Black Sunday

Black Sunday (1960)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Barbara Steele, Arturo Dominici, John Richardson, Andrea Checci
Extras: Commentary Track, Still Galleries, Theatrical Trailer, Biographies

Among horror aficionados of classic horror films, Maria Bava’s directorial debut "Black Sunday" is probably best known under it is original title "La Maschera Del Demonio" – the Mask of the Demon. Although also known as "The Mask Of Satan", the film found its release in the US under the misleading title "Black Sunday" for reasons only known to those who perpetrated it at American International Pictures. It is a very influential movie that made it clear from the opening minutes that Italian multi-talent Mario Bava was a force to be reckoned with, and now Image Entertainment has made this title available for DVD fans in its fully restored, uncut glory as part of their Mario Bava Collection.

During the 17th century, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is condemned by her brother, the grand inquisitor for witchcraft and conspiring with the forces of Evil. She is put to death with Javutich (Arturo Dominici), another servant of the Devil, be having a skied brass mask hammered into her skull.

Two centuries later, two doctors, Adrej Gorobe (John Richardson) and Tomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checci), on their way to a convention stop at an old castle on their travel. They discover an old crypt that is housing the sarcophagus of Asa, the witch.
Accidentally and without knowing they bring her back to life and immediately Asa starts her work to wreak havoc on her own family, the descendants of those who killed her. Conjuring Javutich from the grave, the two go about to turn others into vampires for their mission, while slowly circling in on Katia Vajda, the last member of the family, who looks exactly like Asa herself.

Although the sixties easily allowed for color movies, Bava decided to shoot "Black Sunday" entirely in black and white, to recreate the visually striking gothic look of Universal’s classic horror movies. He was not willing to keep the horror and suspense at the same bay as the 20s and 30s films, and added violent depictions of horror to his film. He also upped the film’s eroticism quite a bit, just as introduced by the glorious Hammer films a few years earlier. Combined, "Black Sunday" is probably the most shocking and horrific classic gothic movie ever made, and you will be surprised how well it works still today. The scenes of Asa’s slow resurrection are unsettlingly developed to say the least, while many other gory scenes add a lot of visceral shock to the film.

"Black Sunday" is also very poetic at times. Given the premise to create a gothic film, Bava managed to create hauntingly atmospheric images with drifting fog in the moonlight and haunted forests, yet makes the narrative strong enough to keep modern audiences intrigued and unnerved. He slowly builds the tension, sometimes hiding things in the shadows of his exquisite settings, sometimes openly splattering the screen, depending on the requirements of each scene. The film stars the Queen Of Horror, Barbara Steele, in one of her most famous roles as Asa and Nadia Vajda, and much of the film’s mysticism can be attributed to her portrayal of this dark but enchanting character.

Image Entertainment is presenting "Black Sunday" on this DVD in its original uncut version, and there’s a story to this. Mario Bava himself did a full English version of his original Italian film and submitted it to AIP, who had acquired the distribution rights for the US. Bava called this version of the film "The Mask Of Satan". AIP did not like the title and some of the content, cut three minutes out of the movie and renamed it to "Black Sunday". The version we get to witness here from Image is actually "The Mask Of Satan", the version, originally created by Mario Bava, and the way I remember first seeing it in Europe.

The transfer is stunningly beautiful, and it is impressive how well preserved – or restored – this version is. There are hardly any registration problems in the print that could cause the picture to jump, creating a completely stable reproduction of the film. The balance of the black and white print is also breathtaking, restoring the dark, ominous look of the film perfectly with every bit of detail. There is no overexposure, or fading visible, and the result is a presentation of this film, that features rock solid blacks with good highlights. The film is presented in its 1.66:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio in an <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer, and the level of detail is once again superb. In a few selected scenes, signs of noise reduction and digital restoration are evident, but for the most part, the image on this disc is first class.

"Black Sunday" contains the film’s English language track in a monaural <$DD,Dolby Digital> presentation. As expected the sound track shows signs of distortion and the sonic spectrum is somewhat limited. However, the noise floor on the track is surprisingly low. Not a lot of noise reduction seems to have been applied, which is very good as it leaves most of the original and subtle ambience of the film intact, as well as the high end of the spectrum. The result is a clear mix with understandable dialogues, much better than you would expect from such a dated film. The disc also restores the movie’s original soundtrack by Roberto Nicolosi. The eerie music that underscores Bava’s masterfully crafted images also adds immensely to the movie’s unsettling nature, masterfully building tension and releasing it with syncopated acoustic shocks.

The release contains a <$commentary,commentary track> by Tim Lucas, editor/publisher of the "Video Watchdog" magazine and an intimate expert of the genre. He is also currently preparing a book on Mario Bava, and has contributed extensive and valuable liner notes to this DVD release. His commentary is very well prepared, leaving hardly anything surrounding the movie untouched. From historical backgrounds, to inconsistencies in the script, Lucas is pointing it all out with accuracy in a very informative way. For fans of the film and the genre, his commentary is highly recommended.

There are a few other supplements you can find on this disc, such has the film’s original theatrical trailer, a still and poster gallery and biographies of Mario Bava and his lead actress Barbara Steele. An annotation that points out the differences between the English version and the original Italian cut of the movie is also part of the disc.

"La Maschera Del Demonio" has long been one of my most favorite gothic horror films, and it is great to see it so well presented on this DVD from Image Entertainment, in such a great restored version. You can tell from the presentation and the materials on this disc that Image indeed wanted to make sure to finally give the film the treatment is deserved. For every fan of Mario Bava’s work or lovers of gothic horror movies, this release of "Black Sunday" is a disc you can’t afford to pass on!