5 out of 5 stars

The Mask of Satan isn’t just one film. Upon its release six decades ago, it was condemned to box office death in the UK, banned by governmental decree. It appeared in another, trimmed-down incarnation across the Atlantic as Black Sunday, and spread through the rest of Europe as La Maschera del Demonio / Mask of the Demon. Eight years later, it was sneaked past the British censors and resurrected, in diminished and heavily cut form, as Revenge of the Vampire (1968).

My first viewing experience was in the early-1980s during the ‘video nasty’ craze when banned horror films were all the (out)rage. It was the American International Pictures cut of Black Sunday, so I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. At the time, I didn’t realise that version had changed much of the dialogue and re-scored the whole thing with unsympathetic music by Lex Baxter instead of the original, and superior, one by Mario Bava’s favoured composer, Roberto Nicolosi.

What I saw was a horror film that felt like a classic, with exquisite visual flair and possessed of a haunting quality of Gothic beauty. As was its leading lady. Barbara Steele lit up the screen in her feature debut. I fell under a spell and knew I wouldn’t rest easy until I’d seen the original version as the director intended. This was my introduction to the work of Mario Bava, the maestro of Italian horror.

It wasn’t until 1992 that this important film was reborn in its true form in the UK, when the full original version was passed, uncut, by the BBFC. It was granted a 15 certificate. How times had changed?

Back in the early-1960s, British cinemagoers were in recovery from an outbreak of gruesome and psychologically dark thrillers. There were the extensive torture scenes rife with brandings and hacking, tinged with sexual sadism, in Hammer’s The Stranglers of Bombay (1959), filmed in ‘Strangloscope’—still unsure what that was—and directed by Terence Fisher. Then came Michael Powell’s neo-giallo thriller Peeping Tom (1960), with its psycho-sexual serial killer plot lovingly shot in lurid, luscious Eastman Colour.

Remember, this is the same year that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) caused a furore with the censors, not only for the famous shower scene but for showing a woman wearing a bra and sharing a bed with a man she wasn’t married to. They weren’t at all sure about the cross-dressing murderous maniac, either—the cross-dressing being what they objected to! Oh, and also for being the first film to show a flushing toilet.

At the same time, European cinema had already begun to earn a rep for pushing the envelope with the French medical horror Eyes Without a Face (1960), directed by Georges Franju, and only given general release after being significantly trimmed and ridiculously retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr Faustus, for the USA.

The censors were still reeling from this backlash when they were presented with Bava’s Mask of Satan. The pre-title sequence, in its unadulterated form, is still harsh today. Now we’re used to such imagery from the countless horror homages it’s inspired, it’s impossible to experience the impression it must’ve made. Francis Ford Coppola cites it as a major touchstone for his take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), and Tim Burton admits he deliberately references it in Sleepy Hollow (1999)—maybe that’s why it’s my favourite of Burton’s films.

In the midst of the 17th-century, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is accused of something most heinous. Right from the start, even the director’s cut retains plenty of ambiguity and that’s one of the film’s many strengths. We can’t quite get a grasp on precisely what’s going on and this lends an absorbing, dream-like quality to many key scenes, except the opener which is decidedly nightmarish.

In the Italian version, I think she’s guilty of incestuous conduct with her brother, who also happens to be a self-confessed Satanist. In the dubbed version, it’s her brother who’s having her executed for consorting with the demonically possessed Igor Javutich.

I deduce that all three are siblings? Whatever! The hapless Asa is bound and branded with a big ‘S’ to mark her as one of Satan’s children. With flashing eyes and a scarily sensual sneer, she defiantly curses the descendants of the family and vows to return from hell for revenge.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, a bronze mask fashioned into a demonic visage, with cruel spikes inside, is hammered onto her face with a huge mallet. Presumably, this kills her whilst, at the same time, destroying the power of her beauty. Her scream is curtailed as blood spurts from the eyes and mouth of the mask. Then, she’s hoisted onto the traditional pyre of purifying fire. But before the flames have done their work, there’s a freak thunderous downpour that extinguishes them. The cowled cronies of the Inquisition flee in fear of what appears to be infernal intervention.

