Wicked Witches: Black Sunday (1960)
by Steve Habrat
Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, gothic horror was alive and well in Europe. In the United States, interest in vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein monsters faded in the wake of World War II and the atomic bomb. American horror movies moved on to mutated fiends, aliens from outer space, giant bugs stomping on small American towns, femme fatales, film noir, and Norman Bates slashers. Sure, Roger Corman released a few gothic drive-in Edgar Allen Poe tales starring Vincent Price, and there were a handful of witch-hunting films, but the emphasis was on monsters made through radiation, not in the pages of a Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley book. Europe was a completely different story. The British film company Hammer Films cranked out a number of classic gothic horror films, exploding in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein and continuing their run well into the 1970s. It seemed that Italy also had an interest in the gothic horror film, or at least Italian cinematographer turned director Mario Bava did. In 1960, Bava released Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan), a gorgeous gothic masterpiece centering on evil witches and bloodthirsty vampires coming back from their 200-year-old graves. Since its release, many critics have described Black Sunday as being a cross between a Hammer horror film and a classic Universal Studios horror film, an accurate description indeed. Featuring exquisite black and white cinematography, chilling sound work, unmatchable set design, an iconic performance from genre star Barbara Steele, and one of the most terrifying resurrection sequences in horror history, Black Sunday sits proudly near the top of the best Italian horror films of all time.
Black Sunday begins with a witch named Asa Vajda (played by Barbara Steele) and her vampire partner Javuto (played by Arturo Dominici) being sentenced to a gruesome death by Asa’s brother. Before the pair is left to burn, Asa’s brother orders that the mask of Satan be nailed to the faces of the condemned so that the world will forever know their true wickedness. Before they are executed, Asa puts a curse on her brother’s descendants and promises to return from the grave to have her revenge. Two centuries later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (played by Andrea Checchi) and his assistant, Dr. Andre Gorobec (played by John Richardson), are traveling through the same area where Asa and Javuto are buried. While passing through the eerie forest, one of their carriage wheels is damaged, leaving them stranded near Asa’s ruined tomb. While they wait for the wheel to be fixed, they decided to investigate the ruins to see what they can find. While poking around, the doctors find Asa’s coffin, which has a window displaying the horrible mask that was nailed to her face. Just as the men are about to leave the tomb, Dr. Kruvajan is attacked by a giant bat, which leaves a nasty cut on his hand. In the process of the attack, a few drops of blood make it into Asa’s tomb, resurrecting the evil witch and reigniting her fury. She telepathically resurrects Javuto, who sets out to find her brother’s descendants and make them pay.
If you were convinced that Hammer and Universal were the undisputed kings of gothic horror, Black Sunday is guaranteed to change your mind. There is not one scene in Black Sunday that doesn’t have some sort of gothic image to haunt your nightmares. There are cobwebbed tombs, dead forests, silhouetted castles, lifeless swamps, cracked graveyards, and crosses in every character’s hand. It’s full of the usual stuff, but the gothic style has never seemed so evil and dead as it does here. In Hammer and Universal’s offerings, there were at least a few glimpses of life, maybe a few late autumn leaves stuck to a branch or a babbling brook, but not in Black Sunday. It appears Asa’s curse worked its way into the trees, soil, and even the castle stones, leaving a perpetually parched and still wasteland where nothing will ever grow. It’s extremely creepy and it looks absolutely amazing in Bava’s lush black and white cinematography. You’d think that when compared to Hammer’s color releases, Black Sunday would be overlooked due to being presented in black and white, but the lack of color only adds to the hopelessness of the surroundings. It also adds extra menace to the shadowy castle hallways and rotten tombs, where candelabras flicker and tapestries hang down like fangs waiting to snap.
