Black Sunday aka The Mask of Satan (1960)

Director: Mario Bava

Writers: Enniio de Concini, Mario Serandrei (and more)

Genre: Gothic horror

Genetic Links: Proceeded by Universal and Hammer horror, followed by
Italian horror

Recommended to: Fans of classic horror, horror historians, Bava
fans

Characters:

Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) – the vampire witch

Javuto
(Arturo Dominici) – Pricess Asa’s vampire lover (and brother?)

Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) – Gorobec’s mentor

Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) – Kruvajan’s assistant, Katia’s love interest

Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani) – Descendent of Asa, father of Katia and Constantine

Princess Katia Vajda (Barbara Steele) – daughter of Prince Vajda, Asa’s target, Gorobec’s
love interest

Prince Constantine Vajda (Enrico Olivieri) – brother of Katia, son of Prince Vajda

Ivan (Tino Bianchi) – Servent of the Vajda family

Synopsis: Two hundred years after their execution, a witch and her lover return from the grave to take revenge on their descendents.

The Ramble:

You have no reason to fear the dead. They sleep very soundly

The first film directed by Italian horror master Mario Bava (or at least the first credited to him), Black Sunday is an acknowledged classic, and has been cited as an influence by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton.

Italy had banned horror films until the 1950s, so Black Sunday is only the third horror film to be made in that country. Bava was given the movie as a reward when he helped the studio finish Caltiki: The Immortal Man. Told he could make any project he wished, he opted for Black Sunday, a tale nominally based on a Russian folk tale (which bears almost no resemblance to the final film). The studio must have had great faith in Bava to offer him such a deal, and then back it up with a $100,000 budget and 6 week shooting schedule, both a good 50% more than was typical at the time. The investment paid off, as Black Sunday earned millions in the international market.

Black Sunday is a visual feast. Stark black and white cinematography gives new life to clichéd images of old crypts, dusty castles, and gnarled forests. At times it is tempting to turn the sound off and just take in the delights that Bava serves. Many practical effects are also utilized in the film, often to stunning effect. This is well before the age of ILM, let alone CGI, and it all serves to show how a little ingenuity can go a long way.

Perhaps the films best visual sequences comes in the middle of the film. A girl spies a ghostly carriage moving through the fog. We cut to Kruvajan, enjoying a smoke outside the tavern. A low mist intrudes on the scene, threatening to ensnare him. He turns to find Javuto besides the carriage, supposedly dispatched to bring the doctor to look after the Prince. We follow the pair through a breakneck carriage ride back to the castle, Javuto wildly spurring on his steeds, an effect realized with nothing more than a branch attached to a fan. After misleading the doctor through a secret passage, Javuto disappears into the darkness, leaving his lamp suspended in mid air.

Italian horror is noted for pushing the boundaries of blood and gore, and while Black Sunday never goes as far as its successors, I can see how this film might have disturbed audiences in 1960. An iron masked hammered into Barbara Steele’s face, a hot iron melting into flesh, wooden stakes stabbed into eye sockets – little of this would raise an eyebrow today, but it surely got a rise out of the censors of the day, and over three minutes of footage were excised for the American release. Thankfully the full 87 minute version is readily available on DVD.

This is the witch of the old legend! See this bronze mask? One was always placed over the face over a condemned witch, so she would wear for all eternity her true face: the face of Satan.

While the images are stunning, the plot is paper thin, the story jumbled – sadly something that will also prove a hallmark of Italian horror. Supposedly the film was rewritten constantly during filming, and even more in the editing room. Barbara Steele claimed that the actors never had more than a few pages at a time, and did not know where the film was going.  The movie is never clear on whether Aja and Javuto are witches or vampires, and is vague on whether they are related (though that may have been to avoid implications of incest, which really would have got the censors on them).  Why does Javuto get free so early in the film, yet Asa remains trapped in her tomb even after drinking blood?  Pacing is slow, characters are paper thin, and the dialogue is mostly expository.

The actors all give it their best, but I find it hard to rate performances through the bad dialogue and worse dubbing. It was not until I watched the film with the audio commentary that I found myself warming to the performances.  Special credit must be given to Ms. Steele’s magnificently expressive eyes. It is no wonder that this film launched her career as the Queen of Horror.

Unfortunately, “classic” does not necessarily mean “timeless.” Black Sunday is a visual tour de force and still hold up on that level, but it is also too anchored in the contrivances of its time to completely win over modern audiences.  If you can suspend modern sensibilities and enjoy the old monster flicks of the 30s and 40s, you should enjoy Black Sunday as the classic that it is. But if you can not get past a lack of color, wooden dialogue, slow pacing, and theatrical performances,  you will likely find yourself wondering what the fuss is all about.

The Reef (2010)

Director: Andrew Traucki

Writer: Andrew Traucki, James M. Vernon

Genre: Horror, Shark

Genetic Links : Jaws, Open Water, Black Water

Recommended to: Almost anyone who is not deathly afraid of the ocean or sharks in particular.

