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Black Sunday (1960)

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A quick housekeeping note first: workload at my day job has gotten a bit heavier than usual, and that’s slowed my movie-watching-and-reviewing pace a bit as a result. Fortunately this will be temporary and I’ll be able to be a bit more prompt in future.

But it’s also why my latest go-round, Black Sunday, was a good choice as opposed to something longer and weightier. Instead this was a short monster/gore film, a bit of easily-digested mind candy that nevertheless lead to some food for thought. …You’ll see.

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Black Sunday is an Italian gothic horror film, but its Italian title La maschera del demonio – or, “The Mask Of Satan” – would have been a bit more descriptive. The mask in question is an iron one which gets nailed to the face of a woman in the opening sequence; Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is being condemned for witchcraft in 1600’s Moldavia, and the mask is one of the tortures being thrust on her, along with branding her and killing her lover and fellow witch Javuto (Arturo Dominici) before finally burning her at the stake. Asa’s brother is running the show, however, so before he nails on the mask – an Iron-Maiden type of thing with icky spikes on the inside – she curses his descendants and vows revenge. A sudden thunderstorm cancels the burning, however, so instead Asa is tucked into a remote corner of the family crypt, buried in a windowed casket with a cross permanently fixed within “eyesight” in case she ever tries to revive herself somehow. Javuto is simply dumped into an unconsecrated grave and left unmourned; and that’s that for them, the Moldavians think.

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But then 200 years later, a traveling pair of doctors run into some trouble with their carriage nearby the Vajda’s mansion, and start snooping around while the coachman fixes things – and discover Asa’s crypt. Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) thinks the mask looks especially cool, so he breaks the window to take it – and then whoops, he cuts himself on the glass. And then yikes, he’s started by a nearby bat and breaks the cross. Meanwhile Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) has run into pretty Katia Vajda (also Barbara Steele), one of the current residents of the mansion. Dr. Kruvajan notices she’s made quite the impression on Dr. Gorobec when he gets out of the crypt; so when the Vajdas summon the doctors at the inn later that evening, Dr. Kruvajan is more than happy to respond. Maybe he can get his younger companion into Katia’s good graces. The only problem is that the blood from Kruvajan’s cut is enough to start reviving Asa, and the broken cross means she is free to use her magic; and after telepathically reviving Javuto, enslaving Kruvajan, and trying to fend off Gorobec and Katia’s brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri), Asa’s final goal is to take over Katia’s body and live forever.

So, initially I had a similar reaction to this as I had to The Wolf Man and Things To Come – it had a sort of B-movie, Mystery-Science-Theater feel, with moody gothic castles and ancestral curses and country-yokel villagers with torches and pitchforks. There’s a lightning-quick romance between Gorobec and Katia, there’s spooky music, there’s a wizened priest issuing carefully-worded warnings. There’s also a bit more gore to things than we’ve seen in horror films so far – spurting blood, eye sockets filled with writhing maggots, and such.

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And as I was thinking about that comparison, it hit me – what’s wrong with that?

In earlier reviews I’ve said that the tropes from these films got recycled in lesser films, and it’s these lesser films I ended up seeing first. Which is still very likely the case. But I still had the whole idea that anything you’d have seen on these horror-movie cheese fests would have been somehow less important – lower quality meant lower value. And that was affecting how I saw the higher-quality films later on; they were fluff I could easily dismiss.

But in all honesty, one of my absolute favorite films ever is Blood Freaka film I love precisely because it is so terrible. It will never, ever make it onto this 1001 Movies list; it’s a bit of an obscure thing that didn’t even make it onto MST3K’S radar. And yet I love every single poorly-acted, stupidly-plotted, cheaply-filmed minute of it, to the point that several of my friends have begged me to stop trying to show it to them. The fact that it is terrible by every possible measure is precisely why I love it.

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So….what difference does “quality” make when it comes to the value of a film anyway? At the end of the day, none – you like what you like, and if what you like happens to be a bugnuts movie about of vampire witches in Moldavia, then that’s all that matters, and the fact that it’s badly dubbed into English is probably part of the appeal.

So what I’m saying is that it’s taken this good film that looked like a bad film to revise my value judgement of bad films overall.

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