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The Mask of Satan (Black Sunday)


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There are four or five different editions of this movie. I saw the one streaming on Tubi, where it is listed as Black Sunday, which I believe is the original version meant for English speaking audiences. It has a run time of 87 minutes and is known by fans as the European version. 

Tubi gives it an MA rating, though no one smoked in it that I recall. It was made in 1960, so there couldn't be much that one might consider pornographic. Why the MA recommendation? Probably because of the prologue, an extended description of which now follows. (Scroll to "So yeah ..." for a 3-minute read.)

It opens with a night scene in black and white as a masked shirtless man heats an iron in open flame. The narrator tells us we are in the 17th century, when "Satan was abroad on the earth, and great was the wrath against those monstrous beings thirsty for human blood to whom tradition has given the name of vampires." The camera pulls back for a wider view and we see two other masked shirtless men. They are executioners. There are several more figures, robed in black, many holding torches while standing amid dead wood on a foggy might. One among them, a bearded man who stands staring across the screen, appears to be in charge.

The iron is then pulled from the flame, white hot, and the executioner holds it aloft as he and his two executioner's helpers walk toward a girl who is bound by ropes with the front of her body against a large wooden slab, which is set like an easel at a steep incline. Her dress appears to be open at the back. In the near background and opposite her is another such slab, with another such victim, a man, also bound but facing forward and wearing a garish mask. "But before putting them to death," the narrator continues, "human justice anticipated divine judgment by burning into the flesh of those damned ones (pause) the brand of Satan." 

As one helper holds the girl still while the other pulls aside her long black hair to expose her back, we hear her cry out as the iron is pressed to her flesh, and then, just under the sound of the whirring wind, we hear a subtle but audible sizzle. The iron is withdrawn and we see on the girl's flesh a large weeping wound in the shape of the letter S.

But that's not all. 

The girl turns her face toward the camera to listen to her accuser, the bearded man in charge. His speech tells us that her name is Asa (pronounced Ozza), daughter of the House of Vajda. (VY-duh.) We learn that the robed figures around him are the High Court of the Inquisition of Moldavia, and they have declared her guilty. The bearded man says that he is both a son of Prince Vajda, and the Grand Inquisitor, and as such, he says, "I condemn you." Then he adds, as if on a personal note and with particular disgust, "And as your brother, I repudiate you." 

Stone cold. 

Asa has done too much evil, he says, including her monstrous love for Igor Javutich, "a scourge of the devil" who must be the lifeless guy on the other slab to whom the camera cuts to give us a better look at the the devish mask he wears. "Cover her face," the Inquisitor orders, "with the mask of Satan." We get a close shot of an iron mask, matching Igor's, laying beside chains against the trunk of a long-dead tree, one of many in this scene. The executioner picks it up and as its inner side is turned toward the camera we see it is fitted with long spikes. "Nail it down! May the cleansing flames reduce her foul body to ashes! so that the wind will obliterate all trace of her existence."

The helpers turn Asa's body to face the executioner as he approaches. Asa shudders at the sight of the spiked mask, but anger gets the better of her fear and she yells, "Griabi, it is I who repudiate you! And in the name of Satan I place a curse upon you." No witch hunt, this. She is definitely Satan's girl. As a storm builds she promises revenge and says she will live on in the blood of Griabi's sons, and the sons of his sons, to exact her revenge. "They will restore to me the life that you now rob from me!" The mask is held in front of her face and we hear her muffled voice promise to return. The executioner approaches with a long-handled mallet and, at the signal from the Inquisitor, he applies a single, forceful whack! A spurt of blood appears over the top of the mask. Another through an eye hole. A close square shot of the mask fills the frame and the title appears in dripping letters: "The Mask of Satan."

So yeah. Some pretty fornicated up feekle matter.

And there is more to come, including eye-gouging, tiny scorpions crawling on a partially decayed skull, and immolation. It looks like a Universal-International picture, but for the dubbed audio and the not-at-all-subtle gore. The credits tell us it is in fact a Galatea production of a Jolly film - and yes the irony is rich. Our leading lady is identified, though her name is misspelled, as "Barbara Steel." 

After the credits, a heavy rain ("As if by the demon's command" the narrator observes) prevents Asa from receiving the cleansing flames that would reduce her foul body to ashes so that the wind can obliterate all trace of her existence - and that turns out to be important. Instead, "Asa the witch" is placed in the tomb of her ancestors, while Javutich is buried in a grave reserved for murderers.

The story that follows is set two hundred years later in the mid-1800s. Barbara Steele plays not only the evil Asa but the good Katia, devoted daughter of Prince Vajda, and love interest of young physician Andrei Gorobec, played by her fellow Brit, John Richardson, and it is as Katia, in a strikingly dramatic visual at the moment of their meeting, that we next see Barbara, in the scene just after Gorobec's mentor, Dr. Kruvajan, has inadvertantly and unknowingly set into motion the chain of events that will allow Asa to exact her revenge. 




This is Mario Bava's debut as director and he chose an 1835 story by Nikolai Gogol, "Viy" as his subject, but after many ideas and changes were suggested, with one idea probably prompting another, the end result bears no resemblance to the synopsis I read of Gogol's story, and though elements such as transformation and reincarnation are common, Bava seems to have added the idea of rejuvenation and revivification through spilled blood to wedge his movie into the vampire repertoire.

The cinematography is credited to Bava, but Armando Govoni (billed as 2nd assistant) told Bava biographer Tim Lucas that the real director of photography was camera operator Ubaldo Terzano. It features rich contrast, deep-focused black and white shots of detailed sets, eerie atmospheric outdoor scenes, and period detailed interiors, all beautifully lit, and shot with graceful camera movement. Bava is said to have insisted on black and white in order to allow for the use of red and green filters to achieve the transformation effects.

Musically, the score features a recurring romantic theme played by piano and strings that is more fitting for mid-20th century romance than gothic horror. The incidental music is appropriate if not memorable.

ELDA, for the English Language Dubbers Association (which is a fun name for such an association) is credited for the dubbing, which is not horrendous but is at one point funny, when the coachman tells his passengers in a mild New Yorker accent "Its not so easy to frighten me. I fought through the whole war against Napoleon." Bava wanted British leads for a more legit Dracula movie vibe and the cast spoke their lines in English during production, which was then dubbed with American accents for this version. Oddly, we never hear the true voices of the English leads.

Much is said about an element of eroticism by many who write about this movie, but I didn't find any. Barbara is pretty, of course, poorly bewigged though she is, but the camera isn't exploitive of her and any sexual overtones remain just that, implied but never delivered, unless one can take from the torture a little BDSM titillation, and I'm sure some can, though that's probably not what most reviewers mean by eroticism. Or maybe it is, I don't know, but there's not much skin anyway. (There IS a full sized nude portrait of Asa discovered toward the end but even that is rendered crudely, more an illustration than an artistic depiction of the subject.)

Is it a vampire movie? A witch movie? I'm not sure even Bava and his fellow story crafters really settled that question, so they used elements of both. It is eerie and damn good looking, and the story makes sense ultimately, staying true to its own artifice. If you don't know it, take a look. You may wince at the gore, but the movie's look and sound keep it surreal. 

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