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A Bavarian princess, burned at the stake with her lover for being a witch, comes to life after three hundred years to enact the curse of revenge on her remaining family members.
For more about Black Sunday and the Black Sunday Blu-ray release, see Black Sunday Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on September 17, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Enrico Olivieri
Director: Mario Bava
» See full cast & crew
Black Sunday Blu-ray Review
Pre-giallo Bava at his spooky gothic best.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, September 17, 2012
The son of a special effects artist and cinematographer, Mario Bava followed his father into the Italian film industry, working as an assistant D.P. and eventually getting his own lensing gig on two of the first shorts by the great neorealist Roberto Rossellini. For the next twenty-odd years, he developed his own cinematographic style, and on several occasions in the 1950s he ended up ghost directing or co-directing films—uncredited—when the primary directors dropped out. His saves-the-day spirit didn't go unnoticed, and in 1959 producer Lionello Santi offered to fund any project the 46-year-old Bava wanted to make.
Bava's resultant solo directorial debut, Black Sunday, is among his best, up there with 1966's chilling Kill, Baby, Kill! and the lurid, slasher-inspiring violence of Blood and Black Lace and Twitch of the Death Nerve. Like the low-budget gothic fright films being put out concurrently by Hammer Horror, Black Sunday is essentially a bridge between the grand black and white Universal monster movies of the 1930s—creaky, darkly Romantic, hung with spiderwebs— and the more gritty, violent and sexualized strain of terror that would emerge in the 1960s with Psycho and Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby. In a sense, it's arguably the dying gasp of the former and the first breath of the latter, which puts it in a unique position in horror cinema history.
The film's atmospheric prologue is—pardon the pun—to die for. Opening in 17th century Moldavia, in a foggy nighttime meadow filled with torch-carrying men in black cloaks, we witness the unremorseful witch Asa (Barbara Steele) and her illicit lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici) as they're tied to stakes, branded, and sentenced to death. Asa's brother happens to be the Grand Inquisitor who's responsible for her fate, and with her final words she curses him and all of his future descendants, vowing to come back from beyond the grave for revenge. The "Mask of Satan"—studded on the inside with nails—is placed over her face, and a hulking executioner hammers it home with an oversized wooden mallet, sending blood squirting out of the eye holes. This was exceptionally graphic for 1960, and the sickening thud of the hammer still manages to provoke a visceral reaction today.
The story proper starts two centuries later as the experienced Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his handsome young protege, Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), are traveling through this same stretch of Moldavian countryside en route to a medical conference. When their carriage busts an axle, they wander into the ruins of a nearby mausoleum, which Bava reveals by way of a slow, 360-degree camera movement that effectively puts us inside the mouldering crypt. Here, the two doctors discover Asa's sarcophagus, which features a clear glass panel over her masked face so that she's forever staring at— and supernaturally immobilized by—the crucifix placed above her.
A bat distracts Dr. Kruvajan, and in his efforts to swat it away, he accidentally crumbles the stone cross and shatters the glass. Even more damningly, he cuts his hand on an errant shard. After they've left, the doctor's blood drips down inside Asa's mask, rousing her into an undead state. The first step of her reverse decomposition is for her glowing, milky-white eyes to rise up into their empty sockets, a truly creepy special effects feat that Bava accomplished by using poached eggs for eye matter. It's not an image you easily forget. Black Sunday is full of these iconically eerie shots, like when Asa telepathically summons Javuto forth from his own grave—to do her dark bidding—and his gnarled hand juts graspingly out of the cemetery earth.
