The four-star rating I’m giving Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan) (1960) is for cinematography and atmosphere. On any other level, the film scores pretty poorly with me, but then I admit I don’t “get” Bava or the rush to crown him as one of the great genre filmmakers—and I will doubtless be hearing about that from some quarters. But the gorgeous black-and-white imagery is so remarkable that it overrides the bad acting, barely coherent story and the awful dialogue (at least in the English-language version, which is all we have available in the U.S., it seems). There are times when I’d swear I’m looking at a late-period Murnau film—it’s that good. As drama, however, this tale of a vengeful witch returning from the dead is hard to get that worked up about. Then again, storytelling has never seemed to much interest Italian horror directors, so this may not worry Euro-horror fans.
It’s interesting from this vantage point to realize how shocking the film was considered when it came out. The first time I saw it was on a TV station out of Tampa, Fla., where it was curiously given a prime-time airing—an airing that was preceded by a stern warning that the movie was for adults and that the kiddies ought to be packed off to bed. Now, the film seems creepy, but hardly shocking. This, of course, is also true of most classic-era horror pictures. It’s very hard today to imagine people fainting at the 1931 Dracula, yet it supposedly happened. (It’s often hard to separate the truth from the apocryphal in these things.)
Black Sunday is often said to recall the first wave of Universal horror (1931-36), but I can’t say it does that to me. I see no real similarity. Rather, it seems to have more in common with the films Fernando Mendez was turning out in Mexico from 1957 through 1959—films which have only recently started to be reassessed. The plotting is similar; the look is similar. They’re very atmospheric and clearly grounded in classic horror, but often lacking in a good deal of logic or dramatic structure. That strikes me as similar to the Bava film. It also strikes me as similar to the cheesy Monogram horror pictures of the 1940s—except done with a good deal more style. Whatever the case, and however you end up feeling about it, there’s no denying that any horror fan needs to see Black Sunday at least once.