Review by Chris Hyde
August 6, 2002
Between 1960 and the late 1970s, the Italian Mario Bava was to create a body of impressive work in the horror-movie genre, producing a series of stylish films with a defined sense of macabre milieu. Though many of his films are worth a look, few reach the heights of his debut directorial piece, The Mask of Satan (AKA Black Sunday, Revenge of the Vampire or The House of Fright), an atmospheric black-and-white bit of creepiness based loosely on a story by Nikolai Gogol. Luckily for the film aficionados who may still live in one of the few remaining bastions of repertory cinema left in the United States, a series of brand-new 35mm prints of the European version of this film (as well as a number of other Bava horror classics) have been struck and are now being shown in their original glory. (Those not so fortunate need not despair; Bava's work is well-represented on both video and DVD, though the caveat is to make sure that you seek out the original European cuts and not those butchered for American consumption).
The son of a silent film technician named Eugenio, who shot the early Italian epic Quo Vadis in 1912 as well as being engaged in creating special effects for the movies of the time, young Mario was raised inside the film industry, assisting his father with a number of film-related tasks, such as subtitling and the creation of title scenes. During the 1930s, he became an accomplished cameraman in his own right, eventually shooting films by such filmmakers as Roberto Rossellini, Raoul Walsh and G.W. Pabst (in addition to some more plebian work in the sword-and-sandals genre). But perhaps the movie that would garner the most influence on the cameraman's future career as a director was the 1956 Riccardo Freda film I Vampiri, an outing that Bava would end up completing when the first director left the set after a dispute about the shooting schedule. Over the next few years, Bava would end up finishing the direction of a couple other films for his Italian studio, and was eventually rewarded by producer Lionello Santi with an offer to select a property of his own to shoot as a film.
As previously mentioned, Bava then picked a Russian short story to mold into his debut venture. In his hands, the tale became a Gothic nightmare that opens on a foggy moor peopled with hooded, faceless monks. A beautiful witch (played by Barbara Steele, future scream queen) is being executed for her crimes, and as the religious brotherhood condemns her to death, she issues a curse upon the family of the chief inquisitor. They wish to burn her body after hammering down a metal mask onto her face, but a mysterious rainstorm dampens the flames and eventually the body of the enchantress is simply buried in a coffin in full view of a stone cross whose Catholic magic should hold her evil soul in thrall for all eternity. Two hundred years later, however, a doctor and his young protégée come through the area on their way to a meeting and manage to upset the protections laid down in the past and allow the demon a toehold with which to attempt to walk the Earth once more. They also meet a contemporary member of the accursed family, a lovely princess the younger doctor instantly takes a fancy to but who is, unbeknownst to him, the (gasp!) exact double of the evil witch from 200 years prior.
Through a series of machinations, the witch manages to return her equally-vile male companion from the olden times to life, and he begins to work to help the temptress steal the nubile princess' body so that she might once again live to wreak her demonic ways on the unsuspecting world. The main attraction of Bava's handling of this story lies almost entirely in the film's unrelenting sense of oppressive creepiness; even the near unbearable (though sometimes amusing) hokeyness of the film's romantic subplot can't dampen the pervasive feeling of fright brought on by the director's mise-en-scène. Thunder and lightning rumble ominously in the distance, a clutching fog seeps across empty vistas, the craggy skeletons of trees threateningly reach across the screen with their bony wooden claws. In this atmosphere, nothing seems safe; an innocent milkmaid tending to her chores here seems little more than a staked goat awaiting its inevitable fate.
In this manner, then, Bava allows the clammy clutches of his filmmaking technique to overcome the limitations of his basic storyline and the pedestrian talents of most of his acting crew. Working deftly with special effects to set the stage for his exploration of fairly standard Italian Madonna/whore themes, the director creates such an air of fear that the musty clank of Gothic anxiety seems to fill every second of every scene. In addition, by exploiting the considerable talents of lead actress Barbara Steele (who would become something of an international star with this role), he develops his exposition of these dualities in a way that doesn't overwhelm the basic nature of the plot with obfuscating intellectualism; instead, by wrapping his ruminations in a crone's cloak, he allows the B-movie elements to dominate, making his points on the sly while still creating an interesting piece of horror entertainment as rubric.
A groundbreaking film that would eventually show its influence in the future art of directors such as Argento, Romero and Raimi, this cinematic work still exists today as an intelligent example of the European black-and-white horror genre. With its climate of terror, the movie would presage a future career steeped in blood and gloom for its erstwhile director, and while the rest of his output contains many worthwhile works of note, it is this movie that remains his primary gem and perhaps greatest work. For while the history of cinema is full of attempts to scare viewers with celluloid repugnance, they rarely attain the overall feeling of trepidation and anxious consternation with which Bava here fills near every frame. This is simply the horror film in its most naked and starkest form; Mario Bava's Mask of Satan is just a fogbound path you stumble down, while a creepy ambience of lurking panic and subtle dread maybe hides a destiny you'd likely rather not find.