Mario Bava's first credited feature film as director has appeared in various complicated guises since its release 47 years ago in Italy – the original Director's Cut in Italian, the Director's Cut with an English dub track prepared by the Italian producers and released only in Europe, and the AIP re-edit, which had the U.S. distributor cutting it down for faster pacing, re-dubbing the dialogue with its own stable of voice actors, and replacing Roberto Nicolosi's original score with a more punchy, aggressive version by AIP's all-in-one music department, Les Baxter.
(As MGM claims dominion over the AIP version, the Baxter-scored version of Black Sunday remains unavailable on DVD, but it was released on VHS, and as part of a double-bill laserdisc set from Image, coupled with the AIP edit of Black Sabbath.)
The myriad differences between these versions have been documented in several publications, plus Tim Lucas' commentary track, recently recorded for this newly transferred edition of the English-dubbed Director's Cut from Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment.
Lucas identifies name changes, scene transitions, and elements of gore, romance, and eroticism that were trimmed by AIP to ensure Black Sunday would satisfy the fickle needs of teens wanting horror, shocks, and brisk pacing, albeit without the gore and hints of necrophilia that might have complicated the film's dealings with American censors. (The previous Image DVD from 1999 contained the same English-dubbed Director's Cut, plus liner notes by Lucas.)
Of course, it seems less likely AIP would've had that much trouble in getting the Director's Cut passed; besides the opening, which has a nail-studded mask sledgehammered onto Barbara Steele's face (a truly horrific sequence that packs a wallop with minimal gore), the fine details of Steeles' transformation from waxen cadaver to flesh-and-blood demon, and close-ups of an immolating victim's head, most of what was trimmed included moments of saccharine romance, and some dialogue exchanges.
Lucas' commentary – consistent in sizable chunks, but more sparse after the hour mark – certainly provokes fans and detractors of the film to re-examine its pacing and script coherence, which either reinforce the film's stature as an elegantly crafted mood chiller, or reveal Black Sunday as a vaguely plotted thriller with stellar set-pieces separated by static, meandering, and sometimes ‘blubbering' melodrama.
Loosely based on Nikolai Gogol's short story “Viy” (later filmed in 1967 by a Russian production, and once again loosely reworked by Bava's son Lamberto in a 1989 production), director Bava extrapolated the premise of a revived witch who wreaks demonic evil on humans, and crafted a backstory involving her prior crimes of witchery, her cyclical revenge on future generations, the curse of possessing striking beauty, and some vampirical elements – the last one apparently leftover from an earlier script that briefly had characters sporting fangs until makeup trials revealed the whole endeavor looked silly on film.
Even with script changes and loose ends, Black Sunday works as a fairly straightforward film; the generational curse on the family's daughters when they hit 21 is still a bit fuzzy, but Bava's own evocation of classic Universal horror films plus the director's own rich style really provide an unwavering atmosphere of moldy, pungent dread.
The film's weakest scenes concern the cursed daughter, Princess Asa (Barbara Steele, here playing her second role in the film, alongside the evil witch/great-great auntie Katia), and the young doctor, Gorobec (fellow English thespian John Richardson), which in typical B-movie fashion follow the two strangers as they fall hard in love overnight.
Bava, however, treats Gorobec's attraction as something more mystical, as if destiny is mysteriously aligning the strangers for some fateful event; the approach works, but it's somewhat mucked up whenever the young hero become too verbally plaintive in expressing his love for Asa, and his efforts to save her from the clutches of demonic auntie Katia.
The couple's affections are also drenched with Nicolosi's syrupy romantic theme; it's a stylistic convention that pops up in several of Bava's films (Whip and the Body and Bay of Blood both have drippy love odes) and it either reveals a schizophrenic romantic streak Bava forced upon his lead characters, or it shows a vicious sense of the absurd, wherein brutally violent acts are played against overwrought melodrama. Even if one regards high-pitched melodrama as being a convention of the era, one gets a sense Bava knew it was all tongue-in-cheek; Bay of Blood is probably his darkest poke at the convention, as it involves a sappy romantic theme played over a long, drool-inducing garroting, right after the main credits.
The rest of Nicolosi's score is outstanding, however, as the underrated composer showed a knack for writing discrete cues that genuinely crawl under the skin, sometimes wavering into sound design as unsettling sound effects – such as a broken organ, and a cow's distant whine – morph into low, barely perceptible score. The original mono mix was beautifully layered with sound effects, and it's worth noting that Anchor Bay didn't upgrade the film with a pseudo-stereo mix, a practice often applied by studios to older films to upgrade their elements for a surround sound setup. Sometimes mono still packs a punch.
Also included on the DVD are a pair of promo trailers (U.S. theatrical + TV, but no International trailer as stated on the box), bio sketches, and campaign stills. Tim Lucas' commentary track was also licensed to Germany 's EMS for that label's Region 2 edition of Black Sunday, which includes additional extras not present on this release.
Black Sunday is available separately, or as part of the Mario Bava Collection Vol. 1 from Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment, which includes La Maschera del demonio / Black Sunday (1960), I Tre volti della paura / Black Sabbath (1963), La Ragazza che sapeva troppo / The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), Operazione paura / Kill Baby Kill (1966), and I Coltelli del vendicatore / Knives of the Avenger (1966).
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan