Blu-ray Review: Black Sunday

Blu-ray Reviews, Reviews

Black Sunday is a mix of the melodrama of 1930s Universal monster movie, plus the violence and sensuality of the Italian giallo film, put to celluloid by the brilliant photographer Mario Bava. What may sound like a wonderful combination has a difficult time holding up today, and Black Sunday will have a hard time finding new fans.

Mario Bava’s official directorial debut tells the story of a witch, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), violently put to death by her brother, Prince Vajda, for her practices. A spiked mask is placed on her face, and hammered in by an executioner (hence the original title, The Mask of Satan), killing her. As her body is about to be burned, a thunderstorm rolls in, putting out the fire, and keeping her body from being cremated.

Two-hundred years later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) are passing through the same area on their way to a medical conference when their carriage wheel breaks down. The duo heads into a local tomb, where they accidently come across Princess Asa Vajda’s body. After bleeding into the eyes of the corpse, the Princess begins to come back to life. Once she has finds some semblance of life again, she has one mission: take over her descendant, Katia Vajda’s (also played by Barbara Steele), youth to regain her power. Unfortunately for her, Katia’s new love interest, Dr. Gorobec, has other ideas.

There’s no doubt that Black Sunday is a unique work of art in the horror genre. Mario Bava has an uncanny eye for framing and cinematography, and even manages to effectively use the zoom lens. For historians, or those looking for a deeper appreciation of the history of Italian horror cinema, Black Sunday is a gem.

The horror, or scares, that this film may have once produced, however, are long gone. The scare factor lies somewhere between the two genres that Bava invokes here (giallo and Universal monster films, with much more emphasis placed on the latter): there is a genuine unsettling feeling that resides over the film that the “man in a rubber suit” films have a hard time duplicating, but the overacting and melodrama of the main story can bring new audience members out of the film, and worse, out of the tension.

Mario Bava demonstrates a clear genius for lighting, framing, and camera movement in Black Sunday, and the film is historically important for the fact that it is Bava’s official directorial debut. Those that first watched this movie when it was new on television, or even in theatres, may still get goosebumps when Igor Javutich’s hands rise from his gravesite, but those seeing this for the first time might find it difficult to enjoy the film as base entertainment.

Kino Lorber’s presentation of Black Sunday is surely the best available. The black and white filmmaking looks sharp and clear on this Blu-ray, which is an HD transfer from a 35mm archival print. The darker scenes could use a bit more detail, but overall the picture is wonderful. The film has been given a 1920 x 1080p widescreen transfer with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The English 2.0 LPCM monaural soundtrack is adequate, but is a bit flat compared to many Blu-ray transfers we hear nowadays. The Blu-ray does not offer any subtitle options.

There’s an unfortunate lack of special feature with this release. Aside from two trailers and a TV spot for Black Sunday (that reinforce the excellent treatment given to the visual quality of the feature film), there is only one meaty special feature, and it is an audio commentary from Tim Lucas, the author of the book on Bava, entitled Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. Lucas offers some interesting tidbits on the film, but you can tell he is reading from a script, which makes this one of the driest commentary tracks I’ve listened to. The biggest disappointment of this track, though, is the amount of silence throughout. There are points where Lucas will stop talking, and he is clearly watching the film, but Kino Lorber does not let us, the audience, hear what is going on. Instead, we sit in silence as the images move across the screen. This is a major drawback to an already lackluster audio commentary track.

There are also trailers included for four of Bava’s other films: Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Baron Blood, Lisa and the Devil, and The House of Exorcism.

The lack of special features really hurt this release, mainly because the film isn’t nearly as accessible today as it was fifty years ago. Being able to place this movie in the context of its release would have greatly helped Bava’s directorial debut. Instead we are treated with a great transfer of a movie that many people adore, and those fans will definitely want to seek out this Blu-ray. Newcomers, though, are advised to give Black Sunday a rental before blind buying.

Kino Lorber presents Black Sunday. Directed by: Mario Bava. Written by: Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei, and Mario Bava. Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Ivo Garrani, and Andrea Checchi. Running time: 87 minutes. Rating: Not Rated. Released on Blu-ray: September 18, 2012. Available at

Branden Chowen is, first and foremost, an actor. He is in his final year of graduate school, where he will (hopefully) soon receive an MFA in acting to compliment his BFA in the art. He spends his free time watching and reviewing movies for Inside Pulse Movies, and We Love Cult. He is also one of the co-hosts for The Drive-In, which is the official podcast of Inside Pulse Movies. He is an avid horror fan, and will spend time watching just about any horror movie that looks interesting. You can contact Branden by email at bchowen[AT]insidepulse[DOT]com, or follow him on Twitter @Psymin1.