There are two cuts of Black Sunday on this new Blu Ray release; Mario Bava's Director's Cut, under his original title: The Mask of Satan, and the American release print (the version that has been most widely distributed) under the better known title Black Sunday. As the former is Bava's own cut, I'll focus on that version for this review
The Mask of Satan was the directorial debut of a then 46 year old Bava, who had, up to this point, been a cameraman (a DP in fact, but he apparently disliked the term cinematographer, finding it pretentious) and had previously stepped in as director on several films when other filmmakers had left or been fired. This was his reward for loyalty and good work, and Bava certainly makes good on the faith his producers put in him for this official directorial debut.
From its startling opening sequence, in which a witch (Barbara Steele) is punished by having a devilish mask lined with huge metal spikes nailed to - indeed through - her head, Mask of Satan is a stylistic tour de force from Bava, combining the more explicit gore allowed by the start of the 1960's with the gothic stylings of the classic Universal horror films of the 30's and 40's.
The bulk of the film takes place 200 years after the opening, two doctors (John Richardson and Andrea Checchi) on their way to a conference stumble across the witch's tomb and accidentally cause her to be reanimated. They also meet a woman named Katja, who looks exactly like the witch and turns out to be a descendant. The younger doctor falls for Katja, and ends up trying to protect her as the reanimated witch attempts to possess her body.
Bava's visuals are fantastic; his gliding camera and supreme control of light and shadow thanks to filming even 'exterior' scenes in a studio make for an intensely creepy and enveloping atmosphere that gives the whole film an otherworldly feel, which grows and grows as characters are possessed, killed, and as the witch comes closer to truly rising from her grave.
The film's gothic beauty is well matched by a smattering of grand guignol effects, especially an emphasis on eyes and trauma to them which seems to have permeated Italian horror in the years following this film (it's clear that Lucio Fulci owes Bava a debt in this respecy). The effects are perhaps not quite up to modern prosthetic standards, but they seldom look hokey, and a few - a punctured eye in particular - remain really shocking.
Performances are hard to judge, due to the fact that, as was standard at the time in Italy, the film was made without sound, and dubbed later. Certainly Barbara Steele's striking dark beauty is used well in the dual role of Katja and the witch and Andrea Checchi seems to be having fun, camping it up just enough as the older doctor. John Richardson is square jawed and good looking enough, but doesn't seem to be an especially brilliant actor.
Ultimately though, The Mask of Satan is a film more about reveling in atmosphere, and Bava certainly achieves that. Even more than fifty years on the film still chills and occasionally shocks, and most horror films struggle to do that fifty minutes in.
The AIP alternate cut, Black Sunday, is only minimally different. Some music is changed, the dubbing is slightly different, and an opening crawl and voiceover are added. Otherwise the only real difference comes in the reduced emphasis on some of the film's gorier moments. The Mask of Satan is the superior cut in every way, but Black Sunday is still a great film, though it's really more of a curio on this release.
Arrow Video have a well established and well deserved reputation for treating their DVD and Blu Ray releases with a great deal of care, and this release of Black Sunday should only serve to strengthen that reputation. The black and white feature film looks absolutely outstanding; black levels are deep and dark, there are a great variety of shades of grey in the print, and texture is outstanding thanks to a robust grain structure that means the picture retains a filmic feeling, while remaining almost totally free of print issues. Digitial artifacts, which can be a problem in films that make heavy use of smoke, as this one does, are also absent. Overall, this is an outstanding transfer of a beautiful restoration, it really does justice to a great looking film.
Sound, at least through my stereo only TV, is clear, sharp and well balanced.
As ever with Arrow releases the extras are plentiful. You could count the AIP cut of the film as among the extras, but even if you don't there's another extra film; I Vampiri, the first Italian horror film of the sound era, which Bava completed after Ricardo Fredda left the production.
Mask of Satan gets a commentary from Bava expert Tim Lucas. It's interesting in parts, but a little dry and heavy on 'here's what's happening in this scene' talk for my liking. Also offering a little context is Alan Jones, who provides an optional introduction to the film.
Star Barbara Steele appears - still looking great - in a 1995 interview. It's a bit short, but she's engaging and has some interesting things to relate, especially about the sets for Mask of Satan. It is a shame, however, that Steele didn't participate in any new content for this release.
The film-specific content is rounded out with a rare deleted scene, which, like most deleted scenes, is inessential but interesting. The extras package is completed by a mass of trailers for this film and many, many of Bava's others.
This is another outstanding package from Arrow Video, who continue to treat horror films with a respect that most companies don't seem to think them worthy of, and which fans will revel in. This is also a brilliant film, and the package is an essential addition to any horror fan's Blu Ray library.