Title: Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan)
Director: Mario Bava
When I was first compiling the candidates for my vampire countdown, Mario Bava was the only director who I was sure would make the list twice. “Black Sunday” (1960) (also known as “The Mask of Satan” and a plethora of other titles), Italy’s answer to “Dracula,” is the better known of the two, although it isn’t quite as fun as my other pick.
The film begins in the 17th century, where Asa Vajda and her sorcerer lover are put to death for witchcraft. The first shot is of fire, but Asa isn’t lucky enough to be merely burnt alive. Instead she is branded with a searing iron and then has a mask with inward-pointing spikes nailed into her face. The terrifying scene famously intercuts between Asa’s reaction and a first-person view of the mask heading towards the camera lens. It is interesting that while the film has many scares to come (perpetrated by the vampires), none are quite as brutal as this first act committed against them.
A sudden downpour prevents her body from being burnt into oblivion, and so instead she is buried in the crypt of her ancestors. Centuries later she is accidentally discovered by a pair of traveling doctors (Kruvajan and Gorobec). They can see her face through the glass cover and break it to retrieve a trinket. When a bat startles the men, Kruvajan cuts his hand on the glass and the blood trickles onto the lips of Asa’s corpse, slowly setting about the process that will revive her (the scene is echoed in many vampire films to follow, such as “Underworld”).
Using witchcraft, sorcery, telepathy, hypnotism and plain old-fashion deception, Asa regains control of her castle, revives her unholy groom and begins murdering all those who stand in her way. Complicating things further is Gorobec’s budding romance with kindly local girl Katia (played by Barbara Steele, who also plays Asa). Asa plans to drain Katia’s blood to gain eternal life, and she has some pretty dastardly tricks up her sleeve to accomplish her plan.
Bava assembled some of the finest B/W sets since the heyday of classic 1930’s horror, and though it makes his images seem a couple decades out of date, it does brilliantly revive the haunted, labyrinthine castles and cobweb-strewn crypts of yesteryear with loving care and craftsmanship. Barbara Steele’s enormous deer eyes and thick black mane allow her to alternate between demonic animalism and innocent beauty in her dual roles. The rest of the cast is less memorable, but also not as bad as your typical Italian horror production. Bava pulls out all the stops for his exciting climax, a structural emphasis that can be seen in the ending twists and signature shocks of his later gialli.
Terence Fisher’s “Horror of Dracula” (1958) remains one of Hammer Horror’s best works and it continues to be well-received be genre enthusiasts today (something which can’t be said for most of Hammer’s canon). Though based on the Bram Stoker novel, it makes bold and interesting departures that result in a movie that still feels fresh and able to surprise – even to those over-familiar with the story.
It starts with the arrival of Jonathan Harker at Dracula’s lair. This version has Harker as a mild-mannered librarian, and when Dracula heads out to fetch some books for him, a desperate woman appears and begs for rescue. Harker reacts with confusion, but it is later revealed that he is actually undercover and intends to kill the evil count that night. His plans are shattered when the damsel in distress turns out to be an undercover vampire (such intrigue!), and though he succeeds in staking her, Dracula is alerted by her screams and subjugates Harker, turning him into a minion of darkness!
The plot switches over to Harker’s fiancée Lucy, her brother Arthur, his wife Mina and Van Helsing, who is initially not welcomed by the distraught skeptics. Helsing eventually convinces them to help him, although not until after Lucy has been killed, revived and staked. They begin a frantic search for Dracula’s coffin, but an unexpected person beats them to it and they fail. Soon Mina is acting strangely (for example, receiving scars from crucifixes that touch her skin), tipping off the men-folk that Dracula has already chosen his next victim. That night they guard all the entrances, but Dracula still gets to Mina’s bedside. After all the twists have been pulled, it’s time for a fairly lack-luster showdown redeemed by an enthusiastic death sequence.
Low production values and unexceptional directing don’t do too much damage to this film, which is probably best remembered for the winning pairing of Peter Cushing (as Van Helsing) and Christopher Lee (as Dracula). The two help raise the acting out of the poor house, although their subsequent pictures were not always as successful; Hammer disgorged at least four lamentable sequels in an attempt to milk this one for all it was worth. Their female costars are not given as juicy of roles, but this adaptation became notorious for the then-scandalous sexuality of Dracula’s bond with Lucy and Mina. Dracula’s nightly visits are greeted with frank lust by the woman and his erotic appeal contrasts interestingly with Jonathan as a reserved librarian and Arthur as a prim husband.
