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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 29: THE MASK OF SATAN (1960)

The film's unforgettable opening moments: the sequence that ushered in the distinctive look and flavor of non-Hammer 1960's Euro-horror.

In seventeenth century Moldavia, the eerily beautiful Asa (Barbara Steele) of the house of Vajda is condemned by her brother to death for being a witch and consort of Satan, along with her servant/lover Javutich (Arturo Dominici). Before her accusers seal her fate by hammering a spiked bronze mask to her face, Asa curses her brother's descendants. Two centuries later, Asa's crypt is disturbed and she and Javutich rise from the grave as doubly-nasty witch-vampires with the blackest of intentions, namely to get their evil mitts on the innocent Katia (Steele in a dual role), a ringer for Asa who happens to be one of the accursed descendants of Asa's brother. Supping on Katia's blood will grant Asa eternal life, so it's only a matter of time until the house of Vajda's past catches up with it and makes good on its fell threats...

The Italians are an artistic, passionate people who have refreshingly never shied away from the bloody and gruesome — the fun had at the Roman Colosseum, anyone? — so it was perhaps inevitable that their cinematic forays into the horror genre would reflect that ingrained enjoyment of grue and nastiness. Helmed by the now-legendary director/cinematographer Mario Bava, THE MASK OF SATAN — better known to English-speaking audiences as BLACK SUNDAY — exploded across Italian screens with seismic effect, simultaneously paying loving tribute to the horror cinema that had preceded it while setting new rules in place for what would follow, and its impact was felt well beyond the confines of the Boot.

Atmosphere, thy name is THE MASK OF SATAN.

THE MASK OF SATAN bears the influence of decades of monochromatic horror outings, most particularly the Universal horror cycle of the 1930's and 1940's, with its levels of eerie atmosphere a reflection of those films as filtered through Bava's artistic eye. Bava had a flair for providing his fantastical films with a sense of heightened unreality that lends the films their own narrative-specific visual logic and believability, and this film reads like a very dark Gothic fairytale. There are fog-shrouded forests, remote hillsides, a castle complete with spiderweb-draped underground tombs, thunder and lightning, and at the heart of it all, the Stygian presence of Asa, a truly scary arch-fiend who was something of a revolutionary figure for the genre at the time. There had been female monsters prior to her arrival but their function was more often than not decorative rather than horrific, and Asa turned that around big-time. Her double-threat of witchery and vampirism are immeasurably bolstered by Barbara Steele's singular eerie beauty, even when her face is newly-regenerated and still bearing the wounds inflicted by the mask that was forcibly nailed onto her face.

Energized by drops of blood, Asa regenerates as her empty eye sockets grow new orbs (an effect accomplished with back-lit poached eggs being pushed up into a life mask of Barbara Steele).

Asa lives again and immediately gets down to the job of seduction.

When bearing in mind the horror climate when Asa showed up, she really must have come as quite a shock, especially with her undisguised Euro-style sexuality. Fresh from the slab and with a face full of holes, she puts the moves on the doctor who unwittingly reawakened her, so if you think about it you can also add reverse-necrophilia to her list of offenses. That's some pretty heavy shit for 1960! Seeing it as BLACK SUNDAY when I was a small child really did a number on my head as I tried to process its content. I had been exposed to scary stories in fairytales and some early exploration of horror movies on TV, but BLACK SUNDAY was my first encounter with adult-level scares and it left a permanent mark upon my imagination and sensibility. 

Javutich (Arturo Dominici) rises from the grave. This sequence scared the shit out of me when I was little.

The film's atmosphere-drenched imagery is truly the stuff of nightmares and its aesthetics seared themselves into the genre's DNA the second it hit the screen. The visual mood bears an almost-palpable sense of dread things lurking in the shadows just out of our sphere of perception, and the dusty, web-festooned tomb set is the kind of place where it is simply impossible for anything good to take place. I could go on and on but in short, THE MASK OF SATAN delivered its creepy excellence  to the audience on a silver (screen) platter, and in no time it was influencing other genre entries. Case in point: during my re-watching of classic horror films for the 2012 edition of 31 DAYS OF HORROR, I sat through the excellent Mexican shocker THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN (1961), and as I watched its horrors unfold I had a strong feeling that I'd seen it before and I could not understand why. Sitting through THE MASK OF SATAN again during this year's research/refresher finally answered that question, because THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN owes a massive debt to what Bava had wrought a year prior to its release. In fact, if I were being unkind, I would tar THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN with the epithet of "bold-faced ripoff" for just how much it "borrowed" from THE MASK OF SATAN. (That said, I love THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN, so I'll just shut up from here on out.)

The bottom line is that THE MASK OF SATAN/BLACK SUNDAY was a game-changer that still resonates some fifty-plus years later, and seeing it again for the first time in ages — and in the uncut European version, no less — was like a long-overdue reunion with an old friend who taught me something of great import long ago. I adore its every tenebrous frame and looking at it again from my just shy of fifty-year-old perspective, I rank it among my Top 20 horror films of all time. Your mileage may vary but I urge you to give it a serious look and judge for yourself. Films of this nature are rare treasures and should not be missed. Now, if only one of NYC's classy revival venues would run it projected on the big screen so I could see it all proper...

Poster from the original U.S. release.

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