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Image Entertainment presents
Black Sunday (Mask of the Demon) (1960)

"Two centuries ago today, two people were executed for practicing witchcraft: Princess Asa and her accomplice Prince Javutich and to their faces were nailed the Mask of Satan. A hundred years later, again on St. George's Day, an earthquake destroyed only the ancient chapel, and the witch's tomb was found split open, as if Asa tried to break out to accomplish her revenge. In fact, that same night Princess Masha died mysteriously. Masha was beautiful, the very image of Asa. She was just 21 that day....like Katia. And Katia is her living image....It's as if the witch tormented her victims with her own beauty before killing them."
- Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: May 30, 2000

Stars: Barbara Steele
Other Stars: John Richardson, Ivo Garrani, Andrea Checchi
Director: Mario Bava

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for violence, gore, implied sexuality and necrophilia
Run Time: 01h:26m:37s
Release Date: December 14, 1999
UPC: 014381594225
Genre: horror


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A BB+C+ A-

DVD Review

Mario Bava was one of the first Italian practitioners of Eurohorror; indeed, as the commentary on this disc notes, horror was prohibited on film in Italy until the late 1950's. Thus Walt Disney's Snow White is one of the seminal influences in the field in Italy. However, beginning with the film Black Sunday and continuing through the infamous Video Nasties, Italy has made up for lost time with a vengeance.

While the horrors in Black Sunday may seem tame today, the famous opening scene, in which the beautiful witch Asa (Barbara Steele) has a demon mask, with spikes coating the inside, hammered onto her face, is still hard to take. Unfortunately the film is somewhat of a letdown after starting off with such a bang, but that beginning remains one of the most important in horror cinema.

The film goes on to tell of the witch's revenge, exactly 200 years later, visited upon Prince Vajna and his daughter Katia (again Barbara Steele). Two doctors on their way to a convention happen to break down on the road near the tomb, and accidentally release the powers of the witch; one of them falls completely under her spell, and Asa is free to wreak havoc through the means of the reanimated corpse of her brother Javutich (and as the commentary notes, impliedly her lover) and take vengeance on the rest of the family, who condemned them to their fates. The story is loosely based on Nikolai Gogol's story The Vij, but as Bava was fond of noting, after four rewrites there is little of Gogol remaining in the film. Steele is splendid in this role that made her a star; she can play the evil witch just as well as the innocent Katia.

Through jaded modern eyes, Black Sunday doesn't have the power that it once had; much of its suspense is created through the hoary old chestnut of doors that open and close (and lock) by themselves, with a noisy creak. The stark black and white photography helps to establish the mood, and the original music (restored here, instead of the Les Baxter music which accompanied its U.S. release) is effective if unmemorable.

The presentation is of the English version of the film, entitled The Mask of Satan. While the BBFC refused to pass the picture initially, it eventually did get released, uncut, in Britain. The film here has three minutes of material restored to it that has never been released on video in the U.S. Much of this relates to the erotic component between the possessed doctor and the dead witch; necrophilia, even if subtly implied, was too much for U.S. audiences until now. Other items added include a longer shot on Asa as the mask is pounded onto her face, with the blood spurting out from behind the mask. This actually sounds worse than it looks on the screen; the photography is dark enough that very little is really visible.

That is part of the power of Black Sunday, even now; it has the good sense to leave much unspoken and implied, without feeling compelled to have closeups of knives piercing flesh and the like, as we see in later Italian giallo bloodfests. Some would say that Mario Bava never made a film as good as Black Sunday. I would say that regardless, it is still an effective and creepy way to spend an hour and a half.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: The image on this disc is marvelous. Blacks are great, and there is enormous range of shadows. The firelight sequences are beautiful indeed. There are occasional speckles, and at 00h:48m:42s there are three frames with major damage that really should have been repaired, but by and large there is nothing to complain about.

The sets are worthy of special mention. In the crypt of the chapel, the setting is displayed in a tour de force 360-degree camera spin; the camera delights in the show of a set worthy of a James Whale film, with massive arches and curving stairways and all manner of interesting dressing. This all comes through crystal clear on the video and is truly admirable.

If it weren't for the frame damage, this would have ranked a solid "A" grade; as such, I'm lowering it to a B+.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The audio, unfortunately, isn't presented as nicely as the video. The mono sound has minor crackling and hiss throughout. The soundtrack is extremely limited in its range; when Katia plays the piano, the sound is terribly distorted and really painful to listen to. A major restoration job needs to be done on the audio of this film; unfortunately it wasn't done here. The sound on the commentary is clean and clear.

As can be expected in an Italian film, the English dubbing is little short of atrocious. However, the English actors are clearly speaking their lines in English on the screen, so the lack of an Italian soundtrack is not as alarming as it might seem on first blush.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Tim Lucas, Mario Bava scholar
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
0 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Biography of Mario Bava
  2. Photo and poster gallery
  3. Note on the Italian version
Extras Review: Since Tim Lucas, of Video Watchdog magazine and one of the biggest Mario Bava fans on the planet, was involved with this release, you can expect there to be some great supplements. This disc doesn't disappoint.

First off, there are extensive production notes on the trifold snapper case, written by Lucas. Then there is a full-length, screen-specific commentary by Lucas which is highly informative and entertaining as he relates connected anecdotes and fills in information that is lost in the translation of the dubbing. He also covers special effects, historical tidbits and the differences between the U.S. and European prints of the film. There are a few extended silences, but none that last more than a minute. As can be expected, Lucas is very knowledgeable about the film and shares the wealth with us quite readily. For instance, the script was undergoing major changes as the film was shot, and Lucas points out scenes which survive from one direction of the script, where the attitudes taken don't quite fit in with the way the script finally ended up. In short, this commentary is about as good as I've heard.

The disc includes a lengthy biography of Bava and a filmography for him and for Steele. The filmographies are quite extensive and appear to be complete. There is a photo and poster gallery of materials promoting the film, including some full-color lobby cards. We get about 20 of these items, which is enough to give us a good impression of the promotion without being tedious.

Finally, there is a note on the Italian version of the film. There is an additional 2-minute scene which doesn't appear in the export version of the film. However, Lucas theorizes that it's misplaced where it occurs in the Italian version of the film, and may not have been intended to be in the film at all. There is an English language transcript of the scene; however, I would have very much preferred to have the scene included on the disc, with subtitles. For that matter, a seamless branching which included the Italian version would have been perfectly reasonable. Considering the importance of this film and Bava's many followers, it seems a shame not to have taken the opportunity. Of course, this is a pretty loaded disc for a catalog title that's not exactly a household name, and the price is certainly reasonable for the package. I also regret the lack of subtitles.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

Fans of horror films will want to have this uncut Black Sunday in their collections. This is as good as the film has ever looked, and the extras are great. Too bad about the extra Italian scene, but this is definitely a worthwhile disc overall.

 


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