Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Black Sunday (1960)

Let me begin this post with one thing that I feel fairly confident in saying even though I am pretty sure it makes me sounds like a xenophobe and I truly don't mean it to: Russians are sort of crazy. As I was watching Black Sunday, a film about a reanimated Russian vampire witch, my next door neighbor who is Russian and very large and also crazy was seemingly hosting a Wrestlemaniac-style event in his living room that was seriously causing every dish in the cupboards in my kitchen to rattle. This was at 8:45 on a Sunday evening. Russians are kinda nuts.

Black Sunday, aka La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of Satan) is an Italian film that is supposed to be based on the Gogol short story “Viy”, but the two works really have almost nothing in common except the aforementioned theme of Russians being crazy and the additional motif that women are bitches who will stop at nothing to murder your shit. Fair enough. In fact, Black Sunday is kind of a hilarious representation of what Italians think Russians are. To wit, here are the names of some of characters in the film:
Andre (this is actually my Russian neighbor’s name, so there’s that)

To be fair though, it’s actually pretty goddamn scary. There’s something about this era of film which lends itself to being creepy but not scary (with the exception of the swimming scene from Creature from the Black Lagoon that terrifies me to this day, although you could easily make the argument that Black Sunday is a different animal altogether anyway) but I think that Black Sunday is actually legitimately scary. 

Let me backtrack. The film opens on an inquisition of a stone cold fox (Barbara Steele, in the role that launched her career and also apparently made her not afraid of Italians anymore? Because that was a thing for her?) named Princess Asa. She along with her servant (the supercreep Javuto) have been accused by her brother, the Prince of Moldavia, of colluding with Satan as a witch AND a vampire and totally sucking people’s blood and generally being a badass. She is sentenced to death and they brand her with the letter S for Satan. Apparently this sequence is shortened in the American version, but it’s still really explicit for 1960. Then they place a spiked mask over her face and SMASH IT WITH A GIANT HAMMER. In 1960!! The approach of the mask to her face from her POV is one of the best visuals of the film.

This is really how frightening and dramatic and powerful it looked; this is my art, and it is dangerous.

Fast forward two centuries and we have to spend some time with these two dumb doctors on their way to a conference via horse and wagon when they encounter the haunted crypt of Princess Asa. The older of the two acts like such a fool in the crypt, waving his arms around at a bat that is seriously the size of Glenn,

eventually breaking the stone cross that hangs over the body of Asa so as to protect the world from her coming back to haunt it, then shoots the bat, takes the mask off her face, cuts his hand, bleeds onto her bare face, then leaves. WHY ARE BUSINESS TRAVELERS SUCH DUMMIES? You tell me, I do not know.

The doctor’s blood brings her back to life and you had better believe she is ready to exact some revenge on her brother’s ancestors, including her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great niece Katia, also played by Barbara Steele.

Black Sunday is full of great imagery: foggy forests (that’s pretty much all the Eastern Bloc countries are, right?), a man being burned alive in a great hall fireplace (apparently this was also cut down for content in the American version from the Italian version—in the Italian version, you see the skin peel off his face. I feel like I could have dealt with that but I guess I am just a wimpy American after all), Asa’s face that is riddled with holes from the spiked mask but still adorned with PERFECT cat-eyeliner makeup.

Speaking of which! When Princess Asa telepathically orders her servant Javuto to rise from the grave, he crawls from the earth and pops his mask of Satan off his face like the cap from a beer bottle and all these oozy shreds of gunk come off with it. It is seriously gross. I love it.

The final gross scene is at the climax of the movie (why am I only telling you about the gross scenes? Because it’s my blog, suckers) when the evil witch Asa is about to drink an unconscious Katia’s blood but then sees this gaudy cross Katia’s been wearing the whole movie and it stops her. Just then the younger doctor bursts into the room and Asa convinces him that she is actually Katia and that he should kill Asa by staking her through the eyeball (director Mario Bava’s highly entertaining version of a stake through a vampire’s heart). The younger doctor is just about to do it when he too recognizes the gaudy cross, turns to Asa, pulls open her robe (the best way to identify a woman is her boobs, naturally) and reveals  A DISGUSTING DECAYING CHEST CAVITY AND IT IS AWESOME.

Apparently there is a decent amount of censorship in this version of the movie—a total of about three minutes is gone from the American version. I hunted for any videos online to share them with you and could only come up with some useful stills here. Some of what was supposed to be cut is in the Netflix version (such as the garden conversation where Andre gives Katia the most posi pep talk of all time) and some is not (such as where Vajda’s face burns off in the fire). What can you do? Apparently Asa’s line, “You too can find the joy and happiness of Hades!” was changed to “You too can find the joy and happiness of hating!” which is hilarious to me because I hate a lot of stuff, like the St. Louis Cardinals, ketchup, people who think they are funny but are just repeating stuff they read on Twitter, and snow. I do feel real joy and happiness! I am truly with you, Asa.

Several years ago, I made an Excel spreadsheet of every classic horror movie I owned in various forms and in various box sets, sorted it by date and promised myself I’d work through them chronologically. Black Sunday was on the list but obviously towards the end since it’s from 1960 and I never made it anywhere near it because I kept falling asleep in the 1930s and making deals with myself where I wouldn’t have to restart The World Gone Mad and things like that, and eventually just gave up the whole project. I’m really glad I finally got to it though because it’s truly a great watch. Available on Netflix and seemingly all over the internet for free, it’s definitely worth your 87 minutes. 

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