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LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO
(THE MASK OF SATAN) (1960)
[aka Black Sunday aka The Demon’s Mask aka Revenge Of The Vampire aka House Of Fright aka Masque Du Demon]

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"In the blood of your sons, and the sons of their sons, I will continue to live, immortal! They will restore to me the life you now rob from me! I shall return to torment and destroy throughout the nights of time!"
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Director: Mario Bava

Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Arturo Dominici, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Enrico Olivieri, Tino Bianchi, Germana Dominici

Screenplay: Ennio de Concini, Mario Serandrei, Marcello Coscia and Mario Bava, based upon the story "The Vij" by Nikolai Gogol

Click here for the DVD Review

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Synopsis: In 17th century Moldavia, Princess Asa (Barbara Steele) is condemned to death for witchcraft by her brother, the Grand Inquisitor. Her confederate, Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici), has already been executed by having a spiked mask – the "Mask of Satan" – hammered onto his face; the same fate awaits Asa. As the executioners approach, Asa calls to Satan to place a curse upon her brother’s descendants, swearing that one day she will live again. The sentence is carried out…. As Asa’s body is taken to the fire to be burned, a tremendous rainstorm extinguishes the flames. Javutich is buried in unconsecrated ground, while Asa’s body is placed in her family’s crypt. Two hundred years later, Professor Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young colleague, Dr Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson), are travelling through the region on their way to a convention. Their coachman, frightened by the local legends, drives too fast and a wheel comes off the coach. As he fixes it, Kruvajan and Gorobec investigate a strange wailing noise. They find a ruined pipe organ the cause. Near to it, the door of a crypt bangs in the wind. The two men enter, and Kruvajan is excited to find Asa’s stone coffin, telling Gorobec that this is the "witch" of the legends, and that the glass plate in the lid of the coffin is so that she may see the cross over her tomb, and thus be kept in place. Hearing the coachman’s frightened calls, Gorobec goes outside to help him. Kruvajan inspects the tomb more closely, and suddenly is attacked by a giant bat. Kruvajan shoots it, then beats it to death with his cane, inadvertently striking and breaking the cross over Asa’s coffin. The falling pieces break the glass plate. Hearing the shot, Gorobec returns. He watches as Kruvajan reaches into the coffin, removing the Mask of Satan from Asa’s face. Her face is intact, but her eye sockets are empty. As Kruvajan lifts an icon of St George from the coffin, he cuts himself. Gorobec convinces him to leave the crypt. Outside, the two men are startled by the appearance of a beautiful woman, the Princess Katia (Barbara Steele). Gorobec is immediately smitten with her. The men apologise for their intrusion and leave. Inside the castle, Prince Vadja (Ivo Garrani) becomes frightened while contemplating a portrait of Asa, of whom Katia is the living image. Vadja reminds Katia and her brother, Constantine (Enrico Olivieri), that it is Black Sunday, the two hundredth anniversary of Asa’s execution. As the wind howls outside, the blood that Kruvajan shed in Asa’s tomb drips into her empty eye sockets. Her two hundred-year-old curse is invoked, and her resurrection begins….

Comments: Mario Bava’s solo directorial debut is a marvellous film that forms a stylistic bridge between the dreamlike, gothic, otherworldly Universal horrors of the thirties and forties, and the violent, sexually charged genre movies of the sixties and onwards. For the Bava fan, The Mask Of Satan is fascinating both for the director’s assurance and ingenuity, and for the extent to which the themes and motifs that would inform most of his subsequent horror films are already present. Here we have dysfunctional families; past sins erupting into the present; an equal fascination with, and fear of, the body, particularly the female body; an obsession with unnatural sexual relationships; and an objet d’art acting as a clue to a mystery. However, The Mask Of Satan is a film whose importance goes beyond the merely historical. Visually, this is one of the most striking horror films ever made. From beginning to end, the viewer is presented with set-piece after unforgettable set-piece. The execution of Asa, her awakening in her tomb, the innkeeper’s daughter’s nighttime walk, the resurrection of Javutich, his silent, slow-motion coachride---- The list goes on and on, and the experienced horror-watcher will have no trouble recognising the influence of these scenes and others upon many other movies. However, The Mask Of Satan stands alone for the sheer artistry with which all of this was created, and the visual beauty of the finished product. The exquisite set design by Giorgio Giovannini and Bava’s glorious black and white cinematography infuse the entire production with a fairytale-like quality that makes the film’s outbursts of violence (shocking in 1960, still disturbing today) all the more effective. If a criticism can be levelled at The Mask Of Satan, it is that its storyline and its acting are not strong enough to match its technical aspects. While such a comment has some validity, in the end the true interest of this film lies elsewhere. Frequently, horror movies are fascinating not just for what is going on upon their surface, but for their subtext; and this one has subtext to burn.

