Beyond the Classics is a recurring column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she takes a look a the influential Italian gothic horror movie, ‘Black Sunday.’
When most people think of Italian horror, giallo thrillers with bright blood and erotic plots of the 1970s come to mind. This era is memorable for a reason; it was when Italy finally found its stride with horror movies. As the United States and other countries were figuring out how to evolve the horror genre with the invention of sound, Italy was barred from incorporating horror, violent, or supernatural elements in films made during Benito Mussolini’s rule.
Post-World War II Italian film was revolutionary in many genres, but horror looked to the gothic stories and sets that Hollywood had left behind a decade before. Yet, the films made in the late 1950s and early 1960s were not simply rehashing Hollywood horror tropes. They were reinventing them, taking the thrill up a notch, and defining a new sub-genre. The man leading this change was Mario Bava. His 1960 film Black Sunday laid the groundwork for all of Dario Argento’s colorful thrillers and many other horror films that followed.
Italians did not shy away from terrifying imagery in the early days of cinema. As early as 1907, filmmakers were taking religious fears and turning them into scary stories for audiences. Not long after, the government began overseeing the creation of all media, and the things that made those scary films great were officially outlawed. Under Mussolini, “preventative” censorship kept filmmakers from writing and producing films with any kind of murder, ghosts, supernatural elements, hypnosis, etc. Italian audiences were not just robbed of seeing Italian horror during the late silent era and the early sound era but also the most influential foreign horror as well. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was banned outright, and any film that originally had outlawed elements was heavily edited to fit censorship standards.
This ban kept the horror genre from developing from early attempts and permanently altered how the country saw the genre. Thanks to the censors, Italian filmmakers and audiences saw horror as the antithesis of Italian cinema. Films made to shock viewers and appeal to the low-brow audience were okay if they were made by other countries, but most people were opposed to anything close to Italian horror until the late 1940s. Movies like Il Trovatore from 1949 used elements of horror but were more melodramatic in execution. It wasn’t until I Vampiri that Italy would see a real modern horror movie.
In 1957, Mario Bava began as I Vampiri‘s cinematographer but eventually took over as director when Riccardo Freda walked off the project. His keen eye for style and imagery made this introduction to how Italians handled vampire stories different than anything that came before it. Despite its low budget, quick shooting schedule, unknown inexpensive actors, and poor Italian reception, Bava was able to create the macabre foundation for his next and much better horror film.
Bava was reassured by the success of the Hammer Films version of Dracula in 1958 to pursue another horror film in 1959. He chose to adapt Nikolai Gogol’s “Viy” short story originally published in 1835. In the story, a group of students encounters an old witch who can turn into a beautiful young woman and summons an evil gnome chieftain Viy when she dies. Bava and screenwriter Ennio de Concini revised the story over the course of several treatments and drafts before coming to the story that would eventually be the screenplay for the film.
In Black Sunday, a beautiful witch Asa (Barabara Steele), is sentenced to death in 1630, but not before she puts a curse on all her brother’s descendants for persecuting her. She is buried with a spiked metal mask hammered into her face to prevent her from ever being beautiful again. 200 years later, two doctors, Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) stumble upon Asa’s tomb in an ancient crypt. The two accidentally break the glass preserving her, dripping blood onto her corpse, and removing her death mask before leaving.
Outside the crypt, they meet Katia (also played by Barbara Steele), a beautiful young woman who lives in a nearby castle with her family. Andrej becomes immediately infatuated with her, but the two doctors decide to stay in an inn rather than with her family. As the mortals go about their lives, Asa is revived by the blood spilled on her and calls to her former lover Igor Javutich to telepathically awaken him from his grave. As a servant of sorts, Igor procures the men Asa needs to hypnotize and make her real servants. She plans to drain Katia of her life to restore her original youthful beauty and rid herself of the scattered scars from her spiked death mask. Asa has time to take some of Katia’s youth before being interrupted by Andrej. She first succeeds in tricking Andrej into believing Katia is actually Asa, almost having him kill her. Andrej notices who he thinks is Asa is wearing a cross necklace, something a witch wouldn’t be able to do. He reveals the real Asa by opening her robe, exposing her skeletal body, and sending her to be burned at the stake. He and Katia live as happily ever after as you can after encountering an evil witch.
The Hollywood gothic films that came before Black Sunday were a big influence on Bava’s production design and overall look of the film. The crypts and castles are right out of early Universal Horror films like Dracula and The Old Dark House. Bava made the decision to keep the film in black and white. Both for the Universal style cinematography and so that the practical makeup effects could be made with colored lights during production and show up effortlessly on film. Capitalizing on an already established look of the film, Bava then moved away from much of the Universal prudishness and MO of putting the most terrifying parts of its films offscreen.
The Asa/Katia characters and their role in the film are entirely Italian when compared to other films. As Roberto Curti says in his book on the genre, “The Devil, in Italian Gothic Horror, was a woman.” Asa, like many other villains in gothic horror, was a beautiful, seductive, and controlling woman. Her beauty lured her lover Igor to his death in the 1600s, fooled several of the men she made her servants two decades later, and most definitely charms the audience as well. Despite being a witch, it’s clear that her one superpower is her sexuality. Her death mask was made to maim her more than torture her out of fear she would have the power to seduce men even after her death.
The trope of a woman using her sexuality for power was not unknown to audiences at that time, even though it had not been used in Italian horror or American horror in the same way. The woman of Italian horror was a supernatural femme fatale, an irresistible object in the way of the hero’s greatness, but in Black Sunday and in the horror movies to follow, women’s sexuality was even more powerful and unworldly; it was demonic.
Of course, this power is linked to youthfulness in the confines of the evil woman trope. She is nothing when not young, wrinkleless, and skinny, so these women are willing to do whatever to remain so. This struggle represents the paradox that these women are up against. They must create themselves in the image of innocent and saintly heroines in order to wield their power, but they can never be the kind of women the male characters save and love in the end. The Madonna/Whore complex was not invented by Bava, but he did put it into a horror story, unlike the filmmakers before him.
What’s interesting is how this trope evolved after Black Sunday solidified it. Gothic horror lost its luster when the yellow (giallo/gialli for plural) dime-store pulp novels of Italy were adapted into sensational and sexual horror/thriller films in the late 1960s and early 1970s. What once was a genre of evil but powerful women turned into something that made horror much scarier. Women still wielded the power of sexuality like Asa, but unknowingly and unintentionally. Existing as beautiful, young, and often independent was enough of a seduction to thwart them into sensational slasher thrillers. Like Asa, men, especially the murderers in giallo films, are powerless against these women’s beauty, but without needing a gnome charlatan or the devil to wield that power.
Slashers, specifically those made in the United States, are absolutely created with sexuality in mind. A woman’s beauty, her promiscuity, and place in the Madonna/Whore complex determine whether or not she becomes the final girl left standing. However, the nudity and voyeurism associated with gialli is on another level. Bava himself made this shift into gialli after Black Sunday and was quite successful for years to come.
Asa was the foundation for what women in horror movies are subjected to even today, even if her archetype was not popular for long. It’s remarkable that Bava was not only able to shift Italian audiences’ conceptions of what Italian cinema could be, but he also influenced modern horror with his Universal-inspired gothic style. Francis Ford Coppola cites Black Sunday as a chief inspiration for his rendition of Dracula in 1992. He revolutionized the production style that predated Black Sunday by 30 years and changed horror forever.