Often credited as the man who started the golden age of Italian horror, Mario Bava created works that managed to be hypnotically beautiful as well as uncompromisingly brutal. Black Sunday (1960), Bava’s directorial debut, set the standard for gothic horror in the 20th century by appropriating the heightened melodrama of the Hammer films and marrying it with an ethereal sense of otherworldliness. Much like Giorgio Ferroni’s Night of the Devils (1971) over a decade later, Black Sunday exists in mid-point between the traditional supernatural horrors of the 40s and the more daringly explicit slashers of the late 70s.
In 1610, a witch (Barbara Steele) is sentenced to death for her evil deeds by her own brother. Before being burnt at the stake, a metal mask is hammered onto her face and, as the spikes pierce her flesh, she puts a horrific curse on all her future progeny. When two travelling men accidentally discover her final resting place two centuries later, they unwittingly unleash her once again to have her revenge by possessing the body of her beautiful doppelgänger descendant Katia (also played by Barbara Steele). Only her brother (Ivo Garrani) and Dr Gorobec (John Richardson) can save her.
Bava was immersed in cinema his whole life. His father was one of the great cameramen of Italian silent film who later went on to head the special effects department at Benito Mussolini’s film factory. The director’s formative years in film were as a cinematographer, and it’s his singular aesthetic approach that defines Black Sunday. The ornate Gothic castles and dark forests take on a distinct visual identity through Bava’s lens. The high contrast black and white photography ascribes a haunting quality to the film’s atmospheric locales while the imaginative camera pans display a degree of flair and virtuosity which were unique to Bava.
The duality of Steele’s role, as both the witch and the ingénue, contributes to Black Sunday’s brooding eroticism. The primary narrative drive of the film is the battle to possess Katia; the witch seeks her body so she can be resurrected and Dr. Gorobec seeks her as a lover. The way romantic pursuit is equated with the perpetual pull of evil is expertly handled by Bava who retains the lurid overtones of contemporary Italian horror while deploying an arsenal of literary references throughout the film. Black Sunday is a rich and chilling piece that could well be the director’s best.