Thursday 4 July 2013

The Mask of Satan [1960]

THE MASK OF SATAN is an Italian gothic horror film that was directed by Mario Bava and originally released in August 1960 under the title La maschera del demonio.  It stars Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani and Arturo Dominici.  It is a tale of witches and warlocks, of terrible curses, of earthly love and of hatred that endures beyond the grave.

Although Riccardo Freda's I VAMPIRI [1957] is generally recognised as the first Italian horror talkie, and is a good film in its own right (see review elsewhere on this site), it was Bava's official d├ębut feature that really set the ball rolling.  Eschewing Freda's modern day horror Bava opted instead for a period setting, as Hammer had done so successfully with their recent adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein.  Again like Hammer, Bava laid on the gothic trappings with a trowel: castles, horse-drawn carriages, aristocrats up in the big house, rhubarbing locals in the tavern, you name it.  However, unlike Hammer, Bava really tested the boundaries in terms of gruesome visuals, to the extent that the film was cut significantly by foreign distributors, notably the Americans.

Barbara Steele taking her dogs for a walk down by the cemetery
As much as I love British horror films, I've always had the feeling that they soft-pedalled the horror, that they were usually held back by a sense of propriety or 'good taste'.  The horror or sadism, or indeed lust and desire, always had to be implied or understated.  Even in the 1970s when things were less uptight and Hammer felt able to introduce nudity into their films, it was always done in a very decorous way.  You never get that with Italian horror films, which are - for the most part - entirely unencumbered by piffling considerations such as decency.

The titular mask
The opening sequence of THE MASK OF SATAN is a good example.  We see a witch tied to a wooden frame, a spiked mask is hammered on to her face and she is burned at the stake.  No matter how many times you see it, it's a powerful and shocking sequence.  As if the mask itself were not sufficiently horrific, the sight of the executioner - masked and wielding an enormous hammer - and the realisation of what he's going to do is even worse.  

Bombardier Billy Wells was never like this
This is the point at which most horror films, and particularly the British ones, would cut away to perhaps a shadow image or an offscreen howl of pain.  Bava, however, not only shows you the hammer blow but also the immediate effect of it.  

What you can't see from this still is the blood pumping out of Asa's face.  Cor.
It's hard to imagine what a surprise that must have been to audiences of the day, unused to such graphic depictions of sadism and torture.  Imagine sitting in the cinema seeing that and wondering what - now the boundary had been redefined - what else the director might have in store for you. Wonderful.

Andrea Checchi (L) and John Richardson (R)
The rest of the film, while gorgeous to look at, doesn't really live up to the power of that first few minutes. On top of that the storytelling - never Bava's strongest suit - is slack to the extent that the film seems a lot longer than its 80-odd minutes.  The photography, set design and lighting are exemplary, and Bava peps things up as best he can with hidden passages, trapdoors, crumbling tombs, creepy forests, and even a mob armed with torches and pitchforks but despite a series of remarkable images and an at times overwhelming atmosphere of decay what you end up with is a less than gripping and, by now, fifty years on, really rather tired narrative.

The hand of the decaying but very much alive Javutich reaches out from the grave
Barbara Steele was of course one of the great scream queens of European horror and has been discussed many times on this site.  John Richardson, who plays the hero, Dr Andre Gorobec, was a handsome but wooden British actor who made a few desultory European genre movies and even a few in England, notably Hammer's SHE [1965] and ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. [1966].  Andrea Checchi, as the ill-fated Dr Kruvajan, was a significant figure in pre- and post-war Italian cinema and had such a long and prolific career that he was still acting well into the exploitation years.

John Richardson (L) and Ivo Garrani (R)
Ivo Garrani, who plays young Prince Vajda, is another legend of Italian cinema with a career of such longevity that it makes Checchi's look fly-by-night.  Garrani was in Pietro Francisci's HERCULES [1958] that I reviewed a few days ago, as well one of my all-time favourite films - Visconti's THE LEOPARD [1963].  He's still alive is Garrani, at the ripe old age of 89, and I can but hope that some enterprising young film fan is transcribing his memories as we speak.  

Arturo Dominici
Another veteran of HERCULES is Arturo Dominici who plays Asa's grotesque reanimated lover Javutich. Dominici is another Italian gothic horror that is, if anything, rather more satisfying than this one, namely Antonio Margheriti's CASTLE OF BLOOD / DANZA MACABRA [1964].  Margheriti wasn't as talented a stylist as Bava but he was a good pro who probably had a better grasp of narrative.  Dominici, if his credits are anything to go by, was more at home in peplums than horror, which may explain why he was less prolific from the mid-60s onwards.  Bava's father Eugenio made the fabulous masks and face-casts which litter the film.

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