When Beauty is the Beast: The Carnal Pleasures of Black Sunday

How Mario Bava’s handmade magic and Barbara Steele’s Gothic rage made a horror classic


Today’s CGI allows demi-gods to level cities and cars to drive off planes, buildings and cliffs with the bland dread of parking tickets, often blurring the lines between what’s animated and what’s filmed so much that we’ve nearly killed sense of awe at how that stunt or set piece or lumbering creature was brought to life. Moviegoers may not understand the artistry required to turn all those ones and zeroes into Godzilla tussling with Kong, but they know it’s probably with a box under a desk. That’s surely safer for all involved, but older movies, even with their appalling politics, vibrate with the thrill of actors interacting with a physical reality. Tom Cruise has kept his career afloat because he’s determined to still deliver such pleasures, impersonating a modern-day Harold Lloyd, as reimagined by Nietzsche.

Horror movies, as much out of economic necessity as any filmmaker’s preference, will often still use practical effects – latex, squibs, tricks of light, and that most mysterious special effect of all – the actor’s performance, to get the scares done. Bad CGI can be riskier, given its ability to sink even fat-budgeted studio horror into camp, as that swamp creature comes off as weightless and unreal as Roger Rabbit, even if the SyFy Channel has turned such camp into a cottage industry. It’s no wonder that the horror landmarks of the seventies and eighties cast such a long shadow, arriving at the zenith of practical effects, during a rating regime that gave filmmakers the license to display just about any atrocity they liked. The best of them knew when to suggest a threat, and when to bring it to gory life. And one grandfather of that legendary class of deranged maestros is Mario Bava, a self-effacing Italian journeyman director who turned his painter’s eye, and MacGyveresque special effects into a series of brutal, stylish horror and crime flicks, with none aging better than Black Sunday (1960).

But no one, not even the director himself, expected it to be a classic of any kind. It was Mario Bava’s official debut as a director, after building a rep as a gifted cinematographer and special effects technician in Italy’s post-WW2 movie industry. But he only got his shot after saving three troubled productions when the original director was fired or quit. The last of these was The Giant of Marathon, initially helmed by the legendary Jacques Tourner (Cat People, Out of the Past), who left days into the shoot, uncomfortable with making a sword and sandal epic on the equivalent of lunch money.

Bava brought the picture in on time and under budget, if not to box office success, so its producer, Lionello Santi, offered him the chance to direct anything he liked, so long, of course, as it didn’t cost too much. Bava eyed how well Hammer’s Dracula performed in Italy and decided on his own vampire picture, based on the Nikolai Gogol short story, The Viy, which he would read to his children at night. No doubt this had nothing to do with his son Lamberto ending up a horror director as well.

You have no reason to fear the dead. They sleep very soundly.

Dr. Thomas Kruvajan

The shooting script ended up with almost nothing of Gogol’s original work, a folk tale about a seminary student who barely escapes a witch, only to be forced by an old colonel to pray over the body of his dead daughter for three nights, where he discovers that girl is actually the witch. And on the third night, the witch calls down an army of creatures, including the title monster, to finish him off. While Bava didn’t use much of the plot, the entire production is imbued with Gogol’s perverse logic and the horror of an ancient malevolence disguised as a beautiful maiden. The movie’s original Italian title was Mask of Satan, a reference to the film’s opening in 17th century Moldavia, where Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and her lover, Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici) are sentenced to death by her brother for serving Satan. For such crimes, iron masks, their insides lined with spikes, will be hammered into their faces by a giant mallet. The masks, cast in bronze by Bava’s father Eugenio, himself a pioneering cameraman and special effects man, are a triumph of design: Greco-Roman simplicity deployed to make hefty black-eyed visages.

Bava surrounds Asa and Igor with hooded executioners, a jury hidden in robes, and a brother who seems as nefarious and cultish as the defendants, sapping the “verdict” of any sense of justice, even as Steele vows revenge on her brother and all their ancestors. Her bare back is branded onscreen, and the mask is hammered into place, as Bava makes it clear that around here, spiritual ruin will be rendered in a distinctly corporeal fashion. It’s a lurid, kinetic opening that still works like gangbusters and no doubt still inspires paler imitations. Asa’s brother, wanting to make sure she’s truly dead, tries to burn her body at a stake, but rain arrives, extinguishing it, leaving everyone to assume the witch is still very much a force.

