Black Sunday (Mario Bava / Italy, 1960):
(La Maschera del Demonio; The Mask of the Demon; Revenge of the Vampire)

Swirling chiaroscuro, viscous rhapsody. The prologue is justly famous, a nightmare of medieval barbarism in the name of purification: misty woods, musclebound inquisitors, a lizard’s grimace on a bronze mask, blood spurting as the Malleus Maleficarum sledgehammer is literalized and brought down on the raven-haired sorceress (Barbara Steele). A smashed crucifix and a few drops of blood bring her back to life two centuries later, her devoted brother/lover (Arturo Dominici) helps her vengefully bring "a beautiful life of evil and hate" to her descendants’ Moldovan manor. While the callow assistant (John Richardson) courts the witch’s virginal doppelganger, the veteran man of reason (Andrea Checchi) favors the original sinner, drawn to the mausoleum where ooze pulsates within a mannequin’s hollow eye-sockets. The crypt trembles and explodes, and there’s Steele moaning for flesh, eyes fervid and cheekbones decorated with gaping punctures, the frisson of all frissons. (Max von Sydow and Ingrid Thulin reenact the sequence for Bergman in Hour of the Wolf as an explicit portrait of the unsettled artist and his taunting muse.) Spiraling from gnarled trees to cavernous dungeons, Mario Bava in his directorial debut is an alchemic picturalist serving up Murnau compositions in clammy sound stages. His camera is a palpable, malefic presence, knocking over furniture as it sweeps across rooms and climactically cross-cutting between a burning and a resuscitation in a double Dreyer citation. The only thing the cinematography can’t engulf is Steele herself, who, with her regal perversity and ghoulish eroticism, commands her own space as a newly minted horror icon. Corman’s Poe series is basically an eight-film tribute, Fellini in Casanova remembers the cloaked cleavage that gives way to a decomposing rib cage. With Ivo Garrani, Enrico Oliveri, Antonio Pierfederici, Tino Bianchi, Mario Passanti, and Germana Dominici. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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