Of course, the cursed descendants of Asa's brother figure in here eventually. The elderly Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), his son Constantine (Enrico Oliveiri), and his daughter Katia—who's also played by Steele and, accordingly, is the spitting image of Asa—live in the drafty family castle on the outskirts of town. Javuto comes to kill the prince, but Vajda fends off the revenant with a crucifix placed conveniently by his bedside. The shock is too much for the old man, though, and the two doctors—who are staying at the local inn while their carriage is repaired—are summoned to nurse him back to health. Gorobec quickly falls for the beautiful Katia—you know there's going to be some doppelganger-ish mistaken identity business ahead—and Dr. Kruvajan finds himself mesmerized and seduced by the immobile but still powerful Asa. It'd be hyperbole—and a cliche—to say that all hell subsequently breaks loose, but there are plenty of diabolical doings ahead.
The story itself was a bit fusty and routine even in 1960, but Bava's uneasy tone, shocking violence, and gorgeous camerawork give Black Sunday an edge over the contemporary gothic competition. Though nowhere near as intense as some of Bava's later color giallos—he was partially responsible for inventing the genre—the black and white film is unusually gory for its time. One vamp is slowly dispatched with a stake through the eyeball. A man is burnt alive in a fireplace, his face melting spectacularly in the flames. Asa's death shroud opens in the back to reveal her gross, decomposing ribcage. Grisly stuff. At the same time, Black Sunday is strikingly beautiful in its crumbling sets and stark, chiaroscuro lighting. Bava served as his own cinematographer, and the combination of his expert lensing and the suitably gloomy production design generates a sublime gothic mood. As for Barbara Stelle, well, death becomes her—she's enchantingly wicked here.
Black Sunday Blu-ray, Video Quality
Black Sunday is resurrected on Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that does justice to Mario Bava's mesmerizing visuals. First off, as you've comes to expect from Kino releases, there's no digital manipulation here at all—no detail-smearing noise reduction, no halo-inducing edge enhancement, no excessive contrast boosting, or any other unnecessary filtering. No compression/encode issues either. On the flip-side, there's been no frame-by-frame restoration, but we've lucked out here; the source print is in very good condition. You'll notice intermittent white and black specks and the occasional small scratch, but no major damage whatsoever. In one scene near the end of the film, a vertical white line does appear at the far left edge of the frame for a few seconds, but this is the only real anomaly. The 35mm picture often commands an impressive amount of depth, and Bava's chiaroscuro lighting is reproduced wonderfully, with deep blacks and crisp but never overblown whites. In between is a rich array of grays. Clarity is much improved from previous home video releases, and there's plenty of newfound detail, especially in close-ups, like the gnarly views of Asa's hole-riddled face. Bava fans should be pleased with this significant picture quality upgrade.
Black Sunday Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Kino brings Black Sunday to life with an uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 mono track that sounds as good, I suspect, as this film will ever sound. Like many Italian movies from this era, the dubbing is incredibly obvious—not even Barbara Steele's real voice was used—but the dialogue is at least cleanly recorded and always comprehensible. Bava makes great use of occasional sound effects—a low wailing coming from the mausoleum, a spooky wind that clangingly blows over suits of armor—and these are all as potent as can be expected. Binding everything together is a superbly creepy old-time horror movie score, with snaking bassoon lines and quivering strings. The high-end can be a bit fuzzy and muddled at times, but this is probably the best Kino had to work with. Unfortunately, there are no subtitle options on the disc for those who might need or want them.
Black Sunday Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Black Sunday Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
One of the last great black and white gothic chillers, Mario Bava's Black Sunday marks the end of one era and the beginning of a new, more explicitly violent one. Although the film's story now seems rather routine, Bava's sustained tone of unease and impressive cinematography make it essential viewing for devoted horror fans. Kino's Blu-ray release makes that viewing even better, with a new high definition remaster that presents the film in its best state yet. Recommended for all lovers of creaky, mouldering horror stories!
Black Sunday: Other Editions
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• Kino Lorber's September 2012 Slate - June 15, 2012
Independent film distributor Kino Lorber has issued its Blu-ray slate for September 2012. Releases are arranged through Kino's different distribution branches - Kino Classics, Kino Lorber, Redemption Films, Jezebel Films, and Horizon Movies. The September titles ...
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