1960 is an important year for horror. Four particular movies – Psycho, Peeping Tom, Eyes Without a Face, and Black Sunday – pushed boundaries into the modern age while also showing the legitimate artistic potential of horror. The other films tell contemporary stories, but Black Sunday enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest of all gothic vampire movies.
Although it’s an Italian production, the story takes place in Russia, so these are not your typical Eastern European, Dracula-style vampires. I won’t enumerate them here, but the rules are a little different. The film opens in the Middle Ages with an accused witch and her lover about to be burned at the stake; she vows to curse her family forevermore just before a spiked metal mask is hammered into each of their faces. While not particularly gory by today’s standards, this and other moments felt surprisingly graphic for a black and white film from 1960.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and the "witch," Asa, is accidentally awakened by a pair of traveling doctors. Asa happens to look exactly like Katia, a princess who lives in the castle where Asa is buried (both are played by Barbara Steele). Katia is a descendent of Asa, and the witch begins making good on her vow of revenge. I said the rules were a little different, but rest assured, these vampires still rise out of coffins and feed on blood.
Black Sunday poses a few potential barriers. Though the dialogue was spoken mostly in English, it was ultimately overdubbed (again in English) by different actors. I found this quite distracting, and I actually preferred watching with the Italian audio track and English subtitles. The plot is pretty standard gothic horror stuff, and the one thing that might mix things up a bit – the likeness between Asa and Katia – is barely utilized, and only briefly near the end. The film concludes with a pretty lame instance of deus ex machina.
But Black Sunday is in many ways a beautiful film. The black and white photography is luscious, high contrast and full of shadows – you could easily watch with subtitles and the sound off, and still find it captivating. The effects are unnerving even today, such as a scene where the eyes of Asa’s corpse reconstitute themselves as she comes back to life. At another point a face seems to transform from that of a withering corpse to that of someone alive, entirely through strategic use of lighting and makeup. Barbara Steele is a striking onscreen presence (who would go on to star in one of Roger Corman's Poe pictures), and while it never dips fully into surrealism, Black Sunday does toy subtly with our sense of reality in a way that heightens suspense.
Black Sunday also laid groundwork for the later genre of Italian horror, giallo. I’ll be getting my first taste of giallo soon enough next month when Suspiria screens at a local theater.