The Mubi Cinematheque: Black Sunday (1960)
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Before gore, atmosphere has to be right when it comes to making an effective horror movie. Gore is often disgusting, but rarely the cause of fear and terror. Nausea, maybe, but blood and guts don’t have the same impact if the mood supporting it is flimsy. Gore is nothing more than window dressing, and that’s one of the big reasons horror movies fail. They rely far more on gross out kills than they do with developing interesting characters in interesting situations.
Black Sunday features next to no gore, and it is brimming with tension and foreboding. Yes, it’s aided by incredible black and white cinematography. Yes, the score is played to a perfect pitch without drowning out the action or being too subtle to notice. But what really works in Black Sunday‘s favor is its scope.
Its alternate title (The Mask of Satan) and its villain’s mission may be larger than life, but the reality of the film exists in a very small circle. The opening sees Asa killed at the stake for worshiping Satan. Her captors hammer a mask to her face so anyone who ever happens upon her crypt will be reminded of what her crime was. A pair of doctors visit the crypt two hundred years later and a string of events resulting in one doctor bleeding onto her corpse awakens her once more. Her goal, initially, is to exact revenge and to get a new, suitable body.
Many great horror movies utilize isolation as a way to generate terror. The Thing is the first that comes to mind. Haunted house movies, at their best, do so as well. While Black Sunday cuts a wider swath than those films, it is still small in scale and focuses on a select few individuals at the heart of its story. If the evil wins out, there may be grander implications, but for the moment it remains focused and tight.
Director Mario Bava worked as a cinematographer and also assumed the camerawork here, as well. He very rarely didn’t. His expert hand helps limit the groans that would otherwise accompany the film’s shortcomings and limitations. Visually, this has aged really well. The angles, the lighting, everything is dark and slightly twisted. It’s off balance immediately. From the crypt to the swamp to the barn to the mansion and everywhere in between, nothing is ever comfortable.
And as good as the technique is, the line reading cannot fully be covered. The version on Mubi is the American one with all the English language dubbing in its goofy, clunky glory. It’s bad. Really bad. Sometimes, the mouths match the words, but that’s probably more to chance along the lines of Pink Floyd matching with The Wizard of Oz. And much of the dialog is useless exposition explaining things that are obvious already. Dr. Andre Gorobec and Constantine discover a passage to the inner catacombs of the mansion where Constantine’s father died. It’s clearly in the same room as where the family’s dogs had bled to death a few scenes earlier. Gorobec loudly proclaims this.
But like watching a Dario Argento film, Black Sunday is less about its script and more about its visual style. The dialog only causes the odd stumble. In a less dynamic film, it might have derailed it a bit more (Vampire Hookers comes to mind). There are several moments so visually striking they’ll leave slow-fading imprints on viewers’ memories. Dr. Kruvajan stands, smoking his pipe, as fog rolls in around his feet. His doom by silent horse carriage awaits.
Pair that with some very creative makeup effects and those less than stellar line readings become much less memorable. They erode while the rest lingers.