This week I’m covering an Italian horror director named Mario Bava. Bava isn’t all-time great director, but he has a serious cult following. His films were shocking for the time, pushing the standards of what could be shown on film, but fairly tame by today’s standards.
Today’s films are:
Mario Bava – Black Sunday (1960)
Mario Bava – The Whip and the Body (1963)
Both of these films fall into a genre of horror called ‘gothic horror’. Gothic horror films are generally set in the 19th century. Frequently at a castle or an old country manor. Something without a lot of technology. Candle light and fireplaces are common features. Horse and carriage are another. Gothic horror films are frequently ghost stories, and often deal with families and a dark secret from the past. The films frequently hinge on the protagonists discovering what this dark secret is and dealing with it.
So how do these films hold up? Let’s get into it.
Black Sunday (1960)
This film (also known as The Mask of Satan) focuses on a witch that is condemned by her family. Before she dies she curses the people that burned her and their ancestors. The villagers take her seriously and nail a mask to her face, and take other precautions to ensure she can’t come back to life. But 200 years later, a doctor and his assistant wander into the tomb when their carriage breaks down nearby. They accidentally destroy the symbols guarding her coffin, and remove the protective mask. Of course, the witch begins to regenerate, resurrecting her brother, who was her partner in evil, to act as her agent and begin killing off her ancestors who killed her in the first place. Will the doctor and his assistant be able to reverse their mistake before the witch comes back to life?
The film stars Barbara Steele who had a long career in various horror films as both the witch Asa, and her ancestor Katia. As Asa, she’s all fire and fury, with a stare that could stop a charging animal. As Katia, she’s soft and timid, terrified of what’s going on around her. It’s a great performance.
Bava makes great use of makeup effects to creep out the audience. As the witch is reforming, we see her face, with eyes decayed away, and her face covered in nail marks from the mask. We see the eyes slowly come back over the course of the first half of the film, using a very slimy, gross material. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s effective.
We begin with the burning of the witch, and some creepy gore effects with the hammering down of the mask over her face. However, when the villagers attempt to burn her, it begins to rain, and they can’t actually burn her. They decide to put her in the family tomb, with various symbols, like a crucifix, which they believe will keep her from rising. A voiceover accompanies this section, explaining some context, since we’re being dropped into the middle of this situation.
Of course we cut to 200 years later with two curious doctors on their way to a medical conference. They ask the driver to take a shortcut through the forest, which he doesn’t want to do, but agrees after taking some additional money. On the way through the wheel falls off the carriage, and Thomas and Andre, the doctor and his assistant, go wander in the forest, finding a cemetery and tomb. They enter, acting as archeologists, examining this strange culture. They find a coffin with a piece of glass over the corpse’s face and see the Mask of Satan. They initially leave it alone, but then Thomas is attacked by a large bat. He shoots it, then beats it to death with his cane, damaging the stone coffin in the process.
In a very colonial moment, Thomas decides to grab the mask from the coffin since he’s broken the glass anyway. As he reaches in, he cuts himself on the glass, dropping some blood into the coffin. Horror movie logic dictates that this is the main thing the witch needs to come back to life.
As the men leave, they meet Katia, Asa’s descendant, also played by Barbara Steele. When I first saw her there, I thought perhaps the witch had already risen, but it’s just the same actress playing two roles.
Katia is the princess of this area, and she lives in the castle with her father and brother, Constantine. When Andre sees her, he’s immediately smitten, and we can tell right away.
The film follows Katia as she goes home, playing piano in the castle while her father reads by the fireplace. We see two giant paintings in the room. One of Asa, the witch, and the other of Igor, her brother. After Katia goes to bed, her father recounts the legend to his servant, noting the paintings. This is weird to me. Why would a family keep up paintings of two people from their past that were killed for being evil. Why keep massive ceiling height paintings of them up in your house? Put them in storage, or the basement, or something. You’re in a castle with hundreds of rooms, there’s got to be another place to put them where people won’t see them.
Meanwhile, the witch commands Igor, her brother (or lover? Not 100% sure on this point.) to rise from his grave, which he does in an incredibly creepy and effective scene. The ground bulges up and we see a hand claw it’s way out of the ground. The makeup on Igor himself is less effective, but it’s enough for us to see that he’s not normal. He immediately attempts to kill the father of the family, entering the home through a secret fireplace passage, but is thwarted by a crucifix, which he can’t abide. Katia and Constantine run to his side and send a servant for one of the doctors at the inn.