Yes, that was a bit more aggressive than the print I’d seen all those years earlier. As the flames die, the title appears over the background of the steaming mask, its dark eye sockets staring from the screen. Then we’re granted temporary respite from this fervent intensity, as the story jumps two centuries to the 1830s.

Young doctor Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) is travelling with his mentor Dr Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) to a medical convention when their carriage breaks a wheel on a gnarled tree branch. As their superstitious coachman (Mario Passante) attempts a roadside repair, the two doctors are led to the eerie ruins of a nearby church by strange, otherworldly singing…

It turns out to be the wind blowing through the pipes of the broken organ and that’s not the first time that something seems to be supernatural until a rational explanation is found. This blurring of the explainable with the inexplicable is a recurring motif through this and other works of Bava, particularly the equally seminal Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966). So, the singing is rationally accounted for, after all these are both men of science. Yet, Dr Kruvaian is compelled to explore further and enters the cobweb shrouded crypt below.

The vaulted set drips with Gothic atmosphere and we see it from his point of view, but then the camera does something that would become a Bava ‘trademark’. It frees itself and roams through 360 degrees. This shot celebrates the wonderful set design but also builds the illusion of a complete environment whilst emphasising its emptiness… except for a big stone sarcophagus that stands alone. This also leads the viewer into the virtual world of the film. It’s almost as if we’ve become an invisible, ghost in their world. We have entered the ‘dream’.

Bava gleaned much inspiration for his supernatural movies from his dreams. He’s commented that films are a way to express and confront his nightmares. Here’s a quote from a Spanish magazine, Terror Fantastic, I remember reading in David Pirie’s 1977 book, The Vampire Cinema, “My dreams are always horrible. There’s a character that continuously haunts me in my nightmares. He’s a musician that serenades his lover with a violin, strung with the nerves of his own arm…” Clearly, he was destined to be a director of horror films!

On closer inspection, Dr Kruvaian finds that this lonely coffin is most unusual. There’s a stone apostolic cross mounted on its top and a glass window that would allow the occupant a view of it, should they ever open their undead eyes. Hmm, a glass window with a hefty stone cross poised over it… what could possibly go wrong?

A big rubber bat, that’s what! Actually, although this is the weakest of the film’s otherwise superb mechanical effects, the said bat isn’t as bad as most—who can forget the incongruously unconvincing bat in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977)—perhaps a tribute? Bava only allows us fragmented glimpses and concentrates on its manically fluttering shadow as Kruvajan fends it off with his cane before emptying his revolver into it.

Of course, in the chaos, he’s managed to knock that stone cross through the coffin’s glass portal. What’s more, being a man of science, he thinks nothing of lifting the grotesque bronze mask off the face of the corpse for closer inspection. As he does, he inadvertently cuts his hand on a shard of the shattered glass and a bead of his blood drops into the black pit of the empty eye socket that’s revealed beneath.

Above ground they are met by a vision that pretty much defines gothic cinema. A tall, beautiful woman dressed in black, with great hair, is framed in one of the ruin’s high arches, poised regally with two impressive black hounds at her side.

It’s Barbara Steele again, so we’re wrong-footed into thinking that Asa the witch has instantly risen from the grave. But this is a duel role in which Steele plays two aspects of what can be read as the same woman. This is Katia, a descendent of Asa’s brother who, we’re told later, has been cursed with her ancestor’s beauty. Just as curiosity seduced the scientific mind of Kruvajan, so young Andrej is emotionally seduced by this vision of a feminine ideal.

A strange love story now unfolds as the undead Asa slowly harvest the power of the living, resurrects her paramour Igor Javutich and begins to take possession of Katia. As Katia begins to succumb to Asa’s influence, her behaviour changes. She becomes quickly indignant over small incidents, overreacting to things and casting aspersions onto those around her. But it’s not as clear cut as becoming increasingly evil.

She’s merely inconsistent and it’s unclear whether she has an inner propensity for evil just like her forbears, or whether she is an innocent. It’s as if she could go either way and I’m reminded of William Blake’s painting of The Good and Evil Angels battling to poses the soul of a child.

