In 1956, two Italian filmmakers set out to accomplish what surely seemed like an impossible feat at the time: to create a horror film in a country that had banned such a concept several decades earlier. The movie would come to be known in its native country as I Vampiri (and in America as The Devil's Commandment) and its director — a fellow by the name of Riccardo Freda — eventually wound up leaving the project when his backers refused to allow him more time to complete the film in the meager 12-day shooting schedule they were given. This action left Freda's cinematographer partner holding the (film) can, who was miraculously able to finish the second half of the feature in just two days.
Thus, an inventive cameraman by the name of Mario Bava saved the project he started out to make with his colleague Freda: a title that has become affectionately known today as Italy's first horror film. Though Bava would also work on several other pioneering features within the following two years (Hercules and The Day the Sky Exploded), his later work in horror resulted in his etching out a permanent name for himself on filmdom's own Wall of Horror. And his first credited directorial solo effort, 1960's gothic masterpiece La Maschera del Demonico (better known to international audiences as The Mask of Satan, and to American filmgoers as Black Sunday) also remains as one of his best — and launched the career of a British actress named Barbara Steele as a scream queen to boot.
Taking a cue from the classic Universal horror movies of the '30s and '40s, Bava weaves an eerie black-and-white atmosphere out of anxiety and fear, as he relates to us a loosely-adapted take on Nikolai Gogol's Viy. We begin with the 1630 execution of the vampire/witch Asa Vajda (a barely-legal Steele) and her Satanic lover — both of whom have a hideous spiked metal mask nailed to their face (an act overseen by Asa's own brother), before being burned at the stake ("A hot stake's better than a cold chop!" as Curly Howard would so delicately put it). Prior to her facial incarceration (and mutation), Asa vows to seek revenge on her own lineage that condemned her.