The Vampire through the Artistry of Mario Bava
As much as we love Bela Lugosi and our other iconic film Dracula, Christopher Lee, there’s a range of vampire films that go beyond these actors and The Count. Some aren’t memorable or even very good; others bear little resemblance to the blood-sucking count.
Then there’s Mario Bava’s atmospheric Black Sunday (1960), a great vampire movie filled with iconic imagery without a fang in sight.
As a kid, I fought my parents to watch this when it was on TV. I lost the battle, but they were right. Once I finally saw Black Sunday it gave me nightmares. The well-known scene where the Mask of Satan with its spiked nails is hammered on to Barbara Steele’s face never leaves you. I get chills just thinking about it. It’s that type of unforgettable imagery that makes Bava such a master of Gothic Italian horror.
The movie transports us to the 17th century on Black Sunday – a day that comes once a century when Satan walks the Earth and his human followers become vampires.
One of those is Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), who has been condemned to death by her brother for sorcery. She’s branded by a hot iron with an S for Satan (gross) as she curses her brother’s family for eternity. Then the Mask of Satan is hammered on her face. It’s horrifying.
Two centuries later on Black Sunday, Dr. Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his handsome, young assistant Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) are traveling through Moldovia when their carriage breaks down. In a precursor to the “don’t go in the basement” refrain of modern horror films, they head down into a crypt where they’re drawn to Asa’s tomb. She was deemed so evil that a glass pane is over her face so she’ll see a cross if she awakens. A bat startles Kruvajan who accidentally breaks the glass and the cross and cuts himself. We know where this is going.
Back outside, the men are startled by the striking Princess Katia (also played by Steele) and her two large dogs. Gorobec, of course, is smitten by her beauty and sadness.
Katia, her father and brother live in a castle where the specter of Asa’s family curse haunts them. They know the history of those who have fallen to the curse, including a princess who looked like Katia, and seem to be resigned to their fate. Give credit to Steele in the dual roles of Asa and Katia. The actress and her oversized eyes give each woman what she needs: an intense coldness for Asa; a sorrowful aura for Katia.
Back to those few drops of blood: They’ve helped awaken Asa, who telepathically summons her love Javutich to rise from the dead and do her bidding. The goal: to drain Katia’s blood so Asa can again walk the Earth.
The two doctors are pulled into all of this – one willingly, the other not – as Asa works her evil from the crypt. Slowly she is being brought back to life, but not just yet as Bava lets the camera linger on her hideous face still marked by puncture wounds. He’ll return to this sight throughout the film.
It fits with Bava’s flair for the dramatic in his visuals, sound, music and effects. Fog is omnipresent and especially effective when it’s billowing along the ground inside the castle where it’s like a character walking through a room. Ghastly faces float in and out of the shadows, sometimes terrifying people to death. It’s an effect that worked equally as well when Bava used it again in The Drop of Water segment of his horror anthology Black Sabbath (1963).
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Black Sabbath also is worth noting for this story because of its interesting, but grim short film The Wurdulak, based on the vampire in Slavik folklore. It stars Boris Karloff, who also narrates the film.
The Wurdulak is set in 19th century Russia, where a terrified family awaits the return of their patriarch, Gorca (Karloff). He has yet to return from a mission to kill the wurdulak and it’s nearly the time he warned his family about: If he hasn’t returned by 10 on the fifth day, he has failed and must be killed with a stake through his heart. They are wise to listen: the cadaverous wurdulak survives by drinking the blood of those he loves. If Gorca is now a wurdulak, guess who’s next?
But first, a handsome Russian nobleman (Mark Damon) arrives at the family cottage in time to learn about the wurdulak, witness Gorca’s return and fall in love with his lovely daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen) all in a few hours.
Gorca is disheveled, wounded and acting irrationally leaving his family unsure if he is human or vampire. The way he eyes them all up – especially his young grandson – is disturbing, but they give him a chance because he’s family. It won’t take long to know if that’s a wise decision.
Bava packs a lot into this 15-minute segment. It feels like we’re getting the best parts of a 90-minute horror film – all substance, no filler.
While we’re talking Bava and vampires, let’s finish with one more.
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In Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) we see the definition of a B-movie: bare-bones sets, weak special effects, low production values. The fact this sci-fi horror film also is directed by Bava seems odd. Then he hits us with some great imagery to remind us a master is behind the camera.
Two interplanetary ships respond to a distress call from the planet Aura and things quickly go wrong. Entering the planet’s atmosphere, crew members attack each other. On one ship, Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) is immune to this “temporary madness” and saves his crew. The other crew isn’t so lucky as the entire group is found dead.
Strange things continue on the planet. Bodies disappear, weird light orbs zing about, mysterious shadows appear and the bones of giant creatures are discovered.
Wait: a distress call, a strange planet, bones of giant creatures? Yes, there are similarities to Ridley Scott’s Alien, and they’ve been pointed out by film fans and critics for years.
One of those fans is actor Nicolas Winding Refn who was happy to make the point when he introduced the restored 4K version of Planet of the Vampires in Cinema Classics at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016.
“Planet of the Vampires is the film that Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon stole from to make Alien. We found the elements, we have the evidence tonight. This is the original,” he said.
Now, no one is saying Planet of the Vampires is anywhere near the quality of Scott’s masterpiece, just that there are similarities.
But don’t underestimate Bava’s directorial skills. Take the unsettling scene where men wrapped in clear plastic bags rise from the dead, like a vampire emerging from his coffin. You can feel them gasping for air – or something – as they rip the plastic that confines them.
Though these parasitic aliens don’t suck the blood out of your neck, they find other ways to drain the life from your body, turning you into their version of the undead.
It’s not Dracula or Black Sunday, but Planet of the Vampires is entertaining in that B-movie way. Plus it has the bonus of a Twilight Zone twist at the end.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.