As with many of its brethren, The Mask Of Satan is underpinned by the fear of sex – more specifically, by a very male fear of female sexuality. This becomes evident from the opening scene of Asa’s execution, which is presided over by her own brother. We are left in no doubt that the beautiful and sensuous Asa was sexually active (consider the wonderful sexual symbolism of the secret passage behind Asa’s nude portrait), but the implication of the script goes further than this. Although it is not said explicitly, the co-dominance of the portraits of Asa and Javutich within the Vadja castle, and the Grand Inquisitor’s careful reference to himself as the "second-born son of Prince Vadja", make it fairly clear that Asa and Javutich were sister and brother. (And of course, by bringing about the execution of his siblings, this younger son both eliminates his co-heirs and puts himself in line to inherit the Vadja title. And all in the name of God. Am I the only one who feels some sympathy for Asa and Javutich here?) Thus, while Asa is variously stigmatised as a witch, a vampire and a demon, her real crime is clearly her "monstrous love" for Javutich. In this respect, it is intriguing to contemplate the association between Asa and Javutich once both have been revived. Whatever their relationship may have been in life, in death Javutich is nothing more than Asa’s servant. When he comes to her side in the tomb, he does not speak of "their" life, or what "they" will do, but only of Asa: that she will live again, that she will be immortal. The undead Asa is unquestionably the dominating force, and it is impossible to think that she was otherwise in life. Her execution therefore has the feeling of a vengeful extermination of something that could not otherwise be controlled. Given that she is executed through being fatally penetrated by the spiked "Mask of Satan", even Asa’s death has sexual overtones. (The influence of Hammer’s Dracula upon Italian horror films is well known. However, this influence may also have worked the other way. One of the minor characters in The Mask Of Satan is a no-nonsense priest very reminiscent of Andrew Kier in Dracula, Prince Of Darkness, while Asa’s execution foreshadows that film’s priestly staking of its female vampire.) Given this, it is entirely apt that, undead, Asa still controls her minions through sex. When turning Kruvajan into her slave, she does not vampirise him in the usual way, but instead draws the life and soul from him with a single, terrifying kiss.

The Mask Of Satan was, of course, the film that made Barbara Steele an instant horror superstar, much to her dismay. Her presence in European horror films is particularly interesting, considering how many of them are steeped in the various aspects of Catholicism, most obviously the Madonna/whore view of women. Steele may have been a reluctant icon, but no-one ever came close to her when it came to conveying the fear of duality that so often lies at the heart of the horror story. By managing through her sheer physical presence to represent simultaneously Madonna and whore, good and evil, demon and victim, Steele exploded the notion that women could be so simplistically categorised. (That she was so often used by her directors as an object of terror is sad but probably inevitable.) Her double role as the evil Asa and the innocent Katia cuts right to the core of her appeal as a horror star. When the film opens we do not immediately see Asa’s face. When she turns to the camera, it is an indelible image: those eyes, those cheekbones, those lips. We are given a good look at her beauty so that we know exactly what her brother, the Inquisitor, is destroying; and when Kruvajan later removes the Mask of Satan from her face, it is consequently a moment of undiluted horror. Asa’s resurrection is one of the most extraordinary sequences in the history of the horror film. As she reforms through the power of Kruvajan’s blood and, we feel, her sheer strength of will, she becomes a creature of both physical repugnance and erotic attraction. The viewer can look away from her no more than Kruvajan can, once Javutich has delivered him into her power. When Asa commands Kruvajan to "look into my eyes" he is helpless – and we know exactly how he feels. What follows is an image of more than just horror – rather, it is one suffused with blatant necrophilia: a close-up of Asa’s punctured face and the parting of her lips as she draws Kruvajan into a fatal kiss.

The magnitude of the threat facing the Vadja family, and Katia in particular, is now clear. The story then follows Asa’s servants, Javutich and Kruvajan, as they attempt to carry out Asa’s commands, and also the efforts of Andrej and Katia’s brother, Constantine, to protect Asa’s intended victim. It also follows the growing love between Katia and Andrej. Although visually as interesting as the rest of the film, these scenes do not always match the hypnotic power of those in which Asa is present – with one unforgettable exception. After an encounter with the undead Kruvajan, Andrej takes the icon that his former mentor removed from Asa’s tomb to the local priest, who is able to decipher its text. The priest finds therein the way of truly killing Asa and her followers: by staking them, not through the heart, traditionally, but through the eye. When the body of Kruvajan is found reposing in the opened grave of Javutich, this horrifying fate is indeed meted out to him (this scene, though unquestionably gross, is not as bad as various references to it as a "graphic eye-gouging" led me to anticipate!). Meanwhile, Javutich has delivered Katia to Asa, who proceeds, as with Kruvajan, not just to vampirise her, but to draw the girl’s very lifeforce into herself. (Witch, vampire, demon? Succubus seems to be the word they were looking for.) During these final scenes, The Mask Of Satan’s link with its horror film roots becomes most apparent. Being made at the beginning of the still-innocent sixties, rather than in the misanthropic seventies (or eighties…or nineties…or….), the conclusion of The Mask Of Satan sees the combination of the power of the Church and Andrej’s love for Katia proving too much for the resurrected Asa. As torch-bearing peasants descend upon the Castle Vadja, Andrej enters the family crypt and embraces what he thinks is Katia. About to dispose of Asa as he knows he must (this sequence has my favourite shot of Barbara Steele in the entire film, showing Asa’s now lovely face alight with unholy joy as Andrej prepares to destroy the woman he loves), he is stopped just in time by the sight of the cross about Katia’s neck. Realising his near-tragic error, Andrej hands Asa over to the priest and his followers. The burning of her body, thwarted by her invocation of Satan more than two hundred years earlier, is finally accomplished. And as Asa dies, Katia stirs – and The Mask Of Stan concludes with Good triumphant.

Or does it? In one sense at least, Asa has triumphed over the descendants of her persecutors. With the deaths of Prince Vadja and Constantine, the House of Vadja has effectively ceased to exist. And Asa’s victory may be greater than that – may in fact be the ultimate victory. When Andrej enters the crypt, he mistakes Asa for Katia; when Katia revives, her first movement is of her right hand, as was Asa’s; while the scene of Andrej leaning over Katia to kiss her is frighteningly reminiscent of Asa’s death-dealing kiss of Kruvajan. Although the evil that is Asa would seem to have been defeated by the end of the film, there is enough ambiguity in these scenes to allow the cynics in the audience (your author among them) to believe, if they wish, that Asa has achieved her vengeance after all. But whichever reading the viewer chooses to place upon these scenes, the underlying message of The Mask Of Satan remains the same: that the difference between an Asa and a Katia is far too slight for male comfort.