DVD Review

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Mario Bava's black-and-white masterpiece like you've never seen it before.

By Steve Biodrowski     January 07, 2000

THE MASK OF SATAN(1960) is widely regarded as a classic of the horror genre, filled with wonderfully atmospheric effects and punctuated by moments of brutality quite grizzly for their time, yet the film has been known to U.S. fans only through a truncated version released by American International Pictures under the title BLACK SUNDAY. Until now, that is. Thanks to Image Entertainment's DVD release, the film is now available under its original title, with several minutes of footage and its music score restored.

To a large extent, the film's reputation rests on the convergence of two cult figures: Mario Bava and Barbara Steele. Bava was a talented cinematographer making his directorial debut, and Steele was a British actress who had moved to Italy after a career in Hollywood failed to work out. Bava went on to direct numerous subsequent horror, science fiction and fantasy films (BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD), and Steele became the reigning Queen of Horror (at least in Italy), but neither one ever really surpassed their original (and only) collaboration. BLACK SUNDAY (or THE MASK OF SATAN, as it is called on the restored DVD print) is a magnificent piece of black-and-white horror that simultaneously harkens back to the Universal classics of the 1930s and emulates the then-contemporary verve and dynamism of Hammer Films productions like HORROR OF DRACULA. Bava (who also photographed) uses trick photography and lighting effects to create an atmosphere of almost fairy tale proportions, then injects decidedly adult elements of violence and eroticism. Steele, in a dual role, engages our sympathy as the apparently doomed Princess Katja and chills our blood as her predatory ancestor, Asa, executed as a witch two centuries before and now revived as a vampire who needs Katja's lifeforce to complete her resurrection.

The script, loosely based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol called 'The Vij,' has a plot hole or two, but the dreamlike atmosphere sweeps away any reservations, providing numerous memorable images: the stone coffin that explodes to reveal Asa's revived body, the pockmarked face of the witch after the spiked Mask of Satan has been removed, the eerie slow-motion coach ride coach, with secondary vampire Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici) lashing the horses forward (an obvious visual quote from DRACULA's coach ride, yet in many ways superior). Although clearly a product of its era, this Italian production has not dated badly, and it remains a powerful and effective piece of work, marred only slightly by the inevitable problems that arise in the process of dubbing a foreign film for export to another country.

It is a testament both to the power of the original film and to AIP's handling of the American release that BLACK SUNDAY survived the trip across the Atlantic. The U.S. version is not a hatchet job but a carefully handled re-editing and redubbing that removes a few sentimentalized moments, in many cases improves the vocal performances, and substitutes a less melodramatic score (by the late ultra-lounge composer Les Baxter). The only real flaw is an overabundance of caution that led to the trimming of several crucial moments of horror; the restoration of these few frames gives the film back a certain punch that increases its effectiveness by contemporary standards.

To appreciate fully the differences between the two versions, it helps to know a little bit about how Italian films were produced. Typically, sound recorded on the set was never used in the final print; it was simply used as a guide for post-production dubbing. This allowed the director to worry about the visual elements while shooting and then try to get the best dramatic vocal performance after the fact. Often, imported actors would speak their native language during production, while the local cast spoke Italian. This was the case in BLACK SUNDAY: both Steele and her English co-star John Richardson can clearly be seen speaking English. Unfortunately, as often as not, the dubbing would be handed over to professionals who specialized in preparing different versions for domestic and foreign distribution, which resulted in the original actors being dubbed even in their own language. Thus, THE MASK OF SATAN was delivered to English-speaking territories like the U.S. and England already dubbed into English. The version shown in England (retitled REVENGE OF THE VAMPIRE) remained relatively intact; the American version was not only retitled but also recut, rescored, and redubbed.

The result was actually fairly effective. The new voices actually give better vocal performances, and the dialogue follows the original script more closely than the export dubbing, as evidenced by the fact that the words match the lip movements much better. Baxter's score at times mimics the original music by Roberto Nicolosi, but his romantic theme is a bit more subtle; while using a similar arrangement of piano and strings, Baxter tones down the excess, with a few simple chords on the keyboard creating a suspended feeling far less hokey than the original. The only drawback of the new soundtrack is that Katja's younger brother, Constantine, speaks with the unmistakable voice of Peter Fernandez, who dubbed the title character in SPEED RACER.

Despite all this, the version of the film on Image's DVD is superior. Although the box art emphasizes the title familiar to American fans, with 'The Mask of Satan' written underneath in smaller letters and parenthesis, it is this original export title that actually appears on the print. The credits (although they misspell the star's name as 'Steel') are effectively superimposed over the titular Mask, instead of being seen merely against some nondescript flames. The execution of Princes Asa has far more impact thanks to two shots that are allowed to run longer than in the American print. In the first, the witch has the mark of the devil branded into her flesh (actually a wax stand-in), and instead of cutting away as the brand is applied, the camera lingers until we can see the result. In the second restored shot, one of cinema's great moments of brutality is rendered even more horrific: as the Mask of Satan is hammered onto the witch's face with a mallet large enough to knock a mule unconscious, the shot no longer quickly fades to black but instead shows a fleeting moment of blood spewing from beneath the mask, driven forth by the impact.