There’s also a suggestion that she’s replaying the emotional transitions that Asa went through centuries before as she was turned to the dark side not dissimilar to the treatment of Mina Harker (Winona Ryder) in Coppola’s Dracula. Maybe Asa was once a victim herself, seduced by evil because she didn’t find a true love to save her. This is an age-old theme of so many fairy tales—the curse that can be broken by true love. If you step back from the moments of horror, what you’re left with is pretty much a fairy tale. Will the young doctor, Andrej, be man enough to save her from cruel destiny?

Although it’s often placed into a lineage of Hammer and Corman-esque horror cinema, it’s more closely aligned with the work of Jean Cocteau. Its dreamy poeticism and reliance on ingenious in-camera effects only reinforce this notion. The story, too, owes as much to Cocteau’s classic La Belle et la Bête (1946) as it does to the short story that supposedly inspired it, Viy, written in 1835 by Russian author Nikolai Gogol.

The Mask of Satan retains hardly anything of Gogol’s story except for a witch who transforms into a younger, beautiful version of herself. Although the screenplay is credited to Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei, Bava continued to adapt it during production. This was a habit he became known for.

He rearranged the narrative and changed if into something less familiar and with a stronger sense of the uncanny. The initial intention was to make a straightforward vampire story following the same folklore template as Dracula. Bava changed his mind when he tried to shoot scenes involving the expected fake fangs. They just looked too silly and he feared they would free the audience from the spell he was weaving.

Fangs would bring too many preconceptions and provide a convenient hook to hang an explanation on. He wanted the viewers to feel uncertain, and hence uneasy, for longer. The final deciding factor was that the fangs either distorted Steele’s face or changed the way she used her features. He didn’t want anything to interfere with her incredible ability to transition from innocent beauty to feral snarl just by a tilt of the head.

It’s incredible what she’s capable of conveying with a flare of the nostrils, the bearing of her teeth, a widening of those big eyes, a shift in the lighting. Reputedly, it was this ability that allowed the young actress to get away with some increasingly wild and unprofessional behaviour during the six-week shoot of this, her first feature film.

When Bava decided to introduce the ambiguity between vampire, witch and demon, he felt he’d mixed a fresh cocktail of horror tropes that was even more disconcerting. He then carried this blurring of boundaries through the entire narrative. Really important plot points are hinted at rather than spelt out. Even ideas of Good and Evil are smudged.

Of all Bava films, it’s the one most often dismissed for pushing style over substance. Whilst I completely understand this view, I think it’s inaccurate. True, it’s a stylistic tour-de-force and an unfettered visual expression of a cinematic visionary, but there’s a strong argument that its rich and deep substance simply lies in the complex themes rather than a traditional narrative. Its story is close to many archetypal tales from folklore. You could say that it’s a traditional tale, not told traditionally. We move from one comfortingly familiar plot point to the next via disconcerting dream logic.

This is one of the key features that keeps the whole film interesting and enriches it with each repeat viewing. We’re constantly searching for a straightforward story that we never quite manage to grasp. This keeps our rational mind occupied while Bava sneaks past it to address our deeper subconscious, arousing more primal feelings, fears and desires.

He sends us back to a more childlike state when all we had to make sense of the scary world around us was imagination. This is the realm of fairy tales and ghost stories. The film’s imbued with an atmosphere that feels truly supernatural. Because as our rational mind still chases logical explanations that seem to just elude it, our subconscious mind is left free to engage more fully, sucking us deeper in. 

The film’s substance mainly lies in its discussions of some universal themes. These are disclosed rather poetically but are clearly there. The dissection of Catholicism and its concept of guilt and absolution are key. Like many Italians of his generation, Mario Bava grew up in a culture steeped in religion, perhaps more so than others…

Mario’s father, Eugenio, was also a hugely important filmmaker but was an artist before becoming a cameraman at the birth of cinema, graduating to being the cinematographer for the historical epic Quo Vardis (1913). He was an accomplished professional sculptor and specialised in carving the heads of saints for display in chapels. These practical abilities served him well and he pioneered many of the mechanical effects used during the silent era. Mario’s sister became a Mother Superior for a Catholic church. 

