This week, during my mini-quarantine, I watched the Mario Bava classic Black Sunday from 1960. This was Bava’s first credited, feature-length film. It’s kind of like if a witch movie had a baby with a vampire movie. Apparently, Bava was inspired by the popularity of 1958’s Dracula, and the Nikolai Gogol story “Viy.”
Barbara Steele (The Ghost) stars in dual roles as the witch/kind of vampire Asa Vajda and her descendant, Katia Vajda. The movie starts in 1630 Moldavia. Asa and her lover, Javutich (Arturo Dominici) are sentenced to death for their unspecified evil, by Asa’s own brother.
They’re branded with the marks of Satan and have masks nailed to their faces. They’re supposed to be burnt at the stake but a storm comes, so the angry villagers just kind of leave it at that. Before she dies, Asa curses her brother’s descendants.
Two hundred years in the future, Dr. Chroma Kruvajan (Andrei Checchi) and Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) are detoured on their way to a medical conference. They wander into the Vajda family tomb, where Asa is entombed.
Dr. Kruvajan accidentally breaks the glass and the cross that keeps Asa in her tomb, cutting himself on the glass in the process. This is enough to revive Asa.
Andrej meets the Princess Katia, Asa’s descendent, who happens to look just like her and is immediately smitten.
Soon, Javutich rises from the grave, attacks Katia’s father, and kills the servant sent to fetch the doctors from the inn that they’re staying at.
The rest of the movie is basically trying to protect Katia from her ancestor, who wants to steal her body.
This movie is just fun. It’s an hour and twenty-seven minutes so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It looks gorgeous. It is kind of unclear exactly what Asa and Javutich are. Their victims have puncture marks in their necks, but neither Asa nor Javutich have fangs, and they’re both repeatedly referred to as witches. I’ve read that fangs were made for the actors, because Barbara Steele complained about hers, but they’re not seen in the film.
There’s minimal gore but there are definitely some creepy moments. I like when Asa is found and reanimated. There’s also an eye stab at the end that took me by surprise. There’s a focus on torture that I’m not used to with films from this period, and you can see it laying the groundwork for future erotic, gothic thrillers, and Bava’s future giallo work. Asa has this overt, evil sexuality that’s unusual for a film distributed by AIP.
It’s great fun watching Barbara Steele alternate between the evil witch, and the quiet, scared Katia.
The movie is in black and white, so you don’t get to see Bava’s legendary use of colored lighting, but there are still some striking, beautiful shots, and a lovely interplay of shadow and light.
Overall, this is a fun movie for anyone that wants a gothic horror that blends the witch and vampire genres.