The true highlight of this version emerges after Asa has been reawakened in her tomb. Alive but still immobile, she draws her first victim to her prostate body with the mesmeric influence of her eyes. Steele's heavy breathing in this scene is almost orgasmic, but the American print faded out on a close up of her face before she made contact with her intended victim. On the DVD, at last you can see the lingering kiss that climaxed the scene--a moment whose suggestions of necrophilia rendered AIP honcho Sam Arkoff almost inarticulate. (The DVD liner notes have him trying to explain the shot's excisions thusly: 'All of AIP's pictures were very clean--especially at that stage of the game--so anything that was suggestive of say, playing around with a corpse...fornicating a corpse... You know what I'm saying?' Uh--no, Sam, we don't.)

Still later, there is an additional brief romantic scene between Steele and Richardson, who plays a young doctor smitten by the Princess, trying to convince her not to give in to despair despite the horrible events occurring around them. The final restored moments occur near the end. Richardson's character has several more lines of dialogue, in which he laments the apparent death of Katja, whose lifeforce has been drained by her vampiric ancestor. (Of course, when Asa is burned at the stake, the vitality is returned to Katja, who survives for the obligatory happy ending.)

The DVD image, letterboxed to a 1:66 ratio, is clear and sharp; although there are one or two scratches here and there the print is otherwise in great shape. The Dolby Digital soundtrack is also fine, although this being a low-budget 1960 production, there were not sufficient elements to create a surround-sound experience. The box contains informative liner notes excerpted from an upcoming book about Bava by Tim Lucas (editor of Video Watchdog magazine).

The special features are impressive as well. There is a brief Mario Bava biography, filmographies for both Bava and Steele, an audio commentary, a theatrical trailer, and a gallery of photos and posters. The photos include both the usual selection of often-printed pics (e.g., Steele's pockmarked face) and some seldom-seen ones, like a behind-the-scene shot of Bava being strangled by Javutich. Also of interest is a shot of Arturo Dominici, as Javutich, modeling his vampire fangs, which are nowhere seen in the film. (According to Lucas's audio commentary, Bava thought they looked bad.) The trailer (shown full frame, not letterboxed) is rather low-key compared to the U.S. publicity (not included here); it contains some of the film's best images, but doesn't really convey the overall greatness. Although it's not mentioned anywhere on the box or disc, when you first reach the DVD's main menu, there is a brief audio clip from the American campaign: a dripping sound effect, followed by a melodramatic voice telling us that we are listening to dripping blood. The effect is quite comical, in an overdone kind of way, but it does get you in the mood for the film to follow.

Lucas's audio commentary is another highlight of the DVD. He knows his subject backwards and forward, spewing out trivia and behind-the-scenes anecdotes like you wouldn't believe. Yet, somehow, he never gets bogged down in detail, and he never bores you with his expertise; rather, he manages to convey the enthusiasm that has led him to know this film so well. He even does some very interesting second-guessing about how some scenes in the final cut may have survived from previous drafts of the script. (In the finished film, Asa remains immobile in her tomb throughout most of the movie. Lucas thinks the original intent may have been to have her replace and impersonate Katja at a much earlier point in the narrative.) If there is even a slight weakness to the commentary, it is that Lucas tends to overlook some of the films few flaws, which mostly consist of a few risible moments in the dubbing. (My personal favorite: the young doctor advises the torch-bearing villagers on how to distinguish the apparently identical Katja from Asa: 'She's the witch. Don't' be deceived by her face--look at her body!')

There is also a very interesting note on the Italian-language prints of the film, which contain a scene not in any export version: a brief dialogue between Katja and her father. The DVD contains a transcript of the dialogue (translated by Christopher S. Dietrich and Lucas) and claims to have a still photograph from the scene, although I was unable to find it anywhere on my disc. Apparently, the dialogue is a remnant from an earlier script draft that was wisely abandoned because it no longer fit; in the Italian version this daylight scene is awkwardly intercut with the nighttime sequence of Igor Javutich's resurrection! Of course, it would have been nice to see the footage as it plays in that version, but the transcript is an adequate substitute.

Overall, Image's DVD is about the best presentation imaginable of the original version of the late Mario Bava's masterpiece, short of getting an audio commentary from Barbara Steele herself. But even lacking input from those who worked directly on the film, Lucas is no mere pinch-hitter but a thorough expert on the subject. The box cover art bills this disc as part of 'The Mario Bava Collection,' and Lucas signs off his commentary by asking us to return for Image's DVD presentation of Bava's KILL, BABY, KILL. If subsequent releases live up to the quality of this one, this is a collection that will truly be worth collecting.


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