While Black Sunday may be celebrated for its gothic style, the film is also loaded with spectacular performances, particularly from Barbara Steele in a dual role. As Asa, Steele is in completely command of the film as she curses, and manipulates anyone who dares look in her direction. When we first see her tied to the stake waiting to be burned, her beauty throws us. We hear her brother condemning her for these terrible actions, but her innocent eyes hold us in doubt. Could she really be responsible for what they say she is? Don’t be fooled, as her true nature soon rears its ugly head. When Steele isn’t projecting pure evil as the vengeful witch, she is showing us her softer side as Katia, a striking descendent of Asa’s brother. Her performance as Katia doesn’t hit quite as hard as Asa, as she is basically asked to sit by her father’s bedside, look worried, or play the damsel in distress, but it’s still strong where it counts. Arturo Dominici gives a strong and silent performance as the equally wicked Javuto, Asa’s vampire partner who carries out some of the dirty work for the witch. When he speaks, you will be turned to stone. John Richardson’s Dr. Gorobec basically becomes the hero and love interest of Katia, Andrea Checchi’s Dr. Kruvajan becomes hypnotized servant to Asa, and Antonio Pierfederici’s Priest demonstrates a very creative and gruesome way to dispatch a vampire.
Despite the long list of positives, Black Sunday still has a few minor flaws that are difficult to ignore. First is the dubbing, which opens the door for some less-than-graceful dialogue. Unlike some of the trashier Italian efforts that would come much later, Bava makes an effort to have the English dubbing match the movement of the character’s mouths. It’s a success in that regard, but there are times when you wish that the film had been subtitled. Another minor problem with the film is the score, which slightly conflicts with Bava’s stunningly grim imagery. The music for the American version of Black Sunday was provided by Les Baxter, who delivers a score that captures none of the gothic atmosphere that flows forth from the screen. Still, the complaints are trivial when compared to both of the terrifying resurrection sequences, the unblinking gore, our first glimpse of Katia, or the chilly opening execution. They are all glimmers of absolute brilliance. Overall, as stylish, eerie, and grotesque as they come, Black Sunday is an astonishing directorial debut by the legendary Mario Bava. To this day, his images still retain their hair-raising power, and Steele’s Asa still stands as one of the most evil forces to ever haunt a movie screen.
Black Sunday is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Hammer Horror Series: Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
by Steve Habrat
In 1958, Hammer Films revived the gothic vampire film with Horror of Dracula, which is arguably considered one of the finest films the studio ever produced. Hammer would follow up Horror of Dracula with 1960’s The Brides of Dracula, a sequel that boasted the presence of Christopher Lee’s overlord vampire, but didn’t actually include a cameo from the head bloodsucker. In 1963, Hammer would release director Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire, their second vampire film released before Lee returned in 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Featuring an immensely strong opening sequence and presenting its vampires as a cult, the little-known Kiss of the Vampire is a unique entry within the vampire genre. It’s gracefully acted, stuffed with Hammer’s trademark gothic set design, and plenty eerie enough to entertain viewers when they have exhausted the Dracula series. Sadly, Kiss of the Vampire isn’t without its flaws, as the head vampire Ravna finds himself lost in Lee’s shadow, and the climax falls victim to some ludicrous special effects. It’s a shame to see the climax trip as badly as it does considering that Hammer consistently delivered strong finishes to their horror films.
Kiss of the Vampire begins with newlyweds Gerald (played by Edward de Souza) and Marianne (played by Jennifer Daniel) setting off on their honeymoon. They are traveling by car through the countryside when they run out of gas near a remote village. Unable to find fuel, the couple makes their way to a nearby inn and starts settling in for the evening. As they unpack, the owners, Bruno (played by Peter Madden) and Anna (played by Vera Cook), deliver an invitation to the couple from Dr. Ravna (played by Noel Willman), a wealthy local who wishes to have the couple dine with him in his lavish castle. Gerald and Marianne graciously accept the invitation and head up to meet Dr. Ravna and his two children, Carl (played by Barry Warren) and Sabena (played by Jacquie Wallis). After dinner, Dr. Ravna encourages Carl to demonstrate his talents as a pianist, but as he plays, Marianne seems to be falling into a trance. Convinced that all the action of the day his worn his wife out, Gerald decides to call it evening. Before he leaves, Dr. Ravna agrees to track down fuel for the happy couple. The next day, Carl and Sabena visit Gerald and Marianne to invite them to a masked ball they are throwing that weekend, but shortly after their arrival, they are scared off when the town drunk Professor Zimmer (played by Clifford Evans) approaches them. Ignoring Professor Zimmer’s warnings about the Ravnas, the couple attends the party, but as they mingle with the guests, they begin to suspect that there may be a wicked side to the seemingly polite family.
