There may not be a ton of revelations in the Black Sunday installment of the Devil’s Advocates series, but author Martyn Conterio gets it right by making the most of the horror cinema study series’ limited page count and by not taking it all too seriously. He understands that Mario Bava’s gruesome Gothic horror is a bit of stylish, semi-incomprehensible fun above all else. Conterio handles Bava’s dark materials with a light touch, so his study never flops into turgid academia.
Conterio covers a lot of graveyard ground in 89 pages, digging into a bit of creation story, a bit of analysis, a bit of legacy, and a bit of biography—Bava and iconic star Barbara Steele rightfully receiving most of this attention. He theorizes about the design of the mask nailed to her face in the ghastly opening sequence and the misogynistic implications of this scene as viewers are invited to revel in Steele’s beauty and the eradication of that beauty. He discusses the plot’s nominal origins in Nikolai Gogol’s story “Viy”, and other possible inspirations, such as Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” and Tolstoy’s “The Family of the Vourdalak”. He pores over the BBFC’s efforts to censor the film, and most important of all, tackles the most obvious question Black Sunday poses: what the hell is Princess Asa Vajda—a vampire or a witch? Most radically, Conterio suggests a preference for the Americanized AIP cut of an Italian film originally released as La maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan)…well, at least he prefers the title.
The only glaring issue is Conterio’s failure to draw Ershov and Kropachyov’s more faithful adaptation of “Viy” into the discussion in any significant way (their excellent 1967 film Viy barely gets a passing mention toward the end of the book). Some may also believe that Conterio’s explanation of the film’s “massive” legacy overreaches a bit, particularly when the writer implies a scene in the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series intends to pay homage to the film, and more absurdly, when he suggests that some of the most awful aspects of Francis Ford Coppola’s awful Dracula are intentionally awful attempts to pay homage to Black Sunday. Yeah, right. But we can allow the writer his smattering of indulgences since he has otherwise written such an enjoyable study of such an enjoyable flick. Thanks, Martyn!
Get Black Sunday (Devil’s Advocates) on Amazon.com here: