Synopsis: Mario Bava’s 1960 directorial debut stands alone as one of the most influential and startling chillers of all time. British actress Barbara Steele became an international icon in this über-gothic fever dream pulsing with stunning cinematography and landmark special effects—both by Bava himself—in which the conventional trappings of the horror genre were indelibly impaled upon perverse sexuality and graphic sadism. It remains, quite simply, a masterpiece of the macabre that changed the face of cinema forever.
eyelights: the cinematography. the special effects. the gore effects. the set designs. Barbara Steele.
eyesores: its nonsensical plot developments towards the end.
“I will continue to live forever! They will restore me to the life you now rob from me!”
Much like we did with Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price earlier this year, we here at TCE are proud to celebrate legendary Italian director Mario Bava’s birthday with a lengthy career retrospective. Once a week, for the next few weeks, we will review some of Bava’s most notable motion pictures.
We begin with ‘La maschera del demonio’, the director’s first feature film.
Though he had been a cinematographer since 1943, it was only in 1959 that he got his crack at directing, when he was asked to rescue ‘Caltiki, il mostro immortale’, after original director Riccardo Freda left before completion. Bava did the same with two other films and consequently earned his wings.
In 1960, he was given the chance to fly solo and decided to pick Nikolai Gogol’s “Viy” as inspiration; Bava used to read it to his children at bedtime and was very impressed with its tale of witchcraft and demonic possession. And so a very loose adaptation was commissioned for feature film debut.
Released in 1961, ‘La maschera del demonio’ made an immediate impression. Not only was it a hit at the Italian box office, but it caught the eye of American International Pictures, who bought it for more than it cost to make and proceeded to edit and redub the picture for North American audiences.
Retitled ‘Black Sunday’, the picture was considered gruesome by ’60s standards and was censored in many markets, most notably in the United Kingdom, where it wasn’t released until 1968 (and only in fully uncut in 1992!) and in Spain, in 1969. But Mario Bava had arrived and his career skyrocketed.
‘La maschera del demonio’ is set in the 19th century, but begins 200 years prior with the execution of Princess Asa Vajda for witchery and consorting with the Devil. Set in a dark, desolate forest, Asa is pinned to a wooden structure and is surrounded by burly executioners and men in black robes.
She is to be tortured and put to death.
This scene alone is worth seeing the movie. The stark imagery makes an indelible impression – in fact, having seen it ten years ago, this was the only thing I remembered of the picture. The way that Bava staged the action was slightly theatrical but it enhanced the horrors that Asa was subjected to.
The rest of the picture plays quite akin to AIP’s own horror films, especially the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe cycle: it’s set in and around a wealthy family’s crypt and an ancient evil rises to exact its revenge on the people that made it suffer. One by one, the victims die horrible deaths.
The key difference between this and AIP’s films is that ‘La maschera del demonio’ looks stunning: though Corman is a solid filmmaker, he doesn’t have a photographer’s eye quite like Bava did; every shot is framed in such a way as to make the most of its subject and could be used as a postcard.
A macabre postcard, mind you.
Compared to AIP’s films, ‘La maschera del demonio’ is surprisingly grotesque. Though it pales in comparison to even today’s mass market films, the sight of burning flesh being branded, the brutal hammering of a spiked mask on Asa’s face, and other such nastiness, still shock the system.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that it was so heavily edited back in the day, with a full six minutes of gore and violence excised from the ‘Black Sunday’ cut. Despite this, it remained evocative, becoming Tim Burton’s favourite horror film, and influencing Richard Donner and Francis Ford Coppola.
Part of its success can be found in Barbara Steele, starring for the time here as Asa and her descendant, Katia. Bava picked her from still pictures for her unusual traits and it was the right choice: her large, haunted eyes and her sharp bone structure are utterly unforgettable. She’s quite a sight.
She’s mostly memorable here for her turn as Asa, who returns with holes punched into her face. Disfigured, bearing an evil grin and sporting sharp talons, she’s the face of the undead. Her Katia, however, is much more generic and subdued; it probably wouldn’t have put her on the map on its own.
‘La maschera del demonio’ suffers from the problem that can be found in low budget films, especially horror: it is rife with lapses in logic; characters often do things that don’t make sense or the staging is forced, unnatural. It’s not something that spoils the film, but it gets out of hand in the end.
I was already incredulous when Dr. Kruvajan, knowing of the local curse, accidentally breaks open Asa’s coffin, then proceeds to take an artifact from it and remove the mask that is supposed to keep her controlled – but cutting himself on the coffin and not cleaning up the blood was irresponsible.
Thankfully, that was just a bump in the road. It’s later that it gets surprisingly silly at times, like the trap door in the floor that opens when its thin panel drops – and later magically re-seals itself. Its victims don’t exactly fall into it so much as rather awkwardly maneuver/throw themselves into it.
And what about Boris’ death, which the villagers claim left him disfigured, even though we just saw him twice and he looked perfectly fine (if dead). Meanwhile, no one notices that Dr. Kruvajan’s hair has gone white and that he’s a bit stiff for a man his age – and alive. What selective perception!
Still, despite Bava’s growing sloppiness as he builds his debut to a frenzy, the picture remains enjoyable and ends with a satisfying (if familiar) bookend that is bittersweet, instead of the traditional happy finale one expects. This leaves the audience with a stark mental image to seal the deal.
‘La maschera del demonio’ may be a low budget black and white production, but in Mario Bava’s hands it’s remarkable, visually arresting; it’s the mark of a nascent filmmaker gleefully stirring his creative juices. For all its imperfections, it’s a motion picture that one can hardly forget.
It truly makes an impression.
Nota bene: though the picture has since been released on home video in its uncut version, it remains overdubbed in English in North America. However, since the two leads spoke their lines in English anyway, one could argue that it’s as perfectly legitimate as the original Italian-language dubbing.
Date of viewing: June 10, 2017