Black Sunday

With Black Sunday, Mario Bava created what many consider to be one of the most definitive titles in Gothic horror cinema. Adapted from a short story by Nikolai Gogol, the film was banned in Britain for eight years, largely because of its strangely poetic fusion of morbid sexuality and graphic violence, highly unusual for the time.

Through an examination of the critical reaction to Bava’s work and how it has significantly shifted over the years, Martyn Conterio convincingly argues that while auteur theory is not as highly regarded in academic circles as it perhaps once was, it’s tailor-made for Mario Bava, with his ‘distinct visual authority’, recurring themes and hands-on approach. The writer was granted access to the BFI’s files and the original notes made by censors, detailing what they found so objectionable and offensive about Black Sunday. It makes for fascinating reading and further highlights how groundbreaking Bava’s film was, having shocked as much as it did. The writer details specific sequences censors found to be problematic and explores the various edits imposed on the film as well as the myriad titles it was released under.

Throughout, he rigorously contextualises Black Sunday to demonstrate its place at the forefront of a new generation of films that blended eroticism and horror. Released in the same year as Peeping Tom, Psycho, The Fall of the House of Usher and Eyes Without a Face, Conterio identifies the film as a work which significantly pushed cinematic boundaries in terms of sex and violence and further contextualisation highlights its significance in post-war cinema and the birth of Italian horror.

A page-to-screen analysis details not only the source material but other influential texts. By exploring Black Sunday’s story and themes within a historical milieu, Conterio identifies the influence of European folk tales, the legend of Countess Bathory, various European witch trials, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” and Alexis Tolstoy’s “Family of the Vourdalak”. Interestingly, he also looks at the film’s place in vampire cinema — he cites Black Sunday as a major influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula — representations of the figure of the vampire in folklore, literature and cinema, and addresses the blurry line Bava established between vampires and witches. Also delved into is Black Sunday’s peculiar marriage of fairy-tale conventions and surrealist irrationality,  including its utilisation of romantic notions of beauty and death and its depiction of women, suggesting the figure of Asa personifies a subversive threat to patriarchal conventions.

Throughout, Conterio’s approach, while immensely in-depth, is conversational in tone and very accessible. His humour (he describes one character as Asa’s bitch) and breathtaking insight ensure this monograph is an invaluable read for anyone with an interest, not only in Bava’s work, but in the history of Italian horror cinema. Essential.

Posted by James Gracey

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (Devil’s Advocates). He contributes to Diabolique, and has also written for Paracinema, Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.