Home Video Hovel: Black Sunday (AIP Version), by David Bax
First off, just to be clear, Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday is not the full, uncut, eye-gouging, incest-suggesting European version. Kino already put that out on Blu-ray a little over two years ago. This is the U.S. version, released here by American International Pictures (AIP) with a bevy of changes. Kino’s artwork, cleverly, is just a cropped version of the cover of the previous release. Giallo purists may desire to steer clear but this version holds more than enough interest on its own while also being a revealing testament to Bava’s immense and undervalued talents.
Black Sunday is loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “Viy,” but expanded to include increased amounts of two of Bava’s favorite things, Satanism and vampires. Two doctors traveling the mid-1800s Russian countryside happen upon a ruined chapel containing a surprising well-preserved corpse. Nearby, a family of aristocrats includes a young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to the dead body. Both are played wonderfully by Barbara Steele. Through a bit of darkly mystical mumbo jumbo, the corpse comes to life and aims to drain the essence of her younger doppelganger in order to live anew, through witchy, satanic, vampiric means.
So much of Bava’s reputation is wrapped up in his use of color, it’s a pleasant surprise to discover he can be just as grand in black and white. A visual stylist first and foremost, he presents a gothic beauty that is rich and lush even without a full palette at his disposal. Both his interiors and exteriors are alluringly nightmarish in their production design and he photographs them (as his own cinematographer) with large pockets of darkness that don’t muddy the picture but rather add contour and texture. The term “painting with light” is often applied to cinematographers (it’s the name of famed D.P. John Alton’s book on the subject) but it’s rarely been more fitting than it is here.
AIP’s version cuts short the gruesome prologue, removes the plunging of a stake into an eyeball and drastically reduces the amount of time a body spends burning in a fireplace. These edits are abrupt and obvious but they’re far from the only changes. There’s a new score by Les Baxter that’s good and fitting for the material but done with a heavier hand the original. And a few varied sexual elements are removed, such as one of the doctors essentially making out with a dead body and the removal (via newly dubbed dialogue) of the sibling relationship between two vampires so as to skirt the uncomfortable topic of incest. That new dialogue also weirdly but hilariously changes “the joy and happiness of Hades” to “the joy and happiness of hating” for reasons beyond understanding.
These changes range from interesting to entertaining to confounding to frustrating but the what impresses is what they reveal about the director. Absent all the gore and the more outré subject matter, Black Sunday still kicks along at a devilish pace and overflows with eerie beauty. Even with the shock value that typifies his work removed, Bava remains a masterful filmmaker.
Special features include various trailers for Bava’s other films.