Mario called on his father’s sculpting skills to provide some of the marvellous make-up and mechanical effects here. He cast the now iconic bronze masks. He also made lifelike wax heads for several of the characters who must die horribly or come back to life. There are some unexpected uses of jelly and poached eggs involved!

Bava had followed in his father’ footsteps and had been a hard-working cameraman and cinematographer for years. His considerable technical prowess is showcased in this, his first film as the credited director after stepping in to complete several earlier films. He was offered the job partly in gratitude when he saved Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959) from failure after its director, Riccardo Freda, walked away from the project. So, although a debut, it’s immediately evident that The Mask of Satan comes from an experienced and cinematically literate director.

Mario grew up in a cityscape of ruins and churches. Rome already had the crumbling, ancient buildings that survived from the fallen empire, but these were added to during the war. Living through World War II must’ve raised profound questions about belief, the afterlife, resurrection and all those concepts key to Catholicism. Familiar places became ruins too and this imagery pervades his films where crumbling castles and destroyed churches abound.

In The Mask of Satan, religious symbols are seen to have a protective power against the supernatural. In keeping with established vampire iconography, the cross burns the flesh of evil beings. One character tells another that they will be protected by the power of Christ, embodied in the symbols of the church. In his case, this theory is disproved. But in others, it seems to work.

He seems to revel in this destruction of religious imagery, but is this an act of rebellion against his Catholic upbringing, a challenge to those ingrained beliefs? Or is this something that he finds genuinely upsetting and scary? He’s making a horror film after all! Removing these symbols of comfort is a bold first step to evoking a discomforting atmosphere.

The underlying message appears to be a positive one, though. Belief is the true power and a strong enough belief, in good or evil, is equally potent. Undeniably, the symbols of the church—in fact, churches themselves—fell before the evils of war, didn’t they? But belief survived and a strong belief in goodness is what has repeatedly redeemed humans, regardless of the symbols used to represent those varied beliefs.

Incidentally, ‘Bava’ is a Sri Lankan name for God.

In the US, Black Sunday was the most successful film that AIP had handled and they were quick to sign up Barbara Steele for Roger Corman’s next project, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961). This confirmed the young model from Birkenhead as the new ‘Queen of Horror’, a mantle she didn’t feel comfortable with until many years later.

John Richardson is probably most readily recognised for his later, starring roles in She (1965), as Tumak, the male lead opposite Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. (1966) and the lead in Vengeance of She (1968), all for Hammer Films.

Andrea Checchi had already enjoyed a long career in Italian films since the 1930s. His starring role for Michelangelo Antonioni in The Lady Without Camelias (1953) drew critical favour and 1960 was a busy year for him with five more roles in addition to Mask of Satan, the most noteworthy being Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). He was a close and long-standing friend of the Bavas and also appeared in Erik the Conqueror (1961) the following year. That was just the mid-point of a prolific career that spanned six decades.

The Mask of Satan was among the first few horror films to be made after the national ban imposed under Mussolini was relaxed. That’s one of the reasons why it seems to be a visual tribute to the genre classics that came from the Universal Studios of the 1930s—basically, no horror films made since then had been shown in Italy!

Mario Bava went onto direct another 26 notable features, among them such game-changers as violent Viking saga Erik the Conqueror; Black Sabbath (1963), another wonderfully inventive exercise in atmospherics; Kill, Baby …Kill!, for me one of his greatest; Blood and Black Lace (1964), which is cited as the first giallo; and Danger: Diabolik (1968), with an attractive, super-cool anti-hero. His influence is acknowledged by many respected directors and his legacy in Italian Horror cinema cannot be overemphasised. In turn, the influence of the Italian horror that followed cannot be understated.


frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Mario Bava.
writers: Ennio De Concini & Mario Serandrei (uncredited contributions by Mario Bava, Marcello Coscia & Dino De Palma; English translation by George Higgins III; based on the novella ‘Viy’ by Nikolai Gogol).
starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici & Enric Olivieri.