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.
Two centuries later, a pair of physicians — the elder Dr. Kruvajan and his protégé, Dr. Gorobec (played respectively by Andrea Checchi and English actor John Richardson, the latter of whom would later become a regular in low-budget Italian horror and sci-fi films after losing out to the part of James Bond to George Lazenby) traveling to Moldavia take a detour through a region that is said to be haunted by the locals. As (bad) luck would have it, Kruvajan unwittingly awakens the entombed Asa, who in-turn, summons her dearly-departed lover from the grave. Meanwhile, the handsome young Gorobec woos the young daughter (also played by Steele) of a local Prince — the descendant of the doomed family line, who lives in mortal fear of his impending day of reckoning by the powers of darkness.
Also serving as cinematographer, Bava incorporates a number of distinctive special effects and lighting techniques — the likes of which are seldom matched in today’s CGI-happy world of unimaginativeness. Asa’s masterfully-illuminated crypt is a moody accomplishment in itself, and the her vivid resurrection into this world — and the grand exploding coffin sequence that follows — is enough to bring chills to the spine of anyone with a flair for cinematic innovation. The same goes for Bava’s unparalleled real-time aging effects, which were accomplished by the simply usage of filters and lighting. Finally, Bava takes an unprecedented first in film by adding more blood and gore than most contemporary moviegoers were accustomed to seeing in 1960: effects that resulted the movie in being banned in the UK for eight years, while the movie’s American distributors wisely dulled-down the gory bits to avoid any run-ins with the always-too-fussy MPAA.
While wholly similar visually, both the international release of The Mask of Satan and AIP’s drastically altered Black Sunday are completely different films. La Maschera del Demonico‘s American distributors, the classic AIP (American International Pictures), changed the tone of the movie (now called Black Sunday, to further repel the overly-Christian censors of the time) a great deal by completely re-dubbing the export English-language version with American voice actors and actresses, as well as rescoring the entire feature with new musical accompaniment by Les Baxter, who retained some of composer Roberto Nicolosi’s original cues in his orchestrations. There is very little to differentiate the UK and Italian versions of the film, on the other hand, save for an out-of-place scene in early prints of the Italian cut and certain bits of dialogue.
The UK-based distributor Arrow Video has gone the extra mile with their eagerly-anticipated Blu-ray/DVD Combo release of Bava’s gothic masterpiece by giving us the original cut of the film with audio options in both Italian and the exported English dub (complete with newly-translated, optional English subtitles for the Italian-language track), as well as the legendary AIP cut (which was a huge hit for the distributor), which has never before been released on home video (save for the odd grey-market or mail-order release, perhaps). Though I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my Italian horror movies, I have to say the addition of Black Sunday is a huge plus — as I have a soft spot in my heart for the ADR voices AIP frequently employed in their imported releases.
All three audio options for both video versions are presented in LPCM 2.0 stereo, and are as crisp and clear as they are likely to ever be. Likewise, the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC video presentations (shown in 1.69:1 aspect ratios) are the best Bava’s tour de force has ever looked to date, presenting finely-detailed versions of (both cuts) of the title, which present Mario’s skilled eye for contrast quite lovingly. Needless to say, neither presentation of the movie is flawless, as this was a low-budget production to begin with. That said, though, you should still find yourself in awe.
While the inclusion of the AIP cut is quite a special feature unto itself (it certainly has me jumping up and down for joy), Arrow has tossed in a number of other supplemental materials in order to sweeten the pot some. First up is an informative audio commentary by author/critic Tim Lucas — who penned the excellent Bava biography, Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark — for the UK/Italian cut. Journalist/Italian horror aficionado Alan Jones is on-hand for a brief introduction to The Mask of Satan, and the iconic Barbara Steele grants us a short video interview (in Italian with English subtitles) on her casting in — and reaction to — the film. The previously-mentioned deleted scene from an early Italian cut is also featured here, with a text introduction by Tim Lucas taken from his Bava bio.
Trailers for the international, Italian, and US releases of the film are also included, with a short US TV Spot being tossed in for good measure. And then, just when you think Arrow has given you their all, you discover that they have also included the original Italian-language cut of I Vampiri, too (complete with English subtitles) — as well as a trailer for it, which is followed by an impressive, nearly hour-long Mario Bava Trailer Reel, which covers many of the filmmaker’s projects. All of the bonus items are presented in 1080p. Finally, Arrow gives us reversible cover art for the Blu-ray/DVD release (courtesy Graham Humphreys), as well as an artwork-laden booklet with new essays on the film by Matt Bailey and Alan Jones.
Sadly for some US buyers, this Arrow Video title is a Region B release — and can only be played on multiregional Blu-ray players (which are pretty cheap and easy to come by these days). But don’t fret, people: a more “basic” (read: less special features) Region A disc is available in the States courtesy Kino Lorber, should the promise of the AIP cut, I Vampiri, and all those other cool bonus items on the Arrow release not sway your purchasing powers enough to shell out for a new Blu-ray player.
Though, I’d just like to point out, if you’re a fan of Arrow or Bava — or you’re simply curious about La Maschera del Demonico/The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday — I would strongly suggest pawning a few items from ’round the house and buying a new, all-region Blu-ray player. Arrow’s always-impressive annual lineup of releases has something to offer every genre enthusiast, and Black Sunday is certainly no exception.