Thursday, February 19, 2009

Black Sunday

I watched “Black Sunday” (1960) last night and it’s pretty terrific. It could be one of the greatest horror movies ever made. If someone ever says black and white horror movies can’t be scary, show them “Black Sunday.” That should keep them quiet. It’s an unnerving experience.

I’m frequently puzzled by the acclaim afforded director Mario Bava, but here he’s working at the top of his form.

Far better writers than me can discuss the merits of the film, so I’m not sure I’ll even try. I’m usually not a fan of Italian horror movies; I tend to like my stories more linear and less abstract. But “Black Sunday” is like the scariest fairy tale you’ve ever seen, with unforgettable imagery that lodge in the brain and stay there. So potent is the imagery that you could probably turn the sound off and still follow what is happening.

There’s not much of a plot. In Moldavia circa 1630, the witch Asa (Barbara Steele) and her lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici) are burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft and engaging in Satan worship. The avenging crowd is led by Asa’s brother. Before having an Iron Maiden-like helmet hammered into her head before the burning, Asa places a curse on her brother and his descendants, promising to extract vengeance from the grave.

Two hundred years later, Asa and Javuto are accidentally reincarnated and begin their revenge against her descendents, including Katya (Steele again) whose body Asa hopes to inhabit.

I was captivated from beginning to end. Barbara Steele may resent her title as The Queen of Horror, but she’s iconic here. Her Asa drips with seductive evil. She’s one of the most beautiful woman to ever appear in a horror movie and her striking features (love those cheekbones) convey equal parts unspeakable evil (Asa) and wholesome purity (Katya). We buy both of them the whole way.

“Black Sunday” was a big hit in 1960, when it was purchased by American International Pictures and dubbed, edited and re-scored for American audiences. Other Italian horrors followed, including the other great Bava horror film, the anthology “Black Sabbath” (1963) starring Boris Karloff, but none had the starling impact of “Black Sunday”, a film which continues to inspire current filmmakers, such as Tim Burton and his “Sleepy Hollow” (1999).

I didn’t see “Black Sunday” as a kid, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. In those pre VCR-days, you had to catch a movie when it was on or it might be years before it would re-appear again. I remember the Friday night “Black Sunday” was set to show on Channel 32’s Screaming Yellow Theater at 10:30 p.m. I had heard about the film by reading Famous Monsters of Filmland, so had always wanted to see it.

Dilemma time though! CBS was showing the Hammer film “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” (1968) on the 10:30 movie, and to make matters worse, Channel 9 (WGN) was showing the George Pal fantasy film “Atlantis, the Lost Continent” (1961) at the same time. Any one of these would have made for a splendid Friday night, but to choose between all three? I vacillated all week trying to decide which one to watch. The final decision was an agonizing one, but I finally decided on the Hammer flick. The opportunity to see a Christopher Lee Dracula appearance was too strong to pass up.

My dad was away on a business trip, so mom was in charge. We had an old black and white television set in the living room, and it was a small ranch house, so it was the one room the whole family congregated in.

At 10:30 p.m. the promo for the CBS Friday night movie came up, which naturally highlighted all the good (bloody) parts.

Ma Deany saw this and laid down the law. “You’re not watching this. No way. Not with your father out of town. I can’t have you getting nightmares from this. No, turn it off.”

“But Mommmmm,” I wailed. “I won’t get nightmares. I promise.”

“No,” she insisted. “Put something else on.”

So I went with my second choice, “Black Sunday” on Screaming Yellow Theater. Missed the first minute or two but turned it on just as the Iron Maiden mask was being fitted over Barbara Steele’s head and then slammed with a hammer.

“WHAT IS THIS?”, she yelled. “You’re not watching this. No way. No, you’re young. Put something else on.”

“But mommmmmm,” I wailed again, but no go. Without my dad there, I wasn’t going to win this battle.

So with great reluctance, I put Channel 9 for the kid-friendly Atlantis movie. Mom watched it for a few minutes and said it was OK for me to watch, which I did. I remember enjoying it, but chomping at the bit to see what was happening on those other channels. It was torture.

In retrospect, I survived, and it’s probably a good thing mom did what she did. “Black Sunday” is still capable of giving us the willies, and I’m sure I would have lost a sleepless night or two as a kid.

This is one horror classic that really delivers the goods.

Rating for “Black Sunday”: ***1/2


Anonymous said...

I'll have to check BS out....the sadism of the beginning helmet hammering, with vestiges of the crown of thorns, is worth it alone......There was a large element of superstition and "Black Magic" in Italy, especially in southern doesn't surprise me that the theme is of relatives getting their vengeance.....the haunting of ancestors is so very southern Italian...........evil haunting even more so.....
I forgot the great film library channel 9 had..the family classics collection alone was amazing..indeed, you would get some truly great B-movies on 9, and they were the only station besides channel 2 to play all night movies....Marty McNeely would interrupt things at 2 AM with nightbeat(with the classic Dave Brubeck "Take Five" theme...),
after which they would play movies till about 4 AM, especially on week-ends.....thats when you would see all those cheesy local late-night commercials.....Magikist...
car dealers...etc...

Gotta love those days......

BTW, I was wondering if you collect old TV guides from Chicago papers from the late 60's/early 70s?..Remember Chicago Today's psychadelic covers on their TV guides, or the sun times tabloid sized one? Or Eberts film reviews at the end of the sun times TV guide?

Kevin Deany said...

Scott: I don't collect old TV guides, but I do remember the large one in the Sun-Times with all the movie reviews.

Yep, you're right about Channel 9. We didn't have air conditioning growing up, so in the summer when it was sometimes too hot to sleep, I would often get up in the wee hours and there was usually something good on Channel 9. With no school the next morning, it was like playing grown up.

Saturday mornings too were great on Channel 9. They would show The Funny Men (aka The Three Stooges) from 7-8, then 8:00 would be some community service program. I would take that half hour to eat breakfast and shower. Then at 8:30 a.m. would be a Bowery Boys movie.

Channel 7 too would run old movies too in the late, late night hours. They had access to the RKO library I caught a lot Falcon movies starring Tom Conway at this time.

Anonymous said...

WLS still plays old Astaire/Rogers vehicles on new years eve...and can often be counted on for an ancient tinny-sounding talkie from the early 30's after 1 in the strange watching those and thinking that all the people died decades George Carlin joked, he'd yell out to his wife, "Hey, Honey, I'm watching a bunch of dead people on TV!"....

BTW Kev, I have a hunch you may have missed this following site. I HIGHLY recommend this if you love Chicago television history....hours upon hours full of info

And I know my great websites, being one of the few people who read entire books regarding Chicago TV....

here's another place....I spent some quality time a few years back there watching old BJ and Dirty Dragons...and a few old Bozo Circuses....very helpful staff..

Those two should keep you busy for a couple years!


Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, Scott. I'll have to check those sites out.

Anonymous said...

no can also watch old tv telecasts for free on the Museum website, as they are slowly digitizing their entire archive,
with televison clips from all over the nation, though with a slight chicago focus.....they just allowed free public access last month...pretty good deal...-Scott