Black Sunday (1960), or Moldavian Fiend

19 10 2009

All right! It’s almost time for Halloween, one of my favorite holidays, and one of the only ones I approve of ideologically. To get you guys all in the mood for the spooky festivities, I’m going to try some horror movies out so you don’t have to!!! From here until October 31st, I’m going to be busting out the scary flicks for your enjoyment, and tonight we’ll be beginning with a classic. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Eric, I don’t wanna watch some old black and white movie from the 60s! They didn’t even know what scary WAS back then! Grumble grumble grumble…” Well, Mr. Grumps, let me preface by saying that not only is old horror not lame and un-scary, but it can be just as potent as today’s Boo!-addled torture porn or grisly chop-em-ups. Black Sunday may not jump out at you and just scare the fluids out of you, but if you let it, it will get inside of your head and your heart for a long time after you put it away.

So we’re in Moldavia. If you’re not sure where that used to be, parts of it are now Romania, the Ukraine, and the Republic of Moldova. So it’s 1630, and there’s a sexpot of a witch roaming around the area named Asa Vajda. She has a lover named Javuto, and they have a small-time reign of terror going on in Eastern Europe until Asa’s own brother (a ruler!) puts a stop to it. He executes both o them gruesomely for their crimes against his domain and also against the will of God. But before her brother kills her, she vows vengeance against his future descendants, making it clear that they will be cursed. Oops! So, after that horrible debacle, 200 years pass, and a couple of fellows, a Dr. Kruvajan and his assistant Dr. Gorobec, are on their way to a medical conference in Moldavia when CRACK! One of the wheels on their carriage breaks, so they’re temporarily detained. While they’re waiting by the road, they spy the ancient crypt in which Asa was executed. They discover her corpse inside behind a glass panel, which Dr. Kruvajan breaks at the expense of cutting himself. They leave, a little freaked out, but end up meeting a beautiful young girl named Katia, who lives in a castle not too far away, and can give them room and board for the night. The two accept, not knowing what lay in store for them. The nearby villagers have legends about the castle, saying it is haunted and cursed. And perhaps it wasn’t before, but it certainly is now that Dr. Kruvajan has revived Asa from the blood dropped from his cut! Dunh-Dunh-Dunh!!!And her first order of business is to seek her revenge on the residents of the castle Dr. Kruvajan will be staying in for the night! Oh no!

This is the debut of Mario Bava as a director (credited), and this is quite a way to start things off. Black Sunday has that eerie presence that most movies only dreamed they had. It’s a dark European nightmare filled with intense imagery, a romantic, powerful 60s score, and one of the most intriguing horror plots I’ve seen in some time. You know what really gets me? The witch aspect. You almost NEVER see witches in movies; out of all the stereotypical Halloween staples, witches come dead last. Perhaps it’s the blatant sexism in the media, or perhaps it’s the fact that witchcraft as a concept is so wishy-washy that nobody wants to mess with it too much, but the witch movies are few and far between. They even did me one better here, though, and made a movie about a voluptuous, undead witch that takes place in the most mysterious locales in Europe, Moldavia. Nice.

Bava had an eye for surreal, haunting, lyrical images, and this is the beginning of a career that would be defined by the beauty of his horror as much as its ability to frighten. The opening frames, showing Asa’s terrifying execution, are not only visceral, but have a grace to them that reminds me of modern-day Tarsem in their elegance. It also helps that Barbara Steele, who plays both Asa and Katia, is a total buxom beauty. Her presence is pretty palpable here, and I feel like she was made for horror, with her dark features and her temperament shifting like the sands. Especially what I like to call the “Steele-y Eye” she gives when she’s ready for blood; it’s quite intense.

Oh, and my favorite effect; near the beginning, when the blood revives Asa, and you see her face rejuvenate after centuries of grotesque and painful death. The eyes reform, the skin appears hydrated and renewed, and her hair, uh, re-coifs. It’s highly imaginative, and it’s very evocative of my idea of a witch.

This is Bava at the beginning of his career, and he would go on to make many more films in the genre, but never would he recreate the magic and the mystery that lie in Black Sunday. It’s something in the eyes of the villain, Asa, that creates a nameless sense of dread in the viewer. Dark, romantic, horrifying, it’s a great start to this Halloween horror-movie-watching thing I’m doing, and I think you’ll like it, even though it’s not here to punish your heart with loud musical stings and splatter spooks. I give Black Sunday 8 1/2 re-coifs out of 10!

Tomorrow we continue our sojourn into the dark and the terrifying with The Brood! Until then!