Tim Lucas (editor of the HIGHLY RECOMMENDED monthly magazine Video Watchdog) called MARIO BAVA: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. You will not BELIEVE the detail Lucas goes into in this book - while I unabashedly recommend it (just look at that smiling fellow to your left proudly holding up HIS copy!), I should also warn you it is primarily for hard-core film purists and Bava fanatics, like your humble Conjure Cinema Curator. This is not to put you off the book, but there are two things you should consider: 1) it is 1,128 pages long (!) and 2) it costs $250.00 (!!) - however, if you are serious about these kinds of films, it is a true work of art (and love) by Mr. Lucas. It also weighs 12 pounds (!!!) and will come in handy during the Zombie Apocalypse! :) Here is the link for all the gory details:   - just click on the 'Mario Bava Book' link to the left of the page.

     This brings us, rather fittingly, to a close on this Halloween. Time for me to catch my breath and rest my fingers up for what's coming ... for you long-term Conjure Cinema readers, you know what I mean ... and if you don't, then look though my past year's blog entries from around this time. Here's a hint: the weather forecaster for Boston has called for SNOW this weekend ... and looking at my CALENDAR, I see we're only two weeks away from November 11th ... what's the significance, you ask? Oh, yes, it is indeed Veteran's Day, but in the rush to bombard the masses with All Things Holiday, it is also the day when two local radio stations start playing their holiday/Christmas music 24/7 ... and THAT releases the Fruity Floodgates known as the K.A.C.!!! Yep, by request, the Kitschmas Advent Calendar will be back for a THIRD YEAR RUNNING ... and I've got the usual lineup of jaw-dropping Santa shenanigans ready for you ... so bookmark the C.C. home page between now and Christmas Day, and check back every day, as I'll be putting up Daily Doses of Delirium! Naughty, nice, doesn't matter ... the Big Man's comin' to town with a whole lot of weirdness loaded in his sleigh! See you soon!

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