Posts Tagged ‘barbara steele’

Black Sunday (1960)

black-sunday

Mario Bava is another one of those classic horror filmmakers whose work I have (unforgivably) managed to miss. Considered the grand-daddy of Italian giallo – and one of the most influential of Italian horror artists – Bava married Corman-esque gothic sensibilities with more extreme (for 1960) horror gore. Black Sunday was one of his biggest critical and popular successes, and remains a touchstone for horror filmmakers to this day.

Black Sunday features Barbara Steele as Asa Vajda, a beautiful vampire/witch sentenced to death by her own brother. Following the execution of her lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici), Asa vows vengeance on her brother’s descendants, right before a devil’s mask studded with spikes is pounded into her flesh (the original title of the film was The Mask of Satan). Two hundred years later, we meet the descendants of the cursed family: Katia (Steele again), her father Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri). They become acquainted with two traveling doctors who stumble upon Asa’s tomb one stormy afternoon. Investigating the crypt, the elder doctor Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) accidentally awakens Asa after cutting his hand and dripping blood on her corpse. This sets off a chain of events as Asa attempts to take back her life – and her beauty – while wreaking horrible vengeance on her descendants.

Black Sunday is very similar to a 60s Corman film, down to the involvement of Steele (who appeared in Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum one year later), the gothic trappings, and the use of more gruesome violence than we expect from a black and white horror movie. Corpses ooze pus and blood, masks are nailed into living flesh, and witches are burned alive. While the black and white takes away some of the impact, the chiaroscuro is so deep and pulsating that it makes up for the lack of lurid splashes of red and green. The opening execution in particular is perfect horror filmmaking, the camera unflinching in documenting all the nastiness. In some ways, Black Sunday more closely approximates the weird sadism of 18th and 19th Century sensationalist literature than do the more sanitized versions of Frankenstein and Dracula produced by Universal.

Black Sunday fits right into the context of the horror films made by Corman in America and Hammer Studios in England, becoming a precursor to the far nastier films made by Dario Argento and Bava himself. And it’s a good film, if read in that context. But, Black Sunday misses the key ingredient that Corman managed with his Poe adaptations by failing to hire even one competent male actor as a lead. Vincent Price made Corman’s films wild-eyed and palatable, chewing the scenery with such loving gusto that one wants to enjoy the luridness just as much as he does. Neither the romantic lead John Richardson, playing the young doctor Andre, nor the actors in the villainous roles are of any real note. Steele is the real draw here, but a girl can only do so much.

Black Sunday is a perfectly enjoyable horror film. Does it make much sense? No. Is the acting all that great? Not really. But there’s a reason it’s a classic.

Black Sunday is available to stream on Shudder.

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Piranha (1978)

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As a self-proclaimed Joe Dante fan, I am heartily ashamed that it took me this long to get around to seeing Piranha. The ridiculous 1978 Jaws rip-off, from a script by John Sayles, is nothing short of delirious monster movie fun that can only come to us from the loving camera of the director of The Howling and Gremlins.

Piranha opens with two teenagers making the unhygienic decision to skinny-dip in a government reservoir near Lost River Lake, surrounded by a massive fence and signs that say “Do Not Enter.” When the teenagers are consumed by underwater forces unknown and vanish without a trace, private insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) comes in to look for them. She buddies up with alcoholic curmudgeon Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) who lives in the mountains of Lost River, and together they hunt down the government facility where the teenagers went missing. Draining the reservoir to try and locate the bodies, the pair are set upon by Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), who provides the exposition: they’ve unwittingly released hyper-intelligent, weaponized piranha into the river.

Piranha is spectacularly ludicrous and knows it. Dr. Hoak gives an extensive explanation as to why he’s been weaponizing piranha at a secret government facility, itself just as ridiculous as the idea of creating a breed of carnivorous fish that can now organize themselves, outwit human beings, and survive in fresh and salt water. But while much time is spent on setting up the situation, even more is spent in the gleeful indulgence of B-movie mayhem. The piranha attack without mercy, ripping up fishermen, beach-goers, and innocent campers on their journey downriver. The violence is actually quite gory and very well-done – not exactly Jaws, but good enough to make me cringe quite a bit.

In addition to McCarthy, the film features the always welcome faces of Keenan Wynn and B-movie superstar Barbara Steele (providing probably the best final close-up of any monster movie…ever), as well as Dante’s usual character actors, including Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski. Because the film knows its status as a Jaws rip-off, Dante gets to indulge in subversive humor, weird secondary characters, and ripping on military authority with a loving glee. This is a movie about how amazing horror movies are, and how much fun they should be.

While Piranha is unlikely to replace The Howling in my affections, it comes in a pretty close second. It’s just good fun, right down to the cheesy one-liners and silly open-ending.