Sunday, February 17, 2013

DVD Review: BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

BLACK SUNDAY (1960) / THE MASK OF SATAN (1960) / I VAMPIRI (1956) 
3-Disc Blu-ray + DVD 

Label:
Arrow Video

Duration: 86/83 Minutes
Region: B/2

Rating: 15 Certificate 
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (1.66:1) 
Audio: English, Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 with Optional English Subtitles Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson and Andrea Checchi
Tagline: STARE INTO THESE EYES... discover deep within them the unspeakable terrifying secret of BLACK SUNDAY... it will paralyze you with fright!

When one thinks of Gothic Italian horror you would be hard-pressed to utter something more iconic than Mario Bava's first credited directorial debut, the beautifully gruesome The Mask of Satan (1960) or by it's more familiar American title Black Sunday (1960) starring the haunting beauty Barbara Steele. It's a stunning Gothic fever-dream of gorgeous black and white cinematography steeped in macabre shadow and oozing graveyard atmosphere from start to finish.

In my opinion the film contains perhaps the most creepily atmospheric opening five minutes of celluloid out there, seriously. Opening with a witch burning amidst the trees of a forest steeped in the thickest fog you will ever see, the scene is fantastic. The year is 1630 and a congregation of hooded executioners gather round the supernatural beauty of the vampire-witch Asa (Barbare Steele) and her brother Javuto (Arturo Dominici)  as they are about to be put to death for consorting with the Devil, as  an "S" shaped brand is seared into Asa's flesh she lays a wonderfully venomous curse upon the descendants of her accuser, a heavy iron mask with sharp spikes along the inside is brutally hammered into her face, the blood flows heavily from it's eyelets. Afterward her body is interred beneath the ground in a crypt while Javuto's is buried in a cemetery reserved for murderers.

Some two centuries later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young medical assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) are traveling through the countryside en route to a conference when their carriage breaks down, stranding them for a bit while their coachmen makes repairs. The two enter a nearby crypt believing it abandoned and discover Asa's tomb when a bat attacks Krujavjan, during the attack the doc accidentally destroys the crucifix holding vigil over Asa's crypt and a glass panel on her tomb is broken, revealing her masked face. Investigating further the doctor removes the iron mask staked to her face revealing a partially preserved, though eyeless face, a drop of blood from his hand falls upon her visage and thus the spirit of Asa is again unleashed upon the world. 

Leaving the crypt the two men happen upon a young woman named Katia walking her canine, she bares an uncanny resemblance to witch-vampire Asa, both women are portrayed by the stunning Barbara Steele in a wonderful dual role. After a brief introduction Katia reveals to the travelers that she lives in a nearby castle with her father, Prince Vajda (Garrani), and brother Constantine (Enrico Oliveiri), which we discover are descendants of the accuser. With the carriage repaired the two men inform Katia of their plans to stay at a nearby inn for the night before continuing their journey and make their leave, the younger Gorobec is instantly infatuated with Katia, you can see it pains him to leave.

That night Asa summons Javuto from his grave, we get a truly fantastic unearthing scene not unlike a Romero zombie rising from grave, it just oozes creepiness. Asa commands him to take the life of Prince Vajda, entering the castle he is thwarted when Vadja produces a crucifix, surviving the attack the aging Vajda is paralyzed with fear and Katia sends for Dr. Kruvajan, both he and the enamored Gorobec return to her aid setting on motion a series of macabre and gruesome events, even for the uninitiated I would find it hard to believe this half century old British shocker would not hold it's sway over younger audiences.


Truly a film that has everything lovers of Gothic tinged horror could ever want; atmospheric settings, creepy castles, cobwebbed tombs, secret passageways, haunted forests, eye trauma, exploding crypts, perverse sexuality, sadism, witch burnings, taut suspense and fantastic visual effects from Mario Bava himself, it's just a fantastic watch. It's great to have both the Black Sunday and The Mask of Satan versions represented here, the latter containing about three minutes of film cut from the US version, considered to squeamish or blasphemous for American audiences at the time, should you choose to take in the API version you also have the option of listening to the Les Baxter re-score in addition to the re-dubbed dialogue, it's a very cool edition. 

DVD: For the purpose of this review we were sent the Region 2 DVD version, not the Region 'B' locked Blu-ray edition, regardless, the features and supplements are identical minus the 1080p upgrade and lossless audio, so let's dig into Arrow Video's jam-packed edition.


Arrow Video's DVD image looks fantastic, the anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) presentation is a slight improvement over the The Mario Bava Collection Volume 1 (Anchor Bay, 2007) edition in my collection. The macabre and spooky set pieces look great with rich shadow detail and it's a bit sharper and the black levels are a bit deeper, too. 


