Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan)

Movie Information

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Black Sunday Thursday, Jan. 13, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Score:

Genre: Horror
Director: Mario Bava
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani
Rated: NR

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

16 thoughts on “Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan)

  1. Dionysis

    I’m not making the case that Bava is the great director others claim (although I do think much of his cinematography work was impressive), but Black Sunday was a film that scared the bejeezus out of me when I saw it at a Florida drive-in theater way back when, a movie-going experience I’ve never forgotten.

  2. Ken Hanke

    scared the bejeezus out of me when I saw it at a Florida drive-in theater way back when

    Yes, but how old were you? On that same basis, the “Drop of Water” segment of his Black Sabbath was one of the scariest things I saw when I was 10, and I still find it creepy (and probably the best thing he did).

  3. Jim Donato

    Mario Bava begins and ends with me with “Danger: Diabolik!” It has the finest faux-Bond theme song and psychedelic Morricone score I’ve ever heard. John Philip Law as an anarchistic super criminal [who acts like he's speeding] is pretty wild stuff.I saw it in my late 20s [thank goodness] and when I once met Mr. Law I mentioned that if I had seen it it a more impressionable age it would have probably shaped my life.

  4. Dionysis

    “Yes, but how old were you? On that same basis, the “Drop of Water” segment of his Black Sabbath was one of the scariest things I saw when I was 10, and I still find it creepy (and probably the best thing he did).”

    I’m not sure; since I saw it at a drive-in, it was not likely a first run, so I was probably around 10 or 11 years old. And I agree that the segment you reference from Black Sabbath was indeed scary. I don’t recall seeing that film as a child, but did about 12 years ago and found it really packed a punch. I also liked the segment ‘The Wurdalak’ with Boris Karloff.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I’m not sure; since I saw it at a drive-in, it was not likely a first run

    Well, since it was handled by AIP, I’m not sure that’s a given. This sort of thing seems to have been handled curiously back then in general. I saw The Gorgon/Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb double bill at a drive-in first and at two different theaters later.

    I also liked the segment ‘The Wurdalak’ with Boris Karloff.

    Yes, it’s pretty good, but it didn’t really terrify me like “A Drop of Water.” It was “The Telephone” that brought the film down for me.

  6. I have not seen that one.

    You haven’t seen Danger Diabolik? In my top 10 of all time for sure. The only thing that comes close is those 60s French Fantomas films, and they don’t have that amazing Morricone score.

  7. Ken Hanke

    In my top 10 of all time for sure

    Oh, ten bucks says I don’t end up in that corner when/if I see it!

  8. Chip Kaufmann

    You will see DANGER DIABOLIK as ironically it’s on the February schedule for HFS (2/27) along with John Ford’s FOUR SONS and a Chinese film THE KING OF MASKS. A 4th film will depend on the use of the theater during the Super Bowl.

  9. Ken Hanke

    You will see DANGER DIABOLIK as ironically it’s on the February schedule for HFS

    That’s an awful lot of Bava awfully close together.

  10. Chip Kaufmann

    You’ve got roughly 6 weeks to prepare yourself for it.

  11. Oh, ten bucks says I don’t end up in that corner when/if I see it!

    I don’t expect all those Ken Russell films to budge.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I don’t expect all those Ken Russell films to budge

    Not for the likes of Mario Bava, they won’t, even though my personal top 10 only includes two Russell films. But then Sternberg, Mamoulian, Whale, Peter Medak, Lester, Lubitsch, Chaplin, Kubrick, Bergman, Fellini, Murnau, Borzage and about 100 others aren’t likely to budge for Bava either. Not unless this is a truly remarkable film.

  13. Not for the likes of Mario Bava, they won’t, even though my personal top 10 only includes two Russell films. But then Sternberg, Mamoulian, Whale, Peter Medak, Lester, Lubitsch, Chaplin, Kubrick, Bergman, Fellini, Murnau, Borzage and about 100 others aren’t likely to budge for Bava either. Not unless this is a truly remarkable film.

    I do have a Russell in my top 10, as well as this one and a Scorsese. The remaining 7 slots are filled by BACHELOR PARTY.

  14. Ken Hanke

    The remaining 7 slots are filled by BACHELOR PARTY

    Well, that makes sense.

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