Well would you look at that, it’s time for the SHOCKtober shenanigans to begin. This is always a weird time of year, isn’t it? Here in dotty old New England, at least, it’s like being caught in a liminal space between hot and spooky seasons (although some of us are hot and spooky year-round, amirite wink wink). The aisles of the stores smell like latex and cheap chocolate, but I’ve still got Piper’s Summer Breeze LP in regular rotation. There’s a whole endcap of pumpkin spice stuff at the grocery store, yet there is not a single bag of pumpkin spice coffee to be found and it’s irritating because it’s the only goddamn thing I want! And then, perhaps the most dissonant development of all, today begins 31 days of horror movie a-watchin’ and a-writin’ about some of your favorites, but I don’t yet feel fully ensconced in scary movie vibes, you know? Maybe it’s just that there’s too much daylight happening still, I don’t know. But I am kicking this off with a scary movie with serious scary movie vibes, so it won’t take long for the creepy crawly feelings to settle in.
Aw yeah, that’s right…I’m talking about Mario Bava’s 1960 classique Black Sunday!
This movie entered the 2020 list of your favorite horror movies at number 238, with 4 votes, a placement that is perhaps a wee bit lower than I would expect if you just pulled me aside on the street to ask for my opinion regarding the popularity of Black Sunday. (That is, if you could catch me! I’m pretty good at avoiding people on the sidewalk who have clipboards and just want to ask you a question. I can spot ‘em from at least a block away and I begin offensive maneuvers immediately: pick up the pace, stare at the sidewalk, etc etc. You know how it is. Lately we’ve had these people in bright pink vests taking up all four corners at intersections, trying to stop folks to talk about some children’s charity or something. That’s all fine and good but excuse me, I am on a mission to find pumpkin spice coffee! The children will have to wait.)
Anyway, what? Black Sunday! I am surprised it isn’t higher up on the list. Then again, what do I know? This was only my (GASP) first time seeing it, I have no room to talk.
But of course it’s been swishing around in my mind since I was a yoot, when I saw a picture of Barbara Steele with all those holes in her face in the pages of one of my mom’s old issues of Famous Monsters magazine. It’s the kind of image that gets burned into one’s brain, no?
Then I spent some time of my life conflating it with the 1977 terrorist flick Black Sunday, and I wondered how a single movie could have Barbara Steele with holes in her face and a blimp. As it turns out, no single movie does! Not yet, anyway. I know that Ms Steele is no longer working and blimps are kind of passé nowadays, but with all this new AI technology, who knows what the future may hold?
Black Sunday begins as all the best movies begin, with a witch-vampire-satanist tied to a stake, swearing she’ll be back for vengeance against not only the jerks trying to burn her, but also and their ancestors and their ancestors’ ancestors and so on. The jerks then hammer a spiked mask onto her face, and if you are me you say OH WOW that’s where all those holes in her face came from and OH WOW again, that’s why the original title of this movie is The Mask of Satan. I also thought about how toe-curlingly nauseating this scene would have been if this had been directed by Lucio Fulci. But it’s Bava, baby, so it’s still a horrifying sequence, but not eye-poppingly explicit.
Two centuries and a few stray drops of blood later, Princess Asa Vajda and her lover/fellow satanist Prince Vajda are back and ready for that promised revenge. The princess plans to take the place of her descendant, sad aristocrat Katia Vajda (also played by Steele). Will she succeed? Maybe!
Look, Black Sunday is perhaps a bit short on story but I, for one, do not care. It has the gothic vibes of all the best Hammer horror, but it’s even better than Hammer horror because, you know, stuff actually happens in it. It’s full of Bava movie magic (the scene where Asa saps Katia’s life energy is worth the price of admission alone) and the set pieces, oh honey! Gorgeous. The camera floats through castles and crypts and (c)forests as if on a cloud of evil fog. The filmmaking is all so assured, it’s insane to think this was Bava’s first directorial effort.
It also introduced Barbara Steele to the world, and it’s easy to see why she immediately became one of horror’s most enduring icons. By turns sinister and sultry (sometimes switching it up in seconds), she commands your attention every moment she’s onscreen, whether she’s out for a goth as all hell walk with her Dobermans or glaring at you with a face full of holes.
This movie feels to me like it’s 90 minutes of the Borgo Pass section of Dracula, you know? And everybody knows that along with the Demeter chunk, that’s the best part of Dracula. We get cobwebs and fog and scrabbly tree branches and eerie carriages and curses and a satanist whose manicure is still on point rising from the grave like a zombie. What more could you ask for?
It’s got the perfect vibes with which to kick off SHOCKtober, and the perfect vibes to end it. It’s the kind of horror movie that is the reason for the season, so if you’re like me and somehow you’ve never actually seen it before now, then hammer it to your face ASAP. And if you’re one of the four who voted it a fave in 2020, then I tip my wig to you because you obviously know what is up.
All that said, would it have been even better if there were a blimp or two in there somewhere? It certainly wouldn’t have hurt!