La maschera del demonio (1960) / I tre volti della paura (1963)

La maschera del demonio (The Mask of the Demon, aka Black Sunday – 1960)

written by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei

from a story by Mario Bava

based on the novella Viy by Nikolai Gogol

directed by Mario Bava

I tre volti della paura (The Three Faces of Fear, aka Black Sabbath – 1963)

written by Marcello Fondato, Alberto Bevilacqua, and Mario Bava

directed by Mario Bava

In 17th-century Moldavia, witch Asa (Barbara Steele) and her lover Javutich (Arturo Dominici) are sentenced to death by her brother for practicing black magic. She vows revenge… just before getting a bronze mask with spikes hammered onto her face. It’s a brutal intro even by today’s standards, so I can’t imagine what audiences felt as they watched it 61 years ago. And so begins La maschera del demonio (English title: Black Sunday), the directorial debut of the “Master of Italian Horror” Mario Bava.

The witch Asa (Barbara Steele) comes back to life.

A couple of centuries later, Asa and Javutich awake to kill her brother’s descendants, which include Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani) and his children Constantine (Enrico Olivieri) and Katia (also played by Barbara Steele). Katia is, in fact, the spitting image of Asa… and as such, the perfect body to drain of its life force. Bava’s beginnings as a special effects technician, cameraman, and cinematographer were clearly instrumental to making La maschera del demonio such a gorgeous gothic nightmare, its high-contrast black-and-white photography (by Bava himself), elaborate shots, and lavish score (by Roberto Nicolosi) an auspicious kickoff to a prolific career. And to think this started as an attempt to cash in on the success of Dracula (1958), made a couple of years earlier.

Gorca (Boris Karloff) is watching you.

Three years later, Bava would helm another cult horror classic, I tre volti della paura (English title: Black Sabbath), an anthology film comprising three tales of creepy terror (it also gave the British rock band its name). If you know me, you probably know I love this stuff, from The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) to Creepshow (1982) and on to more recent stuff like Black Mirror. Scaring the bejeesus out of an audience in a short amount of time is no easy task, and here you can see Bava’s skills to the max.

The first segment, Il telefono (English title: The Telephone), takes place entirely in an apartment as a woman (Michèle Mercier) is stalked by a killer outside. In the third tale, La goccia d’aqua (English title: The Drop of Water), a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) steals a ring from a deceased medium and promptly gets a visit from her corpse. But the highlight here is the second story, I Wurdulak (English title: The Wurdulak), in which Boris Karloff plays Gorca, an old patriarch who’s been turned into a vampire. As Gorca starts to transform his family into bloodthirsty monsters, Bava’s unsettling compositions and eerie pacing creep under your skin like a bad dream. Serves me right for watching after midnight.

Mario Bava and Barbara Steele on the set of “La maschera del demonio.”

La maschera del demonio and I tre volti della paura are not perfect. The screenwriting could be tighter, and the dubbing makes the acting more wooden than it probably is already. There’s also some silliness to be found in all the rubber bats and fake horseback riding, but if you’re a fan of this type of low-budget fare, it only adds to the charm (the behind-the-scenes epilogue of I tre volti della paura is pretty awesome). Even though I was aware of Bava’s influence on so many of my favorite filmmakers – John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Joe Dante – as well as Italian horror-meisters Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, I had never really paid attention to his work. Big mistake. Next on my list are Terrore nello Spazio (1965), which apparently was a big influence on 1979’s Alien, and Ecologia del delitto (1971), one of the first slasher films. Stay tuned.

La maschera del demonio (1960) – Rating: ***

I tre volti della paura (1963) – Rating: ***

Carlos I. Cuevas