Sunday, June 6, 2010

Mario Bava - La Maschera Del Demonio aka Black Sunday, The Mask of Satan (1960)

I’m not sure if I was missing something, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by this highly considered, influential early Bava vehicle. Extremely loosely adapted from Gogol, and set in Moldavia in the early 1800s, the plot follows Katia (Barbara Steele) and her father and brother, aristocratic descendants of the infamous witch Asa (also played by Barbara Steele) and her partner in Faustianism, Javuto. Two doctors travelling through the area (the younger of whom is Katia’s love interest) accidentally unseal Asa’s tomb, and so the plot is set in motion, as Asa and Javuto take their revenge on the descendants of Asa's brother-cum-executioner (yes, it’s a tad convoluted, but don’t let that bother you). The film was censored for some years due to the gruesome opening scene, in which Asa, condemned as a witch by her brother, is branded and has a spiked mask hammered on to her face before being burned at the stake.

La Maschera... is a moodily atmospheric and melodramatic film (as a point of interest the original score was, in the US, redone by exoticist Les Baxter, a piece I must try to track down) featuring some wonderful set pieces, and one can certainly see how influential it has been in the horror genre as a whole. In particular, Barbara Steele has an unforgettable face, not classically attractive, architectural yet also vulnerable, and the focus on the eyes, in particular, and ocular violence, is almost a lynchpin on which the movie hangs. The villains, Asa and Javuto, are vampires of a sort, and again the importance of this film for the development of the vampire genre is evident, but they are by no means the clichéd creations of later films. The theme dealing with the Inquisition and with sadistic torture (as well as the underlying eroticism in the relationship between Asa and Katia) is also a landmark which we can trace through to works such as Witchfinder General and its legion (pun intended) imitations, not to mention the lesbian vampire exploitation genre. Indeed, the film was widely censored and banned on the basis of the queasy brutality of the opening scene. There is a particularly memorable Unheimliche quality to the developing scenes in which we see the regeneration of Asa’s eyeless and scarred, but otherwise perfectly preserved corpse.

Nonetheless, having said all this, there is a certain uncomfortably horsehair, overstuffed quality to the film – like the furniture throughout – which, along with its over-slow pacing (tell me I’m not a typical child of the blink generation), keeps this film from being a paradigmatic example of the dark, stylish genre masterpieces which would reach their zenith in Italian cinema of the 1970s.

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