We get a really atmospheric slow motion scene here, where a carriage rides through the night. The carriage and the horses are all black, sinister. When the carriage finally finds Thomas, the older doctor, it isn’t the servant, it is Igor. He tells the doctor that the prince is ill, and the doctor comes with him. But of course, Igor leads him to the witch. She takes over Thomas’ mind, and turns him into one of her minions.
Thomas uses the opportunity to go to the prince, and suggests the family go to sleep for the night. When they awaken, their father is dead, and Thomas is nowhere to be found.
This is where the mystery for the characters really begins. Andre gets involved, and takes over as the main character.. He and Constantine begin trying to learn who is responsible for the deaths, and where the doctor is located. They slowly learn that the legend of the witch is real, and how much danger Katia is in, as she is the key to the witch’s resurrection. The film turns into a bit of a procedural here, as the characters try to discover clues, learning what they can about the legend. It’s finally cracked by an inscription that Andre took from the witch’s coffin when they first encountered it. A priest translates it, and learns that the witch’s minions can be defeated by piercing their left eye, which is a way to kill demons that I think is far underused in storytelling.
Igor manages to kidnap Katia and bring her to the witch who begins draining her life. The change is done through a really interesting combination of makeup and lighting. They would put two colors of makeup on the actor’s face, one an old age makeup, and the other a normal makeup. They could transition between the two makeups by changing the lighting. It ends up making a really effective transformation.
When Andre gets there, one of them is up, and the other is lying down. Of course, the audience knows that Asa the witch is strong enough to stand up and is pretending to be Katia to trick him. Andre is a little slow on the uptake. Even when he sees the cross around the ‘witch’s’ neck, he doesn’t get it immediately. Throughout the film, we’ve been shown over and over again that a crucifix will burn the witch or one of her minions, they can’t even stand to look at it. But even when staring at a crucifix around Katia’s neck does Andre understand what’s going on.
Asa almost gets away, but the townsfolk get to the tomb, and burn her for real this time. Andre laments his lost love, but as the witch burns, Katia wakes up, and they live happily ever after…except, you know…for the witch.
This is a really interesting film. A lot of times, old horror movies just don’t hold up at all. The effects don’t work, the shocking moments fall flat, and the gore effects are ridiculous. Some of those are true for this film as well, but Bava creates an atmosphere that draws you in, and gives you enough reason to suspend your disbelief. Keeping this film in black and white helps a lot. We don’t have to worry so much about the realism of the makeup effects and gore.
Bava shoots things with a real sense of anticipation and suspense. He doesn’t just show us everything immediately, he gives his scenes time to breathe and give us time to anticipate what’s about to happen.
It all works really well and holds up. Let’s get to the next film.
The Whip and the Body (1963)
In this film, Kurt returns to his family, demanding his title be restored. We learn that he left under bad circumstances, and his family is not happy to see him. While he is visiting, he is murdered, and after he is buried, strange occurrences begin. The family believes he is haunting them. Will they be able to put his ghost to rest before anyone else is murdered?
The film stars Christopher Lee, as the estranged Kurt. He comes in on a black horse, and the servants start raising hell, warning everyone he’s back. Right away, we know he’s trouble. He plays into this directly, insulting and needling his family as soon as he walks in the door.
We learn that in the past, Kurt left after breaking the heart of a cousin named Tracy. She cut her own throat with a knife. The knife is kept by her mother, the housekeeper and Kurt’s aunt. At the beginning of the film, she vows to kill him with the same knife, a threat she repeats to his face when she sees him later. There is also his brother Christian, who is engaged to Nevenka, who also lives at the home. The housekeeper Georgia also has a daughter Katia, who is in love with Christian. Complicating matters, Nevenka used to be engaged to Kurt before he disappeared.
We don’t know how long Kurt has been gone necessarily, but we can tell that no one in the family is particularly happy to see him. Kurt wastes no time in showing who he is by following Nevenka on a horseback ride, and confronting her, telling her she still loves him. She doesn’t disagree with him, but then things take a turn.
