Essay 1 – Black Sunday (1960)

Happy Halloween everyone! Andrew and I are getting together very soon to record some horror movie episodes but I wanted to have something out on Halloween, so this is something a little bit different.

This is an excerpt from a work in progress – a rough draft of a chapter from a new work.

Please subscribe to our email list (or to our podcast, or like us on Facebook) if you want to find out when I’ve updated this essay, or when we release new essays and episodes. Happy Haunting!

Essay Transcription

[NOTE: This is a rough draft]

The image of Barbara Steele’s staring eyes on the poster for Black Sunday (1960) is one of the great horror movie poster visuals. The opening scene, in which the witch Asa (played by Steele) is tortured and killed, is one of the great opening scenes to any horror movie. The remainder of the film, a high gothic by the Italian visual virtuoso by Mario Bava is often uneven but remains a titanic example of Italian horror.

Mario Bava was a classically trained artist, a painter, and sculptor, who got his start as a cinematographer. He was an excellent visual stylist, and Black Sunday was his first full film, kicking off a string of well-regarded exploitation cinema throughout the sixties. Notably, the Boris Karloff featuring anthology Black Sabbath, the crime/spy film Danger Diabolik (notable, at least to me, for the scene in which John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell cavort on a giant pile of money), and the proto-giallos The Whip and the Body and Blood and Black Lace.

The star of the movie, playing the dual roles of Asa and Katia, Barbara Steele broke out via her role in Black Sunday, which may be her most famous turn. She also appears in the Vincent Price The Pit and the Pendulum and makes a notable appearance in Fellini’s 8 ½. She starred in a string of Italian movies in the sixties and seventies.

The film tells the story of Asa, a vampiric, devil-worshipping witch from the seventeenth century, who comes alive when a pair of physicians stumble across her tomb and inadvertently feed her blood. Katia Vadja, also played by Steele, makes her appearance shortly thereafter, memorably framed by hunting dogs, and the rest of the film focuses on Asa attempting to siphon Katia’s life away while the younger physician, Andre Gorobec (played by John Richardson) tries to save her.

 

A Gothic Revival

Black Sunday falls in with a Gothic revival happening in the late 50’s, as Hammer Studios reinterpreted the Universal Gothics of the thirties with cheaper sets, fake blood, cleavage, and a lurid color palette. Bava’s film stands as the true heir to those Universal Gothics. Although the level of gore and violence in Black Sunday would certainly be out of place in Tod Browning’s Dracula, the epic visual style and the German Expressionist unreality of the movie seem to have much more in common with Lugosi than the Christopher Lee films do.

Politics and Morality

The politics of Italy in the nineteen sixties are complicated (which shouldn’t surprise anyone) but essentially, Italy capitalized on the Marshall Plan to create a booming economy which embraced many of the same things that the America of the fifties and sixties would: a rising middle class, consumerism, improved quality of life, expanding social safety net and of course, creeping wealth inequality.

Black Sunday reflects this changing Italian society. Despite the “Economic Miracle” of Italy in the fifties and sixties, there were those left behind. Black Sunday does not reflect a Space Age optimism but instead a sort of nihilism that suggests a complete distrust of humanity.

Traditionally for a Gothic, the decadent upper-class Vadja clan holds spoiled blood and terrible secrets. The middle class doesn’t fare much better, with the self-important doctor unleashing unwittingly unleashing Asa Vadja and dooming himself, only to be reduced to a zombified servant.

Only the sensibly superstitious townsfolk, reflecting the “Get Behind Me Satan” values of the film in total come off seeming at all in touch with reality, which for them is dirty and unpleasant. This is a deeply conservative view, giving the most sympathetic treatment to the clear-eyed, Christian villagers. Given the climate of Italy at the time, it is hard not to view this as a repudiation of the changing values of the modern era.

Gender

In many of Bava’s films, and this one is no exception, women do not come off especially well. (As I just noted, Black Sunday’s viewpoint seems to be a bitter nihilism, so the men do not come off much better).

Barbara Steele’s performance as Asa is electric, her gestures visible from space. Her Katia is a swooning nuisance that barely registers as a character. Katia, the meek and subservient, is the heroine. Asa, the pleasure-seeking Satanist is the film’s villain. Taken with the rest of Bava’s oeuvre, this can only be seen to be a pattern. After all, Bava pioneered the giallo — not a film genre known for even-handed treatment of women.

Still, the movie can be looked at through modern eyes like an old story that was probably not the authorial intent. A woman takes what she wants – power, sex, fortune – and the powerful institutions of the time balk and take revenge. This is a story that has played out many times in many different ways. In the modern day, we now look at such things as rightfully inspiring revenge.

 

Discuss this Episode