Black Sunday

Only barely related to its Gogol source, despite original intentions, Black Sunday instead finds Bava & co. interpolating his studio-trained artifice with the sensibility of Poe and suggestions of De Sade. Reality bends around Bava's improvisations as much as his effects -- the film having been insufficiently prepped -- so that two characters may enter a space in one sequence, and two others, later, can find new features in that same space (the nude of Asa in the secret passage). Propagating gaps, the emergence of nonsensical or supernatural looks forward to Lisa and the Devil, Suspiria, The Beyond...

Forward and back. The artifice is Hammer by way of Universal by way of Murnau, deep shadows, arches, swirling smoke, while the flowing camera style anticipates Italian horror to come. A root tension of long take and illusionism, or spatial logic and the oneiric. There's something of a Méliès in Bava, in love with the illusion: floating lanterns, glowing eyes, the devil's mask in a glass of wine -- the inflections of nightmare.

The outcome may be formulaic, love winning out and the woman saved, but it's easy to see why its provocations would be so influential. There's a negative image in this film, the two Barbara Steeles, witch and descendant. Love pulls towards the light (white), vengeance towards the dark (black). It's all bound in the opening minutes, in the blinding white fire that opens the film, the sadistic violence of the persecutors (it cuts to the central accuser when the brand actually meets flesh, scream playing over a studio light's glint in his eyes). History's violence is felt throughout in black and white. In a Gothic touch, the rational man, experienced doctor, is pulled into the dark, in an erotic embrace with evil, while the himbo lives to smile another day. Lingering always is the question: what force is there in the pooling shadows? Many would seek the answer to this question in the decades to come.

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