The movie flashforwards to the 19th century as a pair of physicians, the older, jaded Dr. Choma Krujavan (Andrea Checchi), and his bright-eyed and bushy-tailed peer, Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) travel by carriage through Moldavia to reach a medical conference. Bava wanted to control the lighting as much as possible, so he filmed most of the exteriors inside a studio, making the carriage move by having the crew hustle by its windows holding tree branches. Like so many of his tricks, it works, but with the light outside so closely resembling that of the interiors, it makes the whole world here seem like ruins, rotting and discarded. The two good doctors happen upon a crypt where Asa was laid to rest, a window carved in her coffin, so her masked face will always stare upon a cross mounted on the stone box. Bava, once and always the painter, loves frames within frames, from this design to a farm girl peering out a movie screen-shaped hole in her barn, to ornate carriage doors frequently turning the faces of passengers into classic portraits.

Old Dr. Krujavan wants to explore the chapel with the crypt, and he does, with Bava’s roaming 360 degree shot, selling the idea of it as a physical space, not merely a stage. His young associate is less curious about such grim surroundings and leaves. A bat appears and attacks the old doctor, who manages to swat it away and destroy the stone cross that supposedly keeps Asa trapped there. The coffin now cracked open, Dr. Krujavan removes the mask to find the eyeless skull of Asa, marred with scars from the mask spikes, and cuts himself, bleeding on the body, unwittingly reanimating Asa. The racket brings Andrej back to the crypt to check on the old doctor, who admits the corpse “seems to be looking at us with dead eyes,” echoing the passage in Gogol’s short story:

And in truth there was something terrible about the beauty of the dead girl. Perhaps she would not have inspired so much fear had she been less beautiful; but there was nothing ghastly or deathlike in the face, which wore rather an expression of life, and it seemed to the philosopher as though she were watching him from under her closed eyelids. He even thought he saw a tear roll from under the eyelash of her right eye, but when it was half-way down her cheek, he saw that it was a drop of blood.

Both Gogol and Bava use “witch” interchangeably with the idea of “vampire,” playing fast and loose with the rules of these supernatural creatures. In the short story, the witch sucks the blood of an infant, and when she’s resurrected, she takes on the qualities of Romero’s zombies – hands out, shuffling towards her victim. Bava tried using fangs for his monsters here but hated the way they looked. Instead, he chose to amp up the body horror with make-up for rotting faces and didn’t even require a bite to turn anyone into the undead here, choosing whatever depraved route might work best visually.

Waiting for them outside the crypt is Asa’s twin ancestor Katya, also played by Steele, standing among the chapel ruins, while restraining a pair of massive black dogs with leather leashes, no doubt inspiring Goth queens to this very day. But her grand entrance is the high point for Katya, who is swiftly rendered a dull virginal target for Asa to use in completing her resurrection. The young doctor falls in love with Katya instantly, and the two deserve each other, both sexless, idiotic beauties, of the kind so many permanently pre-adolescent YA fans crave. Katya scurries off, the doctors resume their journey, and Asa slowly recomposes herself, with Bava relying on a jelly and rice concoction swelling as a kind of primordial ooze inside her empty skull. He ends up using a pair of poached eggs for her eyes to appear, and the rich textures of these ingredients allow for a remarkable effect that still looks impressive. Asa’s re-awakening seems to have prompted her lover to awaken as well, with the lumbering wall of a man Juvutich soon crawling out of his own grave.