There are three audio options for fans to choose from . The original English export version The Mask of Satan gets the original European English track plus an Italian language track with new English subtitles translation. The API Black Sunday version features the English re-dub and the Les Baxter's more dramatic (some might say generic) re-scoring presented here for the first time ever on home video, both versions of the film have new and improved English subtitles and the audio sounds quite nice, there's not a lot of bombast on the track but the dialogue is clean and the effects and score are given their due. 

First up we have an Introduction to the film by author and critic Alan Jones (2:45) who gives a fond introduction succinctly summarizing the film, paying respect the the Italian King of Horror, Bava's early career. There's also some discussion of the controversy surrounding the film and the film's star Barbara Steele's career in horror. Jones is a bit dry but he does pack in quite a few nuggets in just under three minute. 


The Audio Commentary with Bava biographer and expert Tim Lucas first appeared on the Image Entertainment edition and again on Anchor Bay's Bava collection appears here, too. It's a fantastic commentary if even at times it feels like Lucas is reading straight from his, as of then unfinished, book Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. It's fortified with  pretty much anything you could ever want to know about the film, including production notes and comparison's between The Mask of Satan and Black Sunday, for fans it's a must listen experience. 


Interview with star and horror icon Barbara Steele (8:29) was recorded in 1995 and the unearthly beauty still had her mystique about her even at that late date, quite a gorgeous woman. During the interview the star herself speculates why exactly it was that Mario Bava chose her for the film, also commenting on the duality of her role and the extreme atmospheric nature of the film versus the the sad state of horror in the mid-90's. 


Deleted Scene from the Italian version with notes by Tim Lucas (3:23) features the much sought-after "roll 15b" dialogue scene from the film with text from Tim Lucas's Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark putting the scene into context. It's a dry bit of dialogue honestly, but it's here for the completists.


My favorite feature is the inclusion of  Italy’s first sound horror film I Vampiri (1956) directed by Riccardo Freda and finished by cameraman Mario Bava when the director walked off set following an argument with producers, it's the film that thrust Bava into the directing chair and the rest is Italian horror history. It's a pretty great watch, an atmospheric chiller about an ageless woman living a supernaturally long life at the expense of young virgins with the help of a mad scientists, you can definitely feel Bava's presence throughout the film, visually it's quite a feast. The feature is presented in Italian with English subtitles. 


The last of the major special features is a nearly hour long Mario Bava Trailer Reel (51:46) featuring trailers for The Mask of Satan (1960), Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), Erik the Conqueror 1961), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963),  Black Sabbath (1963), The Whip and the Body (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964), The Road to Fort Alamo (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965), Knives of the Avengers (1966), Kill, Baby... Kill! (1966), Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966), Danger Diabolik (1968), Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), Five Dolls for an August Moon, Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970), Carnage (1971), Baron Blood (1972), Four Times That Night (1972), Lisa and the Devil (1974), Rabid Dogs (1974) and Shock (1977). Watching I was reminded of not just how many great films Bava directed but just how many Bava films I have still to take in, that's a rather exciting prospect. Rounding out the supplemental materials are the International Trailer (3:26)US Trailer (2:06)Italian Trailer (3:18) and a very short TV Spot (0:21). 


Special Features:
- Limited Edition Slipbox Edition with 4 panels of reversible sleeve featuring 4 artworks including 3 original posters and a newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of two versions of the film; ‘The Mask of Satan’ – the European version with score by Roberto Nicolosi and ‘Black Sunday’ – the re-edited and re-dubbed AIP version with Les Baxter score, on home video for the first time
- Three audio versions: Optional Italian, European English and AIP English re-dub and re-score
- English SDH subtitles for both English versions and a new English subtitle translation of the Italian audio
- Audio Commentary with Bava biographer and expert Tim Lucas
- Introduction to the film by author and critic Alan Jones (2:45)
- Interview with star and horror icon Barbara Steele (8:29)
- Deleted Scene from the Italian version with notes by Tim Lucas (3:23)
- International Trailer (3:26) 16:9
- US Trailer (2:06) 16:9
- Italian Trailer (3:18) 16:9
- TV Spot (0:21) 4:3
- I Vampiri (1956) – Italy’s first sound horror film directed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava (78 mins)
- US I Vampiri Trailer ‘The Devil’s Commandment’ (1:36)
- Mario Bava Trailer Reel (51:46)
- Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Matt Bailey and Alan Jones, illustrated with original archive stills and posters


Verdict: A fantastic Italian chiller from start to finish, a classic of not just Italian horror but in the annals of all horror cinema, so do yourself a favor and dust off this classic Gothic masterpiece, a film that left an indelible mark on horror for years to come, everything from The City of the Dead (1969) to Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999) owe this macabre masterpiece a debt of gratitude, also check out Jon Knautz's The Shrine (2010) as a recent example of a film that takes strong inspiration from it, great stuff. It's quite satisfying to see another Mario Bava film in Arrow Video's hands following their stellar A Bay of Blood (1971) Blu-ray, Arrow's 3-disc edition would seem to be the definitive and final word on the film, 'nuff said. 4.5 Outta 5 


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