By J.Malcolm Stewart,
Hello, my fellow ghouls, J.M. here. It’s my pleasure to open up the crypt of horror history and see what’s been long buried. Like your 10th grade English teacher always told you, “Its time for a lesson in the classics.” Not the coma-inducing, Jane Austin-type of classics you suffered through in 3rd period. No, tonight (and for many nights to come) we have for your consideration a sampling of the horror movies that have come to define the genre that we all know and love.
These are the fundamentals in horror and suspense, often duplicated but never surpassed in theme, direction and influence. So, before you soil yourself over the latest Korean “possessed-by-evil-spirits” import, or go gaga for the newest, American “shaky cam” P.O.V. flick, check these films and filmmakers to get a “classic” take on what makes a good horror movie.
Few directors of any era have had more of an impact than Mario Bava. Devoted follows of horror and suspense have long known his films, but the last 10 years have seen a renaissance of interest in Bava from all corners of the film world. Such modern masters as Tim Burton, Roger Corman, Wes Craven, Ridley Scott and Guillermo Del Toro have borrowed, swiped and paid homage to Bava through their filmmaking. Bava was at ground zero of the international flood that was Italian cinema in the 50’s and 60’s. So it’s fitting that this first retrospective takes a look at his first film with him as the sole director: La Maschera Del Demonio 1960 (translated: The Mask of Satan- API English Title: Black Sunday).
Shot in black and white, La Maschera pays its respects to the Universal Studios horror masterpieces of the 30’s while stretching the envelope of what was considered acceptable by censors. Opening at a witch trial in 17th century Moldavia, Bava gives us a scene for the ages, rooted in actual Inquisition-style crime and punishment. The condemned witch, Asa , (played by future British scream queen Barbara Steele) is promptly bound, branded and staked in the face with a mask that proclaims her crimes against society and the church (Note to self: never get caught for being a witch in 17th century Moldavia). Before the clergy and good citizens of the town carry out this sentence, Asa delivers a curse for the B-Movie ages (the bad dubbing of the English version places this scene high in the cheeseball Hall-of-Fame). Despite the threats, the local yokels nail the mask on her face on with a mallet straight out of your local carnival strongman competition and call it a night. But as you all know, the fun is just starting.
Jump to two centuries later. A pair of doctors makes their way through the Moldavian countryside. When their carriage predictably breaks down, the doctors (played by John Richardson and Ivo Garrani) also predictably disturb the tomb where the witch Asa is resting. Their bumbling leaves her free to make good on her curse against her remaining family members who had her condemned, including her multi-great niece Katya (also played by Steele).
The rest of the movie plays out in classic horror fashion, full of rising dead people and budding romance. A pleasant turn is the surprisingly ass-kicking parish priest (played by Antonio Pierfederici) who helps the younger doctor end the evil of Asa. (Admit it; you would have gone to church more often if the priest showed you how kill the undead by stabbing them through the eye.) There’s even a throwback, “let’s-storm-the-castle-tonight!” scene straight off of the James Whale cutting room floor.
The plot may be unspectacular. What makes this film a game changer is its sets, its shots, and its attention to detail. The backgrounds and settings are still grand achievements of horror filmmaking. Bava’s eye for gloomy atmospherics and religious iconography make this a joy to watch in the modern digital versions. The trick shots still give the film a special crawl of eeriness. The silent carriage sequence still gives chills.
Also in favor of its importance was the black line given it by the API censors. The opening sequence of this film proved to be one of the most memorable of the early 60’s for its graphic depiction of Asa’s condemnation. Of course, when the censors cut out the gorier bits, this created a rush to see the “real deal.” Like all good horror fans, the kids of the English speaking world wanted to be as “traumatized” as their Italian counterparts. Throw in some sado-masochistic overtones and a legend was born.
But La Maschera won approval not just for its use of sex and violence as a theme of terror but also for its use of craft. Scenes from it have been evoked as recently as Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Rumor has it that Burton has long toyed with the idea of a remake. Check out the original in the meantime until someone figures out how to CGI 17th century Moldavia.
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