The weight of dirt and make-up under the blazing studio lights made it impossible for Juvutich to bust out of the grave without fainting first, so Bava resorted to a shot of shifting dirt and a close-up of Juvutich’s hand dragging himself up, which proved far more iconic than some Goth Kool Aid man routine. Juvutich wastes not time reaching Katya’s father, Prince Vadja (Ivo Garrani ) in his bed at night, who manages to ward him off with a crucifix, but the altercation leaves the old man paralyzed with fear. Terrified by their father’s condition, Katya and her younger brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri) send a servant to bring the visiting doctors who are relaxing at a nearby inn. But Juvutich himself, in a ghostly carriage, appears to escort the old doctor to the sick prince. Fog rolls across the woods where the old doctor is out of stroll, recasting the woodland idyll into something more nefarious. Just because Bava doesn’t shy away from brutality elsewhere doesn’t mean he can’t set the mood without it. How nice it would be if more modern filmmakers knew how to deploy this mix of gore and atmosphere, specifically all those timid helmers of the movies lumped on a pedestal of “elevated” horror when they’re just serving up dimly lit, humourless dramas, so scared of anything that might be in bad taste, such as well, a horror movie.

The old doctor survives his carriage ride but is led through the castle by Juvutich, whose silence leaves him following the giant for answers. Bava often films the castle in long, roaming shots with the tempo of an evil spirit itself, often reaffirming the castle’s actual space, so we know the castle well by the time the threat is obvious. Bava would never again to be able to afford a dolly and crane after this picture, often relying on a child’s red wagon and a homemade seesaw contraption instead, though still managing some amazing feats with them. Like the gore, his camera motion is rarely indulgent here. Even the zooms, which Bava tends to rely on heavily in later work, are employed just when the moment needs to be amped up.

The old doctor is led directly to an awake, weakened Asa, still marred with the spike scars. She’s a vision at once stunning and repulsive, an early conflation of sexual desire and threat that would be a horror staple soon enough. She easily woos the old doctor into a kiss that makes him her slave/vampire. Sam Arkoff, the famed producer whose AIP would bring a recut version of this to the US, cut the kiss as he found it too close to necrophilia for the pre-teens his B-movies were built to please. Many of Bava’s best effects here would be lost to Arkoff’s cuts as being too graphic and disturbing. Soon the old doctor, merely looking tired from Asa’s “infection,” advises the family to remove the crucifix from the room of Katya’s father, allowing for the eventual murder at the hands of Juvutich, who will turn the old prince into someone hungry for his own daughter before perishing for good. No priest or doctor seems all that effective here, even if they put together that Asa needs Katya’s life force to be reborn. This narrative glides like an ancient urban legend, eschewing the moral values of a fable, to wallow in the enthralling nature of evil.

Bava’s least accomplished feat here is the romance between Katya and the young doctor Andrej, an addition made with an eye on Italian audiences who had a greater appetite for romance than terror, which Arkoff, in his savviest move, deleted for the AIP version. As much as Steele comes alive as Asa, with her anger and appetite, she’s adrift as Katya. Like any good Catholic man, Bava defines female virtue as the absence of anger, appetite, or will. And we can’t help being drawn to Asa over Katya, almost hoping Andrej, with his good-intentioned naivete, soon gets devoured. The young doctor does his best to put an end to the curse, visiting the grave of Juvutich with a local priest. The old doctor is there now, sleeping in Juvutich’s coffin. On the direction of the priest, Andrej verifies the evil by placing a cross on the old doctor’s forehead which sizzles from the touch, and shoves a stake through his eye, a nifty upgrade to the heart as a target, ending his mentor’s undead existence. Meanwhile, Juvutich drags Katya to the crypt so Asa can begin stealing her twin decsendant’s life force, using a special effect that ruled out the chance to shoot the project in colour.

Bava shot Black Sunday in black and white, but with coloured gels to accentuate certain values in the film stock. He painted Steele’s skin blue as Asa to produce a truly pale look, and when it was time for Asa to drain Katya dry, he drew wrinkles with a coloured grease pencil on her face, dissolving to a shot with gels the same colour as the greasepaint to make the wrinkles vanish before our eyes. The effect doesn’t quite age as well as others, but there’s a remarkable charm to it nonetheless.  