Characters:

Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling): Captain of the boat, Kate’s “on a break” boyfriend

Matt (Gyton Grantley): Luke’s friend, Kate’s brother, Suzie’s boyfriend.

Suzie (Adrienne Pickering): Matt’s girlfriend.

Kate (Zoe Naylor): Luke’s “on a break” girlfiend, Matt’s sister

Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith): Luke’s first mate

Synopsis:

Five people are stranded in the middle of the ocean when their boat is overturned. One remains on the sinking vessel, while the rest choose to swim through shark infested waters in hopes of reaching a distant island. Based on a true story.

The Ramble

If fear is the oldest of all emotions, then it is almost certain the first emotion ever felt by any creature was a fear of being eaten. Though humans have eliminated the cause of this fear from our daily lives, the primal terror still lurks within us. It is this fear which The Reef most effectively taps into, creating anxiety as we watch a quartet of people who have found themselves on the wrong end of the food chain.

The Reef is the latest film by Australian director Andrew Traucki, who last gave us the similarly themed Black Water. Both films center on a small, tight knit group trapped in an aquatic wilderness, stalked by a hungry predator, and, as a fan of this subgenre, I would rate both films as among its finest entries.

The films moves quickly, with all cast introduced and the boat on the water in 10 minutes, and the same boat capsized before another ten have passed. The remaining hour is one of the most harrowing I can recall. Where Jaws kept the audience on edge with an ominous score and shots from the shark’s point of view, The Reef builds suspense by keeping the audience in the dark. Traucki largely sticks to the characters’ POV, especially Luke’s, who Traucki has wisely equipped with a pair of goggles to survey the water below.  Often there are indistinct shapes just in our peripheral vision, and  we often can’t tell if its a shark or a fish or nothing at all. When the shark does arrive, it dances on the periphery, fading in and out of the blue. If the shark breaks the surface is it for just a moment – there are no lingering shots of a dorsal fin knifing through the water.  Jaws conditioned us to link the shark with the musical cue – we knew when to be nervous, and when to relax. By keeping the shark hidden, The Reef  never gives a moment to exhale. We are all too aware that the final blow might come at any moment, without warning.

 “You look like a seal in that. Sharks love seals.”

The film plays fair with its monster – the shark (or sharks – one hysterical charatcer insists it is the same shark following them, but she lacks credibility) is frighteningly mundane. Yes it is a great white (white pointer in Australia), which I found sadly cliched (how about an oceanic whitetip?), but it is not of record proportions or keenly intelligent. It is an animal and acts as sharks act, curiously investingating a potential food source before moving in for the kill. And I was relieved to see there was no grand royale at the end, not final battle between man and beast, as so often happens in these films (Black Waterincluded). The camera work with the shark is well done – it is a real animal, captured in its native habitat. Many of the shots place both fish and actor (or stunt person) in the same frame, which effectively hightens the tension and reinforces the peril the characters find themselves in

“Hey guys? Not so much splashing…”

Traucki is adept at shooting landscapes, and the everpresent expanse of ocean constantly reminds the viewer of the hopeless scenario the characters are in. Early on in the film, a character snorkeling gazes over the edge of the reef into the deep blue abyss. The message is clear – this is not her world, and she does not want to be part of it.

One other thing The Reef shares with Black Water is that each film treats death seriously, and neither ignores the emotional toll on the survivors. Both films keep the cast confined to a few characters connected by blood or romance, and as a result the surviving characters cannot ignore their losses. As the deaths mount, you can see the burden is getting harder to bear.

A moment to comment on the blood and gore in the film. Though the has an R rating, don’t expect to see much viscera on the screen. As one would expect, the injuries inflicted on our characters remain unseen below the water, though the sea does tinge red after an attack (and there is one particularly effective shot of a blood trail disappearing into the abyss). There are no imaginative kills to be found here, and those looking for thrills would be better served by Deep Blue Sea or Piranha 3D.

To say (as some have) that this is the best shark film since Jaws is overselling it, simply because the competition is so damn thin. I do feel the film is hamstrung by its paper thin characters – again the action starts about 20 minutes into the film, and by that time only 2 of the five characters have had any substantive dialogue. You don’t have to be a horror veteran to figure out who the first to go will be (though, to its credit, it did have me guessing as to which, if any, of the four would make it out alive).  The film worked for me because I could put myself in that situation, ask what I would do, wonder if I would have the stamina to make it (I wouldn’t), but if you need deep characterization to care whether or not Suzie is eaten by a shark, the film may not have the same impact. For me, the weak characterization is The Reef’s most notable black mark, but the harrowing final hour more than makes up for it.

We all go a little mad sometimes.

And I suppose that’s what I’m doing here, carving out my own darkened corner of the interwebs to bare my soul to the world. Or at least lend my thoughts to the various entertainments I chose to indulge in. If you are reading this… why? I mean thank you, but really, is this really the most productive thing you can do with your time?