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Continuing with its Mario Bava Collection, Image has done horror fans a great service with its DVD of Black Sunday in a 'Widescreen European Version.' The only previously available version of this favorite creepy fright fest has been an Image laserdisc of American-International's 1961 import, with its heavy cuts, replacement music score, and pan-scanned, squeezed image. Black Sunday's censor woes, the subject of a previous Savant Black Sunday censorship article, resulted in its U.K. release being held up until 1968. Almost all of Mario Bava's deliriously visual films were heavily censored for the United States. Happily for us, what is presented on Image's sparkling new DVD is a fresh and uncut print of the English-dubbed import version that was banned in 1960, titled The Mask of Satan.
As pointed out in Tim Lucas' authoritative commentary track, Mario Bava's first film as director managed to combine everything about horror films that 1960 fans wanted to see: Universal-style B&W cinematography, Hammer gore and violence, and Bava's own distinctive Italo blend of sex and sadism, visually rendered as a fairytale nightmare.
After two hundred years, a curse revisits the Carpathian Vidar family when the vampirish Princess Asa's corpse is revived in its crypt by the dripping of human blood into her empty eye sockets. The rest of the tale is a dramatically forceful and visually riveting series of hauntings, possessions and murders as Asa seeks to claim the young body of her descendant, Katia. In a dual role, horror queen Barbara Steele gives the performance that launched a hundred Euro-horror films to follow, fusing terror and seduction into a screen persona so impressive, it won her a plum part in Federico Fellini's Otto e Mezzo, not to mention a starring bout with Vincent Price in the famous Pit and the Pendulum.
Black Sunday's key shocks have lost none of their power: The resurrection of the scarred, eyeless Asa in her tomb; her incestuous brother Javutich rising from the grave; a ghostly carriage gliding through the moonlight on a satanic mission. Restored are all the grisly details withheld from the kiddie audience who were nonetheless traumatized by Black Sunday in 1961, including a graphic eye gouging and an unsettling scene where a hypnotized victim kisses the most horrible / beautiful corpse ever seen. American horror didn't even begin to catch up with this level of shock until 1968's Night of the Living Dead. Some grabs of Sunday's extreme imagery can be found here on Savant in the same censorship article.
The new Image DVD, like the whole series, is graced by the direct participation of Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog editor and undoubtedly the reigning authority on the films of Mario Bava. Lucas's commentary points out relevant details and themes -- when he raises in an 'eye trauma' motif his argument is more than supported by the action onscreen. Lucas even proposes a radical reading of Black Sunday as potentially reworked in post editorial (a Savant fascination): evidence that suggests that some of Barbara's scenes as the virginal Katia may have been originally shot to suggest that 'Katia' was being impersonated by the (literally) verminous Witch Asa.
As further extras the DVD includes a selection of stills and posters that can truly be called rare, and copious liner and onscreen notes on the director and stars of this film, originally titled La maschera del demonio.
Curious viewers will be interested to know that the original English dubbing heard here is better than the hammy A.I.P. voices (which included the ubiquitous Paul Frees), and more effectively mixed. Roberto Nicolosi's score is more subdued than Les Baxter's bombastic replacement music, letting Bava's visuals keep center stage. The transfer is excellent: the source element is practically perfect and the enhanced 16:9 widescreen makes for a Bava video that for once shows off his superior camera magic. The colorful packaging says the transfer is 1:66. 1 All of Black Sunday looks balanced and well-framed. Purists should be reminded that the film was designed to be screened at even wider aspect ratios.
Note: The following was written in December of 1999: The big American DVD companies are sitting on dozens of horror titles that would make excellent DVD's but go unreleased due to studio indifference or ignorance. Indie Image's superior presentation of Black Sunday will surely be a hit; hopefully it will inspire the majors to push their priorities and start scheduling the likes of: Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, The Mummy (Warners), Planet of the Vampires, The Vampire Lovers, Witchfinder General, ALL the Vincent Price Poe Films, The Last Man on Earth (MGM), Blood & Roses, Danger: Diabolik (Paramount), Curse of the Werewolf, Brides of Dracula, the rest of the classic U's, Island of Lost Souls (Universal), She, The Haunting, the Val Lewtons, Mystery of the Wax Museum (Turner), The Innocents, The Fly [any and all incarnations] (Fox), Kwaidan, Les Yeux sans Visage (Criterion?) and Curse of The Demon, the rest of the Castles, The Stranglers of Bombay, Macbeth, The Revenge of Frankenstein (Sony).
Image's Black Sunday is a must see, must have, must ballyhoo, must review. Turn out the lights and soak up some first-class frights delivered with old-fashioned sex & violence, and an extra touch of gore!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Black Sunday rates:
1. I've been writing in error on some of my
reviews .... saying that 16:9 can't be any less narrow than 1:78, the proportions of its wide screen. Well, now that's changed. Black Sunday says on its box that it is presented in its original ratio of 1:66, and apparently it is. To do this in the 16:9 format, vertical black bars at either side of the image are introduced. They end up being a lot narrower than, say, 1:85 horizontal letterbox bars; perhaps they should be called 'bookends', which is what I've been calling the black bars you get when you view a 1:33 film on a 16:9 monitor. My JVC is out of adjustment and I have to stop trusting what it shows; it overscans somewhat and the side matting (bookending) is invisible. Savant is going to check out The Searchers on a different monitor as well -- perhaps my criticism of that master is all wrong. I am told Columbia TriStar is transferring 1:66 films this way as well, to take advantage of the greater resolution of 16:9.
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