February 26, 2013

Filthy Review - 'Black Sunday'

Black Sunday (1960)

Review by Marcus Link

Mario Bava’s classic “Mask of Satan” or “Black Sunday” as it was called across the pond, had many lives – as typical for European horror movies at that time it was re-named/cut/scored/dubbed to please the foreign markets outside of it’s native country.

My first encounter with Mask of Satan was indeed a very odd one – watching it as a child, late at night on German television in a version named “Die Stunde wenn Dracula kommt” – which roughly translates to “The hour when Dracula appears”. Yes you have read correctly “DRACULA” – so now you probably understand why my first encounter was a very odd one, waiting eagerly for the count to appear and wondering why we spend so much time focusing on “that witch” - well - the count did appear (the dubbing just renamed Javuto into Dracula) but it left me very disappointed as we spent very little time with him and again – “that witch” took most of the screen time.

 Little did I know what groundbreaking horror classic I just had the pleasure to watch, unfortunately distributors tampered around with the material and renamed and cut it to cash in on other popular franchises, a fate it shared with numerous other productions from that era.

The film opens with an atmospheric prologue which has become a classic on its own, copied numerous times and referenced in about a dozen genre titles - an almost dreamlike flashback into the 17th century. We witness the evil witch Asa and her vile lover, Javuto getting condemned to death for sorcery, vampirism and murder by her own family. Asa gets branded and has to wear the “mask of Satan” an iron mask with spikes inside, before she is supposed to be burned at the stake.  Showing no remorse Asa curses her family and future descendants but just as the mob is getting ready to burn her, a rainstorm puts a stop to it and she has to be buried in a crypt instead. A cross is placed on the coffin which can be seen through a small window inside her coffin to keep her evil body in it’s grave.

Fast forward 200 years later, two doctors on their way to a medical convention are stranded near an eerie crypt. Investigating, Dr. Kruvajan accidently resurrects the evil witch by breaking the protective cross. Asa, now finally released after all these years is out for revenge, this not only includes possessing the body of her ancestor Katia, who bears a remarkably resemblance, but also to resurrect her lover Javuto to fulfill the curse she put on her family centuries ago.

Shot in atmospheric black and white, Black Sunday plays like a gothic Hammer Horror with some violent Italian twist. Some scenes are pretty graphic for it’s time and the overall tone is way darker than in any of its British counterparts of this era. It has a nightmarish – almost dreamlike quality to it thanks to the exquisite cinematography (Mario Bava himself served as his own director of photography).

 It’s not the story itself - which to be honest is very basic - that lifts Black Sunday high above it’s numerous genre cousins, it’s the sense of uneasiness through out the movie, some genuine creepy scenes, scary ambient noises and the simply stunning camerawork that makes it stand out and still deliver after all this years. It’s a simply beautiful shot and masterful directed genre highlight which stands the test of time and inspired numerous other filmmakers. Mario Bava moved on the direct some highly praised Giallos after this – but Black Sunday will always be his gothic masterpiece.

Arrow has put together a fine disc, first of all we got 2 different versions, the international version known as “Mask of Satan” and the shorter American version called “Black Sunday”, the latter is not only missing a few scenes and dialogues but also got a completely new soundtrack and a different English dubbing. Sadly I must say as the US dubbing sounds even more unnatural and cheesy as most “made in Italy” tracks do and the haunting score of the original version was replaced by some generic and completely unremarkable cues. Kudos to Arrow for allowing us film fans and collectors to compare those two versions without even switching the disc, I for myself enjoyed both versions but the international cut is the more powerful and shocking version which should be preferred.

The image is on par with the US release from Kino, showing the same great balanced contrast and sharpness but seems to be a bit more stable due to a slightly higher bitrate. Interesting fact is that the “Black Sunday” US cut was taken from a different source (MGM holds the rights currently) which actually looks a bit brighter and better balanced in terms of contrast in some scenes, but sadly only the rearranged scenes have been used from this source as all the other scenes were taken over from the international print and edited together – pity as it would have been interesting to compare both prints.

 The Blu-ray offers the following supplemental features:

-          High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of two versions of the film; ‘The Mask of Satan’ – the European version with score by Roberto Nicolosi & ‘Black Sunday’ – the re-edited and re-dubbed AIP version with Les Baxter score, on home video for the first time

-          Three audio versions: Optional Italian, European English and AIP English re-dub and re-score

-          English SDH subtitles for both English versions and a new English subtitle translation of the Italian audio

-          Audio Commentary with Bava biographer and expert Tim Lucas

-          Introduction to the film by author and critic Alan Jones

-          Interview with star and horror icon Barbara Steele

-          Deleted Scene from the Italian version with notes by Tim Lucas

-          International Trailer

-          US Trailer

-          Italian Trailer

-          TV Spot

-          I Vampiri (1956) – Italy’s first sound horror film directed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava

-          US I Vampiri Trailer ‘The Devil’s Commandment’

-          Trailer reel – trailers of all the major works by Mario Bava

-          Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys

-          Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Matt Bailey and Alan Jones, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

I don’t want to nitpick here as the list looks quite impressive, buts sadly it turns out not as great as it looks on paper. The interview with Barbara Steele is certainly informative but only 9 mins in total and clearly shot for a different release, the audio commentary was already released years ago on the DVD and I Vampiri is interesting to watch but I can’t help myself to wonder why Arrow has not produced their own excellent documentaries and features we got with their previous releases of cult titles. It’s certainly nice to have both versions and an extra movie but I would have wished for some more insightful extras and retrospectives. There doesn’t seem to be a single feature produced for this disc – strange as Arrow is mostly known for their great set of supplemental features. For a classic like this I would have wished for some more in depth analyses and documentaries, the audio commentary surely serves as that – but it has already been released before, so nothing new here.

I can recommend this disc but still it leaves room for improvement in the supplemental features segment.

Black Sunday is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video.

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