in Shocktober

Black Sunday (1960)

Welcome to another Shocktober! I don’t know that I’m the most fitting person to kick off this year’s monthlong celebration of horror movies, marked by a review a day in this most spookiest of genres. After all, this thing was John’s brainchild nearly a decade ago. We’ve reviewed a lot of horror movies over the years (and by “we”, I mostly been John), and this is evidenced by today’s entry, since it is a movie John already reviewed on this blog several years ago. But as John would admit, it probably wasn’t the most whole-assed review, so I suppose I’ll try to throw my entire ass into this first review of Shuddertober.

To me, the 1960s seem like the definition of a transitional era for film. As the culture at large seemed to be slowly consumed by sex and drugs and violence, these things similarly we’re bubbling just beneath the surface of many landmark films during the first half of the decade. Black Sunday meanwhile, feels like a very transitional film for the horror genre, since it’s filled with the kind of gothic pretenses that were there in a lot of the horror films from the 30s through the 50s. Yet, it also has moments of violence that hint at a more savage breed of horror film that had still yet to arrive.

Perhaps the most memorably violent sequence in this film is the one that opens it. We see a 15th century ritual in full swing that sees a few witches being burned at the stake, one of them being Asa (Barbara Steele) and her lover. The gruesome way she is killed is by having an iron mask with spikes built into it placed upon her face, and then a burly undertaker takes up his equally burly sledgehammer and smashes it down on her face. Which, as you might guess, is accompanied by a lot of blood.

We then cut to two centuries later, where the veteran doctor Kruvajan and his assistant Gorobec are traveling in Moldavia when their carriage breaks down outside of Asa’s tomb. Kruvajan performs a kind of blood ritual in Asa’s tomb, while also encountering one of those crappy old school horror movie bats that always look like they’re hanging by some chincy string. After returning to the carriage, Kruvajan and Gorobec meet Katia, who looks like the spitting image of Asa (and is also played by Barbara Steele). The younger, more handsome is Gorobec is of course drawn to Katia’s beauty, while Kruvajan seems to be more drawn to the spooky castle that she lives in with her family.

There’s probably more to get into in terms of the movie’s plot, but to be honest, not much of it really stuck with me. Which is a shame, considering the idea of this woman being burned at the stake and having the prophecy of her death fulfilled by a quasi-resurrection of her is an interesting one. But perhaps the film plays a little too fast and loose with its Satanic mythology to really make much of an impact in terms of storytelling. Though the fact that it has enough Satanic mythology that its original Italian title was “The Mask of Satan” is pretty awesome.

Instead, what makes the film remarkable is the mix of old and new that I talked about earlier. You have the gothic setting of people fearing that there are ghostly fiends lurking somewhere, which feels right out of a Universal monster movie (crappy bats and all). And then, on the other hand, you have the images of death masks, melting faces, and even a character’s literal guts being on display. Which makes for a film that both feels right at home in black and white, and also feels as if it longs for the waves of scarlet that would flood the horror genre in the next decade or two.