Kurt takes the small whip that Nevenka has been carrying with her horse and begins whipping her, telling her that she always loved violence. Her reaction appears to be a mix of horror and pleasure.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that there are plenty of people who enjoy some form of pain during their sexual activity, and I would never suggest there is anything wrong with that between two consenting adults. It’s hard to reconcile how much Nevenka enjoys this, and how much she’s being forced in this scene. After the whipping, they have sex on the beach, and she doesn’t seem to resist or struggle at all. Regardless, it’s clear that Kurt isn’t trying to give her any kind of pleasure. He’s trying to hurt her for agreeing to marry his brother, and tear apart the family.
When Kurt returns to the house, he carries the whip, but Nevenka is nowhere to be found. Everyone in the house goes out to look for her, and while they’re gone, Kurt is murdered. From our perspective, it appears to be the ghost of Tracy, the woman he wronged. The patio doors slam open, and as he checks, he is caught up in the curtains, when he falls down, the dagger falls with him, and his throat is cut.
The family finds Nevenka outside and brings her back in, only finding Kurt later. Soon after his funeral, Nevenka sees a man enter her room, his boots covered in mud. She screams when he comes close and Christian comes to her rescue. He of course doesn’t believe her story, telling her she was hallucinating.
But soon after, their father is killed by the same dagger, and the house begins to worry that Kurt’s ghost is haunting them. Things get stranger as the others begin to see the muddy boot prints, and they lead back to Kurt’s grave. Nevenka is acting strangely as well, insisting that Kurt has told her he will take revenge on the whole family. We see scenes of Kurt interacting with Nevenka often, including more whipping scenes, when she insists that she hates him, and he insists that she loves him. But while she insists that she hates him, her performance is that of someone enjoying the experience. This might be a disconnect of what the director wanted to show versus what the audience expects. This film was clearly meant to subvert some existing ideas about sex and that’s reflected here.
The film continues along this track until we reach the climax in the crypt where Kurt is buried. Christian and the servant pull Kurt’s body, which is deeply decayed. They burn it. Meanwhile, Nevenka is having another experience with Kurt’s ghost. She runs to the body, while Christian and the servant run back. While at the body, Nevenka sees Kurt’s ghost again, she embraces him, telling him she loves him, while holding the dagger above his back. She plans to kill him.
When Christian and the servant return, they’re separated by a gate, and see Nevenka holding the knife out in front of her, miming holding someone. She plunges the knife into herself before Christian can get to her. She tells him that she had to do what Kurt told her. Christian realizes that Nevenka herself committed the murders, and hallucinated the rest.
This film doesn’t rely on gore effects, it’s entirely the atmosphere and the behavior of the characters for it’s shocks. It’s a film that was designed to push boundaries and make us question our assumptions.
And in 1963, the relationship of Kurt and Nevenka would have been extremely uncomfortable for audiences to confront. A non-consensual relationship might have made more sense to audiences than a consensual one in this particular instance. The horror from the audience could be more related to knowing that people in their midst might enjoy being whipped as a form of sexual activity.
Either way, another film that really holds up.
The Double Feature
When I first started this blog, I thought I’d never do the same director in two films, but after trying it a couple of times, I think it really works. In this case, I can compare two films from the same director I’m not familiar with, and really start to tie the threads together.
Both are gothic horror films, which makes some similarities, considering the setting, and the characters we might encounter. The Whip and the Body is definitely a ghost story, but with a twist at the end, while Black Sunday is more of an occult-fueled story. There are some ghostly elements, but it has more in common with a villain like The Mummy than a traditional ghost.
Black Sunday has lots of gore effects, a lot of which hold up, while The Whip and the Body just has a bit of blood. It relies on the atmosphere and the reaction of Nevenka to Kurt’s ghost.
Finally, both films feature a secret door behind a fireplace as an essential part of the story. I don’t know how often Bava used this particular device, but it seems to be a fascination.
I took a step back from my responsibilities this weekend and took some time for myself. It’s not always easy to do, but I felt like I needed it, and ended up having a pretty good weekend. I still have lots of stuff to get done, but it will get there.
So what about next week’s films? I’m still in a horror mood, but I think I’ll move on. There is always time for more horror. I think I’m going to go back to comedy. Next week’s films are:
Ernst Lubitsch – Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Wes Anderson – The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
I haven’t done a Wes Anderson film yet, even though he’s one of my favorite directors. Comparing these two should be interesting.
See you next week.