Not So Fresh From the Grave

Vintage horror flicks don't necessarily look better in retrospect.

BLACK SABBATH

BLACK SUNDAY

directed by Mario Bava

run Sept. 2026 at Grand Illusion

Should the notion of "influence" really be considered such a good thing in popular cinema? Since tongue-in-cheek spy successes like XXX and the Austin Powers series are so clearly informed by James Bond, the 007 assembly line enjoys alarming retrospective credibility. Swimfan can't help but make Fatal Attraction look like a lost Welles masterpiece, but isn't the reality that Attraction was no more than giddy, button-pushing pop trash?

Italian horror maestro Mario Bava's imprint is subtly pervasive today, 22 years after his death, and on better work than his own. Bava's brooding forays into the lurid and grotesque, a.k.a. gialli, were basically pulp fiction on celluloid. Yet Bava recognized that tiny, creepy fissures in everyday life—a blackout, a gust of wind, a low fog—could trigger an avalanche of macabre brutality, an idea not lost on George Romero, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, or Kevin Williamson. Few among Scream's new-school audience likely realized that its taunting telephone killer was an homage to "The Telephone," the first of three short chapters in Bava's 1963 anthology film Black Sabbath.

So we can still identify Bava's ghoulish spirit in contemporary slasher flicks and gorefests, but was his own horror work really that mortifying? In the early '60s, perhaps. But Sabbath and 1960's Black Sunday—which begin the Grand Illusion's four-week, eight-title Bava celebration—are products of an era just before vicious hard-R exploitation, an era when nudity and gore were largely off-camera phenomena. Despite these two films' subject matter (satanic possession, zombies, witchcraft, and human sacrifice), their stuffy romances between educated, overconfident protagonists and colorless damsels in distress resonate most today, a bad sign.

Sunday's far better alternative title, The Mask of Satan, says it all. Two obnoxious physicians unwittingly destroy a cross above the tomb of a centuries-old witch (the stunning Barbara Steele), letting her rise from the dead and systematically slaughter the descendants of her murderers. These slow-to-unfold real-time thrills pale in comparison to the prologue's application of the titular mask: The inside is all nails, and it's "secured" via mallet!

No similarly delightful cheap thrills surface in the psychological anxieties of Sabbath, although its zombie centerpiece, "The Wurdulak," is disquietingly akin to Sunday in terms of pure claustrophobia. In the finale, "A Drop of Water," a corpse repeatedly materializes in the apartment of the nurse who purloins its ring. The guilt trip echoes Bava's legacy: Steal from him all you like; he's still around, gazing eerily from the shadows.

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