Movie Review – Black Sunday (1960)

Mario Bava is a legend of Italian horror. During the 1960s and 1970s he helped to pioneer both giallo and slasher films. Before then, throughout the 1950s, he was an effective cinematographer who did some milestone jobs, often taking over when other directors walked away from projects. Two of these movies are considered the first horror and the first science fiction entries in Italian cinema, respectively.

But it was in 1960 that Bava received his first solo directing project, and he chose to loosely adapt Nikolai Gogol’s horror short story, “Viy”. The result was Black Sunday (1960), today considered a Gothic classic, but at the time was considered extremely graphic, so much so that it was banned in the UK until 1968.

The plot revolves around the resurrection of a vampire-witch who was murdered centuries ago, and who is now seeking revenge on her executioners’ descendants. The plot is admittedly thin and at times muddled, but it’s also not really the point. Filmed purposefully in black and white, much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) which released the same year, Bava’s skills as a cinematographer are on full display. He creates rich compositions and cleverly employs shadow and light to announce characters and elements. He understands the way the eye moves along the screen and exploits it for surprising reveals. The story serves the visuals, not the other way around.

The film still has the power the shock, especially its opening sequence where a mask of spikes is nailed into the witch’s face. The effects are also still impressive, such as the reanimation of a skeleton as Bava plays with light to make it appear as though eyes are being formed in the hollow sockets. Old school techniques stand beside the new, like using make-up and special lens filters to make it appear that an actor’s skin is changing, used famously with Fredric March in 1932’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Black Sunday 1960 still

No less importantly, the film marked the debut of Barbara Steele, a British actress who would go on to become a horror icon through the next two decades, and who is still making horror movies to this day. Some of her more notable entries include The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) with Vincent Price and a famous bathtub scene in David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975).

The pace of the story can be slow moving, which may challenge modern viewers. Also, as was typical with Italian films, the voices are dubbed, sometimes not terribly well. Even Barbara Steele, who is speaking English, is dubbed over with an American accent. But Black Sunday has a tremendous amount to offer for those with the patience to appreciate it. It feels like a Gothic horror from the 1930s infused, or updated, with a taste of the gore and sexuality that would harken the more visceral horror of the coming decades. Any list of great Gothic horror films would be incomplete without this film’s admission.

Grade: B