If Italian cinema went high-brow with fine style, so too did it go low with head-first zest and no less rigor. If an argument is to be made for the 1960s as a golden age of European cinema, the undernourished portion of the claim is genre cinema. Not that genre cinema was at a low during the ’60s. Why in France alone we had Clouzot doing an all-time Hitchcock impersonation even as he ushered action cinema to the next level, Franju giving us grisly, poetically classy horror, Melville abstracting crime thrillers to their icy, cosmic cores, and even Godard and Truffaut dipping their toes in the water with their playful noir pastiches Bande a Part and Shoot the Piano Player, respectively.
But the crown jewel of ’60s European genre cinema cannot but be Italian cinema. The elephant in the room is Sergio Leone, elevating the Western by drawing out its cartoon core and emphasizing tactile feel over all else. Deeper still, however, we have a treasure trove of that most unholy of film genres: horror. Giallo would come in full force with the arrival of the glistening crimson reds and sickly yellows of the ’70s, but the ’60s saw no shortage of pristine, pitch-black Italian horrors, most of them admittedly directed by the master of the form: Mario Bava. Most famous for his color-first lurid later cinema that re-propositioned horror as a ballet of human motion and painted-on color, Bava got his start much earlier than we usually assume. In fact, his first film, and arguably his greatest, is a chiaroscuro masterwork fresh from the grave, a Hammer Horror pastiche that beat Hammer at its own game. I speak of course of the fiery death-drive of Bava’s Black Sunday.
Released in the same year as Antonioni’s own masterwork L’Avventura, Black Sunday is a wholly opposite work of no lesser artistry in its own right. That both were released within months of each other provides a nice, snug argument for Italy’s grand skill to run the gamut from frigid, caustic anti-human parables all the way down to potent, bruised horror that burns with monomaniacal energy as it screams out into the night. Italy could do it all, and they arguably never did horror better than Black Sunday.
Now, as with L’Avventura, Black Sunday is hardly an easy recommendation for all. For one, the story, while thankfully simple and straightforward, is not exactly airtight. As much as I can gather, Princess Asa (Barbara Steele) is sentenced to death by her brother for practicing witchcraft in 1600s Moldavia. She vows revenge on her brother’s lineage, and, as vengeance-starved, supernatural beings in horror cinema are wont to do, she sure does it. It’s a reasonably direct narrative with a thankful minimum of exposition as Bava gets to what Bava does best.
And what does Bava do best? Operatic, generous visuals that leap off the screen and fly directly into the soul. Although he is primarily known for his passionate color-work, he pushes black and white to their maximum contrast to create a truly potent product here as well. The crispness of the contrast matches to the density of the fog rolling in from every direction, granting the film a subfuscous texture that crackles, threatens, and taunts audience members with what lies beneath. We want to see it, and Bava’s luxurious, necromantic, sensual camerawork draws us into his multi-layered, deep-focus environment like particularly naughty flies in need of punishment.
Of course, having one of the most beautiful movie stars ever in one of her first and freshest performances helps too. Clearly, Bava is aware of Steele’s import, privileging her in shots and generally holding her up on a pedestal to grant her an imposing, angular, domineering figure ready to lash out at all around her. Her lurching, alien-like movements appear not of this world, transfixing the eyes as she moves as a somnambulant, possibly to awaken in fiery passion at any moment. It’s an operatic performance, equal parts under and oversexed, and perfect to match a film at once tangibly physical and mysteriously alien.
All in all, it’s a grotesque work of true wonder, an unobserved highlight of the Italian film canon that plunges to the pit of mankind’s fears and finds beauty in the more warped, twisted facets of human motion and physical space. The undeniable highlight is the corpse, of course – a densely populated recreation of Steele’s face with eyes traded in for black-as-night holes and painful piercings leftover from iron and rust strewn all about – but this is merely one macabre moment among many. And if “greatest cinematic corpse” doesn’t sound like your bag, there’s always L’Avventura. If it does, dig in.