Before Sharp even rolls the credits on Kiss of the Vampire, he delivers the strongest and bloodiest scene of the entire film. He begins on a procession of mourners as they file through a graveyard under an overcast sky. At the head of the pack is a priest chanting in Latin over the sobs of loved ones. As they arrive at the grave, two mourners notice a man standing off in the distance. They whisper amongst themselves about how he is probably drunk when he suddenly starts making his way into the graveyard. As he approaches the coffin with fire in his eyes, he grabs a shovel and drives it straight through the wood. Sharp zooms in on the splintered wood as candle wax blood oozes through the gaping hole. Over the soundtrack, a piercing cry sends the mourners and the priest running for their lives as the coffin turns transparent and reveals a dying vampire. From here, Sharp and screenwriter Anthony Hinds allow the action to slowly build. We know there are sinister forces at play, but we’re unsure when they will make themselves known. After a number of teases, Sharp and Hinds let the evil run rampant at a masked ball where he finally lets us glimpse the undead cult.
With its slower pacing, Kiss of the Vampire allows the audience to really get to know the characters, which are all splendidly brought to life by the cast. Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel capture the friskiness and optimism of a young married couple ready to take on the world. They playfully tease each other and when they embrace for a kiss, the dinner table they agreed to sit down to in ten minutes is forced to wait another five minutes. When the undead wedge is driven between them, we root for de Souza to find a way to reunite with his hypnotized lover before her soul is consumed by the vampire cult. Noel Willman is gentlemanly early on as the suspicious Dr. Ravna, but at times his performance is on the dry side. There is no flair to his performance and there are only hints of menace that show through when he stands in front of his devoted followers. Just like David Peel’s head vampire in The Brides of Dracula, he is forever lost in Lee’s vampire bat shadow. Clifford Evans rounds out the cast as the drunken vampire slayer Professor Zimmer, a no-nonsense protagonist who makes Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing look like a softie. His disgust for the vampire sect he is hunting is white hot and he will make sure he finishes off his prey by any means necessary. It’s a shame that Willman wasn’t eager to get a bit darker with his role to really ramp up the battle between good and evil.
If there is one thing that Hammer Films could do, it’s end their horror films in the most satisfying manner possible. While there have been some truly classic finales (Horror of Dracula’s final showdown comes to mind), Kiss of the Vampire ends in the most lackluster way possible, a low for the studio. Our gruff vampire hunter conjures up a pack of bats to come flying to the rescue and it looks as cheap as special effects come. They bob through shattering stained glass windows and swoop down to feast on the flesh of the undead cult members, their white robes turning red with each new bite. The deaths are over dramatic and poorly timed as they shriek out through the rubber bats glued to their faces. Overall, Kiss of the Vampire begins with plenty of vigor as vampires are brutally slain right in front of horrified bystanders. From there it opts for a slow burn, but Sharp just can’t muster a fitting climax for what we have just seen. Extra credit is given for the solid performances, (especially from Evans), the cult angle given to the vampires, the bloody cross used to repel Ravna and his children, and the gothic set design that is turned up to eleven.
Kiss of the Vampire is available on DVD.
Hammer Horror Series: Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
by Steve Habrat
After Hammer’s success with Horror of Dracula, the British studio began whipping up multiple sequels that found Christopher Lee’s snarling Count Dracula rising from the grave in some way, shape, or form. One of the better sequels is 1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, a snappy horror outing with plenty of blood dripping from Lee’s fangs and as much cleavage as you can handle. Hey, this is Hammer! With Hammer’s favored son Terence Fisher out of the director’s chair and director Freddie Francis taking control, there seems to be a reignited spark of enthusiasm throughout Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Lee seems just a little more devilish than usual and the bloodletting is a tad more extreme than some of the previous offerings (the film is hilariously rated G but don’t be fooled). Francis injects a captivating storyline and mixes it with attention grabbing melodrama and likeable characters, all which give the film a morbid charm, much like the monster we all fear. Francis takes things to the next level with a number of iconic images and a climax that more than delivers. It’s a gothic image so startling that you will never be able to chase it from your mind. The only thing missing here is Peter Cushing, who is sorely missed!
