Though Italian filmmaker Mario Bava actually contributed to the direction of a handful of movies in the 1950s (including the Kirk Douglas version of Ulysses), his first such credited effort was in 1960 with Black Sunday, starring English actress Barbara Steele. The movie’s international success promptly made both Bava and Steele stars in their own right and is still a highly influential entry in the horror genre.
Now on Blu-ray in glorious black-and-white, the version we have is the 1961 American release, minus about three minutes (mostly of gory special effects) with the actors’ voices dubbed in English, even the British-born Barbara Steele’s. The dubbing is dreadful (isn’t it always?), but the movie still holds up, mostly because of its imaginative, chilling visuals and Steele’s striking appearance, as beautiful as lookalike Natalie Wood.
Based on a short story by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol (to whom Bava would return for inspiration three years later in Black Sabbath), the film opens with a much-imitated scene featuring a vampire-witch (Steele) about to be burned at the stake, but not before a pronged metallic mask is hammered onto her face. Two hundred years on, she and her undead consort are resurrected by a couple of clueless travelers, enabling the raven-haired daughter of Satan to begin her quest for vengeance on the descendants of her persecutors.
Barbara Steele plays the dual role of witchy Princess Asa and Katia, the imperiled young princess, her huge eyes and distinctive mouth variously chilling and beautiful. Though Roger Corman used her soon after in his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum in 1961 and Fellini gave her a small but memorable role in 8½ two years later, Ms. Steele would achieve her greatest fame in foreign horror films of the 1960s, most of them Italian, for which Black Sunday proved to be an enduring template.
In 1963, Bava helmed Black Sabbath, a trio of macabre tales introduced by the incomparable Boris Karloff, who also appears in the best segment as a vampire (for the only time in his career). Like many of Bava’s films, Black Sabbath was re-edited for its American release, far more curiously than in the case of Black Sunday. The man who played the original monster of Dr. Frankenstein’s invention shines in Bava’s triad.
In the Italian version, which Bava obviously preferred, the first and last stories – The Telephone and A Drop of Water – were mostly straightforward psychological thrillers, though the final tale has ambiguous supernatural overtones. The central story, The Wurdulak, stars Karloff in a truly sinister performance as the ominous patriarch of a rural family threatened by a vampire (or Wurdulak). This segment alone is a genuine classic.
Besides Karloff’s role in The Wurdulak, the original release also features him (whose distinctive voice is badly dubbed along with everyone else’s) in an opening introduction and a comic concluding scene, with the actor in costume, riding an artificial horse on a sound stage while the technicians tidy up the set. It’s only a movie that’s been creeping us out, Bava insists, ironically undercutting the mood of horror and suspense with humor.
The American version not only reorganizes the segments in order to conclude with the masterful Wurdulak, it re-edits The Telephone, turning a murder tale into a story of ghostly vengeance. Though Karloff’s comic sequence from Bava’s original edit is now eliminated, new segments are included with Karloff (in the manner of Hitchcock at his most macabre) introducing each of the stories.
The best news for viewers today is that both versions are now available on Blu-ray, with a plethora of riches for Bava fans, like me and Ozzy Osbourne.