Few directors of any era have had more of an impact than Mario Bava. Devoted follows of horror and suspense have long known his films, but the last 10 years have seen a renaissance of interest in Bava from all corners of the film world. Such modern masters as Tim Burton, Roger Corman, Wes Craven, Ridley Scott, and Guillermo Del Toro have borrowed, swiped and paid homage to Bava through their filmmaking.
Bava was at ground zero of the international flood that was Italian cinema in the 50’s and 60’s. So it’s fitting that this first 60’s retrospective takes a look at his first film as sole director: La Maschera Del Demonio (The Mask of Satan–AIP English Title:Black Sunday) 1960.
Shot in black and white, La Maschera pays its respects to the Universal Studios horror masterpieces of the 30’s while pushing the envelope of what was considered acceptable by censors. Opening at a witch trial in 17th century Moldavia, Bava starts us with a scene for the horror hall of fame. A scene rooted in actual Inquisition-style crime and punishment. The condemned witch, Asa , (played by future British scream queen Barbara Steele) is promptly bound, branded and staked in the face with a mask that proclaims her crimes against society and the church (Note to self: never get caught for being a witch in 17th century Moldavia).
Before the clergy and good citizens of the town carry out this sentence, Asa delivers a curse for the B-Movie ages (the bad dubbing of the English version takes the cheese to another level). Despite her threats, the local yokels nail the mask onto her face with a mallet you’d find at your local carnival strongman competition and call it “Miller time” . But as we all know, the fun is just starting.
Jump two centuries later. A pair of doctors make their way through the Moldavian countryside. When their carriage predictably breaks down, the doctors (played by John Richardson and Ivo Garrani) also predictably disturb the tomb where the witch Asa is resting. Their bumbling leaves her free to make good on her curse against her remaining family members who had her condemned, including her multi-great niece Katya (also played by Steele).
The rest of the movie plays out in classic horror fashion, full of the rising dead and budding romance. A pleasant turn is the surprisingly ass-kicking parish priest (played by Antonio Pierfederici) who helps the younger doctor end the evil of Asa. (Admit it; you would have gone to church more often if the priest showed you how kill the undead by stabbing them through the eye!) There’s even a throwback, “let’s-storm-the-castle-tonight”, Mildred scene straight off of the James Whale cutting room floor.
The plot may be unspectacular, but what makes this film a game changer is its sets, its shots, and its attention to detail. The backgrounds and settings are still grand achievements of horror filmmaking. Bava’s eye for gloomy atmospherics and religious iconography make this a joy to watch in the modern digital versions. The trick shots still give this film a special crawl of eeriness. The silent carriage sequence delivers chills even fifty years later.
Also in favor of the film’s importance was the black line given it by the AIP censors. The opening sequence of this film was one of the most gruesome of the early 60’s. Its depiction of Asa’s condemnation was edited in the English version along with the correct translation of the Italian language title. Of course, when the censors cut out the gorier bits, it created a rush to see the real deal. Like all good horror fans, the kids of the English speaking world wanted to be as traumatized as their Italian counterparts. Throw in some sado-masochistic overtones and a legend was born.
But La Maschera won approval not just for its use of sex and violence as a theme of terror but also for its use of craft. Scenes from it have been evoked as recently as Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
Rumor has it that Burton has long toyed with the idea of shooting a remake. Check out this original in the meantime…or at least until someone figures out how to CGI 17th century Moldavia.