Today I watched Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960)
When a pair of doctors travelling through Moldavia stumble upon a ruined church, they accidentally unleash an evil witch and her vampiric brother. While Bava is known for his work in the relatively grounded Giallo genre, he has a very diverse filmography and this early work of his is a pure Gothic horror in striking black and white. It follows a fairly standard vampire story-line with a tormented maiden, skeptical scientists, and all knowing priest, what sets it apart is just how grotesque it gets.
While the black and white photography, Bava can’t use his trademark bold colours but he more than makes up for it with his creative set design and atmosphere. The film is filled with all sorts of creepy Gothic affectations, the old castle and the ruins are filled with demented gargoyles and more spiderwebs than you can shake a stick at. All of this exists in a space created by some incredible camera work typified by long panning shots across the marvelous sets.
For 1960 this is a particularly gory film, in the opening scene a mask with spikes on the inside is hammered onto a woman’s face and there is a particularly effective scene of a man being burned to death. On top of that they change around the vampire lore to change the necessary killing blow from a stake through the heart to a nail in the left eye. Even by today’s standards this violence is still quite effective, the black and white photography covers up some of the lesser special effects, while the slick editing amplifies the impact of every moment.
Mario Bava delivers a fantastic Gothic romp that offers some superlative imagery. It freshens up the Vampire genre with lurid violence, the intensity of which makes it hard to believe this was made in 1960. This is an easy recommendation to anyone who enjoys classic horror but it is especially interesting to see Bava’s visual style taking form, his background in cinematography is obvious. It’s slow pace just serves to amplify the Gothic dread which makes this film such a delight. 5/5