“Halloween Twenty-Fifteen”: A Review of “Black Sunday” (1960)

Black-Sunday-1960-poster

“The Undead Demons of Hell Terrorize the World in an Orgy of Stark Horror!” Black Sunday opens up with a very intense scene for 1960: an accused witch (A.I.P and horror stalwart Barbara Steele) is about to be burned alive at the stake. Before that she has a “Mask of Satan” nailed onto her face while she screams in agony and blood gushes. This is done so she can emulate the Prince of Darkness’s appearance in death as she supposedly worshiped him in life. It is part of their ritual of execution. This all happens after she puts a curse on her executioners, and a pouring rain comes and puts out the fire. Her body is then taken to a crypt where she is placed in a sarcophagus that has a window over her face, with a cross directly above it to keep her evil soul pinned down for eternity. It is a highly effective opening.

We then take a jump two hundred years into the future, where the crypt is accidentally disturbed by a duo of visiting doctors (led by John Richardson) who were curious about what was inside. The curse soon kicks into effect, and a family who had something to do with the witch’s execution is terrorized until one by one, there is hardly anyone left. This is a film that must have been shocking for the times. Two people are burned alive, another is hanged, and lastly, a corpse has a spike driven through one of its eyes, again, with blood spurting. There is quite a bit of cleavage and  a great deal of dialogue about devil worship and demons (the title for this film’s international release was a more provocative The Mask of Satan).

Directed by Mario Bava, a master of Italian horror cinema, Black Sunday is a visually stunning, black-and-white treat for the eyes. The use of shadows and light is expertly done, and the sets and sound stages give this movie a very Dracula-1931 feel to it, which is a good thing. What we have here is an eerie and sometimes unsettling film that manages to tell an interesting story and never becomes cheesy. The only downside to this is the obvious overdubbing, which can be annoying at times. We see this with most films by Bava and others such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, who would normally only cast English-speaking non-Italians in the leading roles. In the case of Black Sunday, we have a predominantly Italian cast playing Russian characters voiced by Americans. Still, because the film is so dark and shadowy, many times you cannot clearly see the actors’ mouths, so it is not a huge deal. Also starring Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, and Arturo Dominici.

8 out of 10 stars.

More articles in this special “Halloween Twenty-Fifteen” column can be found here.

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