I like giallo films, but also don’t watch them that often. It’s just not something I feel in the mood for very much. So when I was searching for a horror 1001 film to review alongside the Universal list, I jumped on the only Mario Bava film on the list. As I mentioned I haven’t watched loads of giallo. But of the big names, it’s Bava’s films that I gave been most taken with.
The entry in the ‘1001 Movies to See Before You Die’ book for Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) notes: ‘The plot is the usual mix of secret passages, family curses, and sudden deaths, but Bava crams every frame with fascinating, horrid detail.’ The usual mix referred to there is one of the film’s predominant attractions. Even though this is a horror film, there’s comfort to be taken in some of these locations and storylines being brought to life by such a fantastic filmmaker, albeit one at the start of their career (and that youthfulness probably shows). The sets are reminiscent of the Universal Monsters films (or perhaps I just have them on my mind) and the makeup is bloody excellent. But as for every frame being filled with fascinating, horrid detail, it is more like 40% of frames. Those that are certainly are memorable – see the gnarly opening with a witch having a mask of nails hammered onto her face. In fact the opening period of the film promises a much more interesting experience than what follows. Grounded in traditional Christian stuff like Satan, hell and witches, a mythic feeling thread that could have been kept at the forefront more. Certainly the film lacks narrative drive throughout and having something like that to lean into a little more could have compensated for that.
Black Sunday does suffer coming to it as a fan of Bava’s other work. Nothing really sets this apart. Not the electric proto-slasher energy of Bay of Blood (1971) or the eye popping bold creativity of Blood and Black Lace (1964) or even just the charming tweaking of genre tropes in Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970). There is no similar achievement for this one which is best described as gothic solidity. It’s not a film that really holds the viewer’s interest. Perhaps because outside of the few high points that are shocking for a film of this age, it all feels too familiar. There’s no intrigue about what is happening here. The creepy imagery is perhaps what possibly sets it apart from those superior films mentioned above. And it is enhanced beautifully by the black and white shooting – it is a stunning looking film. Particularly at the start and when Asa awakes, her face pock-marked from the execution. There are also moments of style and imagery throughout that take you aback and snap attention back to the screen. Unfortunately the narrative is not there to maintain attention in between those arresting visual moments.
Verdict: There’s no denying the artistry here. But this feels too low key throughout and is pretty dated. The visuals are definitely noteworthy but it’s only a firm recommendation for those intrigued by the gothic or big Bava fans. Stubby of Reschs
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