Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan) (Bava, 1960):
IMDB Summary: A vengeful witch and her fiendish servant return from the grave and begin a bloody campaign to possess the body of the witch’s beautiful look-alike descendant. Only the girl’s brother and a handsome doctor stand in her way
Black Sunday manages to live up to its reputation visually but ends up being marred down by a number of other elements. Most of Black Sunday’s praise and legacy comes from the way Bava, in his first credited directorial feature, uses the camera. He does not disappoint. Filmed in striking black and white, Bava creates fear with his ever moving camera. He manages to make the camera’s presence feel somehow unwanted, resulting in an additional feeling of dread. The fake sets are used effectively and the film’s black and white cinematography (also done by Mario Bava) sustains the tension and wonder throughout. Barbara Steele, who became a horror icon, carries the presence necessary for the epic dual role. Her wide eyes filled alternately by fury and fright contain its own visual spectacle. By bridging the gap between the Universal horror films of the thirties with its visual flair and ushering in the wave of sixties horror with its use of then shocking violence, Black Sunday is understandably considered important.
In all other aspects, the film falls flat and comes off as quite mediocre today.
The acting itself outside of Steele (who herself is marred down by bad dubbing) is atrocious. Added to this, the dubbing on top of everything predictably creates a stilted feel that the film cannot overcome. The story and script are subpar as well. Loosely adapted from Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy”, the film creates a bare bones story relying on flat characters and bad dialogue to usher the audience through an hour and a half. The story meanders through its running time and it laden with cliché. The dialogue itself never enhances character and rarely pushes the story forward. It is essentially the same conversation again and again. Roberto Nicolosi’s score has a romantic theme running through the scenes with Katia (Barbara Steele) and Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) that becomes instantly laughable and is used throughout. We are never given reason to care about anybody and the story is never interesting, relying only on Bava’s admittedly wonderful visual aesthetic. The visuals cannot make up for the absence of interest contained in the rest of the film, making it an overrated classic.