This intriguing fairytale, loosely based on a short story by Nikolai Vogol, tracks a beautiful vampire-witch, Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), whose brother sentences her to death along with her paramour, Javuto (Arturo Dominici), for sorcery. Before being burnt at the stake, Asa vows to seek revenge and puts a curse upon her brother's descendants. Concluding one of the film's most chilling scenes - which likely would have had audiences running for the exits back in 1960 - a spiked mask is hammered onto Asa's face.
Jumping forward two centuries we are introduced to Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), who are traveling through Moldavia en route to a medical conference. Taking a shortcut through a forest, one of the wheels on their carriage breaks. While waiting for their driver to repair the wheel, the two explore an ancient crypt and discover Asa's tomb. When a large bat attacks Kruvajan, he breaks the glass panel covering Asa's partially preserved body and the cross above the tomb. Investigating further, he removes her death mask.
This leads to Asa's awakening, the rise of Javuto from the grave, and the lives of Asa's descendants, Katja (Steele also) and Constantine (Enrico Oliveiri), who live in a nearby castle, being placed in danger. Gorobec, smitten with Katja after meeting with her outside the crypt, becomes the only chance she has from being possessed by Asa once her father, Kruvajan, and several of the castle's servants fall victim to the seemingly-insurmountable Javuto.
Black Sunday was devilishly good fun. While many of the elements may feel familiar nowadays - creepy castles with secret passages and hidden crypts, dark forests, ghostly carriage rides, evil witches, vampire lore, family curses and a tale of love at first sight - taking into account its age, many of these would have seemed fresh to an audience fifty years ago.
Brimming with sordid detail, Black Sunday is not overly scary, but there are some gruesome effects and several scenes that get the heart racing. Black Sunday is evidently influential - though I too felt like it drew from some of the classic Gothic horror films like Nosferatu and Vampyr - and Bava displays a confident grasp on establishing atmosphere and mood and utilises some inventive horror techniques.
The production design and set pieces are perhaps the creepiest features of the film. The labyrinthine castle, with its large, sprawling rooms, ominously featured decor and shadowy crypts and the forest cemetery are the most memorable. The busy narrative moves fast, remains compelling and offers up convincing twists and turns.
Black Sunday also looks stunning and Bava's background as a cinematographer is recognisable. The crisp black-and-white photography is heightened by all kinds of effect and trickery. Complex lighting, which casts long shadows of the cast, and fluid steady-cam shots present takes that are longer than one initially realises.
The most memorable performance is from Barbara Steele, portraying not just one, but two characters. A beautiful and sexy woman with large, piercing eyes, she doubles as both the vampire-witch and the virgin princess, linked by lineage. Steele became the queen of 1960's Italian horror films following this role (and appeared in Fellini's 8 1/2), and Princess Asa has become an iconic female villain.
Though the images here can be cruel, and there are some overtly sexual suggestions, Black Sunday is also quite ludicrous and at times, amusing. I'm still not sure whether this was the intention, but the script - which is too heavy on the use of Dr. Kruvajan's name - has the characters doing some questionable things. A film about witches and vampires in the 19th Century can't take itself too seriously and I think this is why Black Sunday felt so entertaining. The fact that these doctors wander around a crypt for the first half of the film - and seem to have no concern about their safety - is somewhat laughable.
But, purely on a visual level, Black Sunday is an essential work of Gothic horror. It is atmospheric, stunning to look at and has me intrigued to see more from Bava, a visual filmmaker whose talents have now been the source of inspiration for over fifty years.