When I watch a modern horror film, I expect the film to be as bloody as it could possibly be. I have watched so many of these horror films in fact that I have become somewhat desensitized to the sight of blood. (at least Hollywood blood. I still don’t like seeing my own blood or anyone else’s in person) In fact I think most modern viewers are desensitized. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with it, it is just the natural progression of depictions of violence. Filmmakers want to try to out do what became before them. But what did come before Saw, Hellraiser, or even Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies? Where did this lust for blood start out? It seems to have come from various sources, but one Italian cinematographer turned film director had a direct influence on pushing the boundaries. His name was Mario Bava and he directed Black Sunday. This is the first film that he gets complete credit for and he does not waste his chance.
Black Sunday has, on its surface, a very familiar feel to it. It cites the Universal monster movies from the 30s with its macabre style and its familiar plot line. A witch and her servant was sentenced to death in an old Russian town. Before she dies, she curses her brother who is sentencing her to death. This curse lays over the Russian town for two centuries, when two doctors come to the town. After their carriage breaks down, they stumble upon the grave of the witch and one of them cuts their wrist. This blood that lingers revives the old witch. She summons her servant to bring her descendent, a beautiful princess. The doctors become entwined in the story from there with love and death. Seems pretty pedestrian, but how it happens is not. At the beginning when the undertaker nails the death mask onto the witch, blood spurts out and a loud scream emits from behind the mask. This is what shocked people, including the British Film Board that banned the film for eight years for this and a couple other scenes throughout the film. Another shocker would be the bearing of Barbara Steele’s breasts (not full baring, don’t get ahead of yourself now) as she laid to rest by the smitten doctor. You can see the lust in his eyes as they fall on the cross placed in between two heaving breasticals. Instead of taking away from the film, these elements only added to the tension of the plot.
While doing my research, I found not only was this Mario Bava’s first film, but it was also the film that made horror queen Barbara Steele famous. I can see why. She plays two very different characters that are linked by their family line alone. One is the innocent princess who is haunted by a picture of the witch that died that long ago night. The other is the witch herself who is evil and full of hatred. Although there is little make-up to distinguish between the two, she makes them distinct in their own ways. She seems to whisper even when she is yelling when she plays the innocent princess, but when she is the priest she brings her voice to such a vicious screech that it is unsettling to hear. I never mistook one character for the other. This is even more notable because she never read the whole script ahead of time, she was just given her pages that she is going to shoot that morning. She never knew what the film was about and where she was in the story the whole time it was filming. She would go on to costar next to the king of horror, Vincent Price. Although I haven’t seen the Pit and Pendulum, I want to now.
When I did my horror marathon in October, I stepped my toe into exploitation and giallo films. However I still feel like I might not know enough about these two very different and yet similar genres. I sense that I might want to do another marathon soon, enriching my experience and my viewing repertoire a little bit. I am always up for a challenge.