Set after the events of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, a year has passed since Dracula’s (Played by Christopher Lee) death but the local villagers are still jumpy and whisper about vampirism. They are convinced that Dracula still watches them from his castle high in the mountains and that he still emerges at night to drink the blood of the living. Monsignor Ernst Mueller (Played by Rupert Davies) decides to perform an exorcism on Dracula’s castle to prove to the villagers that the evil is gone for good. The monsignor takes a local priest (Played by Ewan Hooper) with him up to Dracula’s castle but what he doesn’t know is that the priest is grappling with his faith. During the exorcism, the priest takes a nasty fall and cuts his head. The blood trickles down the rocks and finds its way through a crack in the ice. The blood flows into Dracula’s mouth and the evil one is revived from his chilly slumber. Unable to enter his castle due to a giant crucifix on the door, Dracula sets out to find the monsignor and make him pay for what he has done. He targets the priest and the monsignor’s beautiful niece, Maria (Played by Veronica Carlson), and her atheist boyfriend, Paul (Played by Barry Anderson).
Despite being a whole bunch of fun, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave does have one major gaffe near the end of the film. The scene finds atheist Paul attempting to drive a stake through old Drac’s heart but he refuses to pray so the attempt is useless and Dracula survives. It was news to this viewer that when one drives a stake through Dracula’s heart, you have to say a prayer or the vampire will survive. It may be goofy and completely out of place but the sequence does have tons of gore so that makes up for it. Other than this one flub, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave can be wonderfully funny, romantic, and terrifying. The opening sequence that finds a bloody dead body stuffed in the church’s bell tower is one to have you on the edge of your seat. The exorcism scene is also one that will give you chills as the winds pick up outside the gothic castle. Whenever Dracula’s presence is felt, Francis applies a filter that yellows the edge of the screen, an odd touch at first but as the film goes on, you may find yourself actually enjoying the effect as it suggests evil closing in around anyone who is near Dracula. And then there is the love story, a soft, melodramatic affair that will have the viewer rooting for young love.
Then we have the top-notch performances from Lee and the rest of the cast. Much like Horror of Dracula, we don’t see too much of Lee’s Dracula but when he does decide he is going to show up, he will have you trembling in your boots. When he sets his sights on a young gal he wishes to bite, his eyes turn that familiar shade of red and his lips curl in to a demonic sneer that spells death. When he approaches the crucifix that hangs from his castle doors, he commands one of his vampire slaves to get it out of his sight. The way he delivers the dialogue will send a chill, as he says it with heaping amounts of hate in his voice. Anderson is great as the honest and true Paul, who resists the seduction of a voluptuous bar maid named Xena (Played by Barbara Ewing). He just seems like such a good guy that you can’t help but root for him in his battle against Dracula. Carlson is easy on the eyes as Maria, a warm and innocent girl who sneaks out of her room at night and tip toes over the rooftops to check in on Paul. Then there is Davies as the stern monsignor who detests the fact that Paul is an atheist. Rounding out the cast is Hooper as the priest at odds with his faith. He is one of the first to fall under Dracula’s spell and he certainly is a sympathetic character. He can also seriously creep us out as he utters only snippets of dialogue and refuses to look anyone in the face.
The whole conflicted faith aspect of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is certainly an interesting touch to a Dracula film. It seems fitting but sometimes it seems slightly neglected as a plot point. However slack this plot point may be, Francis guides it smoothly into one hell of a finish that features a gothic image that has to be the king daddy of nightmarish visions. It’s epic, gruesome, terrifying, and strangely beautiful all at once as it rests against an overcast sky. There are a few moments where Dracula Has Risen from the Grave can be a bit cheesy, especially when a sped up Dracula zooms along in his carriage (I’ll wait while you chuckle). As the Dracula films began to slowly fall apart, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is a commanding Hammer vampire film that doesn’t hesitate to entertain us and then get right in our face so that we can smell the blood on its breath. And we can’t leave out Hammer’s famous gothic atmosphere, which is once running rampant right through the action. It certainly has a number of small flaws and one weird moment in the middle but Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is still a vampire film you will want to scare the living daylights out of you again and again. You may even crack a smile at a few points.
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is available on DVD.