January 04, 2008
La Maschera del demonio (1960)
While the horror genre found in Italy a breath of fresh air during the decades of the 60s and 70s, it wasn't always that way, as before that "golden age of Italian horror", the genre had been banned in the country since the dawn of the sound era. The film that came to change all was 1956's "I Vampiri", directed by Riccardo Freda, which finally gave an Italian flavor to Gothic horror and inaugurated the Golden Age. After Freda came Mario Bava, an expert cinematographer (did the photography for "I Vampiri") who had been worked as an assistant director for several years and was waiting for a chance to direct his own film. His chance came in 1959, as after he helped to complete the epic "La Battaglia Di Maratona" the producers decided to give him a film, and Bava decided to adapt Nikolai Gogol's story, "Viy", and so "La Maschera Del Demonio" was born.
Better known in America as "Black Sunday" (albeit the literal translation of the title would be "The Demon's Mask"), the movie begins in the year 1630, with Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) of Moldavia being sentenced to death for sorcery by her own brother (Ivo Garrani). She is sentenced to be killed with the "mask of the devil", a metal mask with sharp spikes on the inside, but before dying, she puts a curse on her brother's descendants. Centuries later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) discover Asa's tomb while traveling through the region. Kruvajan removes the mask from Asa's face, but accidentally cuts his hand with broken glass and his blood falls over the corpse. While this goes unnoticed by the two scientists, it makes Asa to live once again, and now she is ready to destroy her descendants.
While an adaptation of Gogol's short story, the screenplay (by Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei and Bava himself) distances itself from the source and becomes a different entity, more a tribute to Gothic horror as a whole than to Gogol's tale. The writers take "Viy" as the basis to completely reinvent the vampire myth and give the Russian tale the romantic touch of Gothic horror, which naturally includes tragic romance, ancient buildings and an ominous atmosphere of doom. While one could think that they were hoping to repeat the style of "I Vampiri" (which proved to be quite successful), it feels more as if they were aiming to pay homage to the Gothic horror films done by Universal and Hammer in the 30s and 50s, but with a modern (and certainly sexier view). This becomes more obvious when one considers the style Bava uses in his directing.
Now, what makes "Black Sunday" amazing is definitely Bava's directing style, which as written above, is a powerful homage to Universal and Hammer horror films; however, there's more in this movie than a mere stylish homage, Bava takes Gothic horror to the next step thanks to his expert eye for cinematography (done by himself). With an excellent use of light and shadow, Mario Bava gives "La Maschera Del Demonio" an almost supernatural beauty that makes the film look like what a Gothic nightmare would be. Despite working on a low budget, he manages to make a wonderfully looking movie, and uses inventive optical and practical effects (also done by himself!) to create marvelously creepy sequences. While the plot may not be inspired, Bava's handling of suspense and atmosphere certainly is.
The cast is for the most part effective, although, with one remarkable exception, nothing really surprising. That exception is English actress Barbara Steele, whom in her two roles (as Asa, and as her descendant, Katia) is not only beautiful, but also outstanding in her performances, making her very different characters (a deliciously evil Asa, and innocent, sweet Katia) very believable. No wonder why this was her breakthrough role. As written above, the rest of the cast is just good, with John Richardson playing the lead role with aplomb although without a strong screen presence (although he is easily overshadowed by Steele), Andrea Checchi ranging from average to real good, and Enrico Olivieri delivering good support. It seems to me that Bava in this early stages felt more comfortable directing set pieces instead of actors, although Steele's performance is unforgettable.
While previously available only in its cut version ("Black Sunday"), the complete cut of "La Maschera Del Demonio" is the perfect debut for the Italian Maestro in the sense that it captures the style of Gothic horror in a remarkable way. Sadly, it also comes with the common flaws of Gothic tales, meaning a very slow pace (well, that's not really a flaw, but something that may turn off modern audiences) and more importantly, a certain lack of care in the development of both the characters and the story (as it focuses almost completely on the atmosphere), as it is truly a triumph of style over substance. However, this doesn't mean the story is boring, on the contrary, the movie is quite a chilling and entertaining experience, and while probably unoriginal and derivative, the story is still a captivating horror tale done old school style.
I really don't have anything else to add other than to be sure to watch "La Maschera Del Demonio", or "Black Sunday", in its complete form, and preferably, with its original score (the old U.S. version had a different one). While less known than Argento or Fulci, Bava is possibly the greatest and most influential Italian filmmaker in the horror genre, and his debut, "La Maschera Del Demonio", is a powerful movie that will definitely please fans of Gothic horror thanks to its ominous atmosphere and the beauty of its design (and definitely the one of Barbara Steele). If Riccardo Freda resurrected Italian horror, Bava transformed it into an art.
Buy "La Maschera Del Demonio" (1960)