Say, did I ever tell you all the story of the time a few decades ago back in the 80’s when I learned how to brine a chicken thanks to a pair of very helpful Satanists looking for Kosher salt at a grocery store? No? Well, that’s not why we’re here, so I won’t go into it other than to say I didn’t know they were into that stuff, and hell, I’m an atheist anyway. The chicken? It was excellent by the way. Still is, whenever it’s made.
Uh, speaking of “anyway”, Let’s move on.
Still scary and somewhat phenomenally timeless, Mario Bava’s classic “first” film La Maschera Del Demonio/The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday in the US) starts off unsettling and keeps the frights coming until the end. Bava’s direction and art direction here are generally superb, although yes, there are a few plot holes you can drive a rattly (or rat-filled) old Fiat through if you follow the story too closely. But taken as a whole, it’s still a work of brilliance that many films have paid homage to over the decades since its release.
Very loosely based on The Viy, Nikolai Gogol’s horror tale from 1835, the film revels in its high Gothic style, early use of gore effects and the stunning Barbara Steele who plays both the evil Asa Vajda and 200 years after her demise, her relative, Katia Vajda. It’s a revenge story of sorts, as that witch and her soulless-mate Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici) are separated and then executed in a most bloody fashion for their crimes and yes, there’s a bit of a promise of defiant revenge from the witch. 200 years later, it’s young Katya who’s target of a newly revived Asa’s demonic ways and in tandem with the revived Javutich, things get ugly for a few people after that curse literally comes to life. Wait, or is it figuratively? I forget.
Interestingly, the film links Satanism and witchcraft to devil worship as the same thing, which is about the sole flaw that sticks out (well, I’d guess it was seen as the same in the 1630’s, but I’m a terrible time traveler, getting too sick from the trips to pay attention and all that).
(Thanks, HD Retro Trailers!)
The film oozes dread from its gloomy atmosphere to it’s crumbling indoor sets where Bava, a master of deception, shows off some nice camerawork and hides the low budget behind well-placed shadows, very slick close-ups and some nicely creepy trees. Interestingly, Steele, who was a mere 18 years old at the time, manages to pull off looking drop-dead gorgeous and ageless crone with some neat makeup tricks, yet she almost comes off as two different people in her roles. That deception in the film almost fools the good Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) and the evil, craggy-faced Javutich goes after the Vadja patriarch after Asa’s revival costs Dr. Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) his life, which takes on a second deception as the story plays out. Katja’s poor dad has it hard, for sure, but a worse fate awaits her if the vampire witch has her way.
The tension in this one is almost unbearable (will the kid milking the cow get it?), although to be frank, you want to get either the complete Arrow version (if you have a multi-region Blu-Ray player) or at the very least, the Kino Blu-Ray (reviewed here) which is fine for its clean print and original music from composer Roberto Nicolosi, but sadly, only has an Americanized script re-write by George Higgins III and English dubbing by the “English Language Dubbers’ Association” of Rome, who doesn’t do a bad job with that script (even though it comes off as a tad of a stagey reading). I need to get that Arrow version at some point, as I haven’t seen the awfully chopped down US version in ages. Yeah, there’s a US cut from Kino, but I’d rather have that shinier new version and all its special features I’ve read about grinning madly at me.
Nevertheless, the film is one classic horror jam that will linger in the brain for a bit as the dreams you end up with might be of the Barbara Steele variety. Well, damned if it isn’t the ickier Vajda that ends up in those nightmares rather than the prettier one from your dreams. Hey, stuff happens and nope, I won’t tell a soul. I might make you some chicken, though if you ask nicely enough. It’s a very well-aged recipe, trust me.
Score A- (90%)