By the picture’s last reel, the local village is aware that Asa has returned and approaches the castle to burn her at the stake once and for all. Andrej discovers what he presumes is Asa on the stone altar in the abandoned chapel, but she’s actually a drained Katya, with the real Asa on her feet, playing the virgin. In a rare moment of savvy, Andrej notices that the corpse is wearing a cross without ill effect, and knows the real vampire is the woman standing before him. Asa unleashes a seductive plea for the young doctor to join her, saying, “You, too, can feel the joy and happiness of hating,” though another dubbing has her use the word “Hades” instead of hating. Steele’s erotic rage is so enticing there’s a sense Andrej should relent to it. His attraction to Katya wasn’t any nobler per se, though the lack of eternal damnation probably counted for something. The temptation is cut short when her cloak opens to reveal a skeletal torso – another touch Arkoff cut for his kiddie viewers.

You will never escape my vengeance, or of Satan’s! My revenge will seek you out, and with the blood of your sons, and of their sons, and their sons, I will continue to live forever! They will restore me to life you now rob from me!

Princess Asa Vajda

Steele as Asa here transcends the writing, proving as vital as anything Bava staged in the picture, the role rightly leading to a string of starring parts in horror flicks in the US and Europe, with a brief appearance in Fellini’s 8 ½. The British ex-model had taken the role after uninspiring experiences in Hollywood, including losing her role in Flaming Star, a satisfying Western starring Elvis and directed by Don Siegel. Rumour has it she was difficult and walked off the set, but in Siegel’s autobiography he said she was merely ill-suited for the role, and they both agreed within the first week of shooting that it didn’t make sense for her to stay. Bava admitted that she had the perfect look for his sensual approach to the Gothic, but they never worked together again. Steele was difficult, showing up late, lore suggesting that she refused to appear on set because she believed Bava had developed a special film that could present clothed actors as nude. Ridiculous, sure, but given what Bava could pull off with the equivalent of a gift card from Home Depot, it must not have seemed impossible.

The village ends up dragging Asa off to be burned at the stake properly this time, Katya restored as her ancestor perishes. Steele’s vitality as Asa ends up sapping the satisfaction of the ending, as any modern audience gets the distinct impression that as evil as Asa is made out to be, she might just have been an independent spirit who had the audacity to enjoy a romp in her castle, or perhaps was merely in the way of her brother’s ambitions. Our lizard brains pick up on her defiance and find a sense of life there, even in her sneers. Her thirst for revenge is the fuel for the entire picture, easily dwarfing that of any other character. Her beauty and energy overwhelm Bava’s intentions as audiences can’t take their eyes off Asa while staying indifferent to Katya’s good little girl routine. Like so many movie pleasures, this appeal isn’t easy to defend, but it’s undeniable, no different than the laughter at someone falling down the stairs or the thrill that an actor’s stunt could have gone horribly awry. The movies can make beasts beautiful and even with the gore Bava serves up to repulse, we find ourselves leaning in for a better look.

Audiences who caught Black Sunday upon its initial release agreed, as the movie became a smash in the US and elsewhere, even with Arkoff’s cuts, though it did bomb in Italy. AIP quickly marched Steele into Roger Corman’s next Poe adaptation and Bava continued his work in Italy, establishing the broad terms of the “giallo,” along with Westerns, horror pictures, and even a sci-fi picture (Planet of the Vampires), always without enough money or time to make them consistently terrific. But so much of his work, from this, and his other successful efforts like Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body, Blood and Black Lace, Kill, Baby… Kill and Lisa and the Devil, holds up due to the power of his handmade effects and stylish cinematography. Bava worked like a street musician, armed with the simplest of tricks and quick to improvise with what’s at hand rather than having some grand plan. No doubt Bava would have been thrilled to be able to use CGI, with its God-like control, but I’m not sure that his perfectly rendered, weightless images would have the same power as his imperfectly made mayhem. Sometimes we want something that’s rough around the edges, a little dangerous to those involved, maybe even morally dubious; sometimes the beast is beautiful enough that we don’t mind joining the damned.

For anyone looking for more on Mario Bava and Black Sunday, please pick up Troy Howarth’s “The Haunted World of Mario Bava,” and the Kino Lorber blu-ray of the movie with the original Italian cut, and world class commentary from Bava scholar Tim Lucas.

Director: Mario Bava
Story: Mario Bava
Music: Roberto Nicolosi
Cinematography: Mario Bava
Editing: Mario Serandrei

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