Two elements raise Black Sunday (1960) from a mediocre, black & white Italian horror film to an influential work attaining cult status.
The first – pacing. It sure isn’t the script, acting, sets, or lighting (although the lighting is often clever). Director Mario Bava lets a scene meander after its natural (genre-based) termination. He exploits our expectations.
Or else he cuts the action just as the steam starts rising… Or he lingers too long on minutiae. But it works. It’s as if the weird pacing instills Dr. Caligari camera angles. The impact is that unexpected visual timing energizes a mediocre plot and stock characters.
The second element? Unstable genres attributes. Black Sunday is made as a romance that thinks it’s a horror. Usually, it’s the other way around. This partially explains the offbeat pacing, which in turn raises tension. Gothic romance and gothic horror are close kin. When various elements of the genres are cross-pollinated, a lop-sided – in this case dark – ambience develops.
The plot? It’s 1630 in Moldavia and Asa Vajda and her lover, Javutich, are burnt at the stake for devil worship. The man behind the execution is Asa’s brother – an odd and unnecessary twist – but (again) strangely effective. Asa doesn’t go quietly into the good night, and like any self-respecting witch, puts a curse of vengeance on her brother’s descendants.
Two-hundred years later, Dr. Choma Kruvajan and his assistant, Dr. Andrej Gorobec, are stage-coaching through scenic Moldavia when they blow a tire – so to speak. They stroll about and happen to come across the tomb of the aforementioned Asa. Choma gets sloppy and inadvertently brings the witch back to life.
Let’s stop there. That’s enough plot. Think gothic. Moldy, wind-swept castles, fluttering cobwebs, a beautiful, pale woman dressed in a white gown walks in a trance through moon-lit forests. All standard for the genre.
But…this is a genre film that abandons what is expected of itself. Today, this strategy is commonplace (think Tarantino). But in 1960, it came as a surprise – in fact, it really was scary.