“Night Watch” (2004), based on the books by Sergey LuKjianenko, launched Russia’s most successful movie franchise (it outsells “Lord of the Rings” in its home country) and gave audiences an interesting new take on the old vampire legend. In this revisionist tale, the world is balanced between the forces of light and darkness (OK, nothing new there) and supernaturally gifted prodigies from either sides take shifts guarding the 12 hour periods intrinsic to their rivals. Hence the Day Watch patrols the daytime activities of the good guys while the Night Watch keeps the vampires at bay.
Anton Gorodetsky is an unassuming citizen of a bleak, black-rimmed Moscow when he starts to catch glimpses of the future, not to mention impossible agents invisible to everyone else. He is soon identified as an “Other” who is destined to use his special powers for either the light or dark alliances. Several years after he makes his decision, Anton comes across Egor (a boy who may tip the balance and trigger a final war) and Svetlana (a young woman with a cursed vortex spinning above her head). It’s clear that the century long truce is about to fall apart, and Anton is at the center of it all.
Timur Bekmambetov’s blockbuster production has a little trouble finding its identity. The grimy, lived-in Moscow locations are great, with a busy mise-en-scene that shows hard-work and attention to detail. Unfortunately the CG is occasionally weak and far too overdone. It has the visual bluster of a slick Hollywood knockoff that is willing to let poor acting and dialogue slip, so long as the effects seem impressive. It is certainly a bit of a shame because the central story is quite interesting and hints at an off-screen universe replete with a history, mythology and sociology of epic scope and grave import. The acting could use a boost with Konstantin Khabensky’s Anton managing his working-class average-Joe side but choking on the serious and emotional segments.
Few attempts at combining vampire horror and science-fiction have worked, but Mario Bava’s “Planet of the Vampires” might be my favorite for the sheer camp pleasure that results from trying. This Italian feature has a smattering of psychedelic 60’s charm, eerie atmospheric horror and pulp-comic space opera all rolled into one.
The starship Argos picks up a distress signal from an unexplored planet. They are able to approach, thanks to their meteor deflection device, but are assailed by a telepathic bloodlust and only barely manage to pull themselves back from a self-destructive orgy. Their sister ship, the Galliott, is not so lucky and ends up crashing on the surface. The Argos crew lands and starts to search the hostile surface, a bleak landscape of barren rock, curling fog and deadly magma. Patches of vividly colored light (in Bava’s greens, pinks and purples) streak through the darkness.
An expedition to the Galliot discovers that all of the crew is either missing or dead. Strangely, the corpses look less like crash fatalities and more like homocides. The bodies are buried, but they don’t stay stiff for long – soon the Argos is being terrorized by their own undead (which look and act more like zombies than vampires, but oh well.). A few screaming beauties and ray-gun battles later, a desperate escape attempt is mounted, but it only leads to the laughably “terrifying” twist ending.
Bava flutters his trademark eye for visual flamboyance, seemingly unaware that he has almost no budget and a cast of untalented hacks. In fact, the international medley of actors was unable to communicate with each other or the director. Bava just let them speak whatever language they were comfortable with (legend has it that some scenes originally have four different languages being mumbled) and then [poorly] dubbed over them later. The props are a couple of sorry scraps left over from other films, and set designer Giorgio Giovannini was forced to use mirrors, multiple-exposures, creative relighting and varied camera angles to give the impression of a large landscape. When it works, it works, and when it doesn’t, it’s certainly quite amusing.
Cronenberg’s low-budget second feature is a vampire-themed voyage into body-horror that is not for the squeamish. Rose (porn star Marilyn Chambers) is the victim of a ugly motorcycle crash in the quiet countryside. As she lies in critical condition at an experimental plastic surgery lab, a pair of doctors make the ethically dubious decision to try out their latest method in a bid to save her. Their grafts of highly adaptive tissue are miraculously successful, but have unpleasant Cronenberg-esque side-effects, like an evil orifice that opens in her armpit and a phallic stinger that emerges to suck blood.
Rose, now an unwitting abomination, breaks free to feed on the populace, which spreads a rage-inducing bloodlust disease that soon threatens all humanity. Securing any possible chance of survival requires locating the haywire patient amidst the nightmare of bloodthirsty zombies (similar in nature to “28 Days Later”).