The Sorceress’ Revenge: The Witchy Legacy of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday
Witch trials and the murders that followed them are common fodder for horror and exploitation cinema, as discussed in the previous essay about the depiction of torture in witch films. However, at some point around the 1960s, filmmakers began shuffling the period-appropriate trials, tortures, and burnings to the beginnings of their stories, where they become the context for a witch or group of witches to take revenge on the future ancestors of their oppressors. There’s no point in being coy as to what pertinence witch hunts could possibly have during the ‘60s – the United States had endured years of McCarthyism, Hollywood blacklists, and the recontextualization of the term “witch-hunt.” The counterculture had upset the fantasy of post-WWII prosperity and Arthur Miller’s McCarthy-inspired The Crucible (1953) would saturate pop culture throughout the world.
Historical relevance aside, why are stories of witches exacting revenge on the descendants of the tyrants who killed them so common? It probably has something to do with the nearly universal phobia of one’s children being punished for their own sins. It helps that this idea is baked into the dogma of almost every popular religious text, but non-religious parents also live in terror of their kids being penalized for their crimes, be they unjustifiable witch burning or unbridled fossil fuel burning. Couple this with the fact that literal witch hunts and trials were quite embarrassing, historically speaking, for many cultures, often without the benefit of time or shifting social norms. The infamous Salem Witch Trials, for instance, humiliated the colonial Massachusetts region as they were occurring. On the whole and for many generations, humanity knew that these actions were wrong and even those who don’t see themselves as justifiable inheritors of sin still likely fear paying the price for the misdeeds of others.
Then there’s our habit of perceiving witches as women or at least representative of women and, because historical witch hunts were often at least inspired by chauvinistic beliefs and fears, the spirits of vengeful witches also exploit misogynistic anxiety. It seems likely that vengeful witches are such broadly appealing villain, because their femininity agitates collective sexism, their religious rites agitate Judeo-Christian belief structures, and their historical victimhood agitates our sense of justice (or at least decorum). As with Native American burial grounds or the often female spirits of Japanese ghost stories, the vengeance of witches is the vengeance of a marginalized group and, even if their victims are innocent, their retribution is righteous.
The earliest (surviving) example of a wronged witch reappearing several generations after her death in a feature film I could find was Roland af Hällström’s The Witch (Finnish: Noita palaa elämään, 1952), but that film is less about vengeance and more about confronting prejudice. In general, the cinematic trend of post-death feminine revenge has been reserved for ghost stories. Instead, the likely inception point is 1960 with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio; aka: The Mask of Satan and Revenge of the Vampire), which beat John Llewellyn Moxey’s The City of the Dead (aka: Horror Hotel) to theaters by about a month (though, to that film’s credit, it spans a much longer period of time between the witches’ death and the witches’ vengeance). Black Sunday stars the incomparable Barbara Steele in her first horror role – actually a dual role as 17th century Moldavian sorceress Asa Vajda and her 19th century ancestor Katia. In her time, Aja and her lover, Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici), are sentenced to death for witchcraft. Before a wrought iron spiked mask is hammered onto her face, she curses the sons and the sons of the sons of her killers and vows to return to continue her evil work. 200 years later, a medical doctor, Dr. Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi), and his assistant, Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson), are traveling through the region when their carriage breaks outside of Asa’s crypt. While investigating the tomb, Kruvajan cuts his hand and accidentally bleeds onto the countess’ corpse. Unbeknownst to the doctors, the accident revives Asa, freeing her to finally exact her vengeance.
Black Sunday’s influence was substantial, if not somewhat muted by the more immediate popularity of peplum (aka: sword & sandal) movies and spaghetti westerns. In turn, Bava’s inspirations and the manner in which he applied them became Italian horror mainstays for a period. The film is roughly based upon Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol novella Viy (Russian: Вий), which was originally published in volume one of the Mirgorod collection in 1835. My efforts to dig up the keystone of cinematic witch revenge may have yielded mediocre results, but its literary (not folkloristic) roots are certainly found in Viy. In 1919, way before Black Sunday, it was adapted as the first Russian horror film by Vasily Goncharov, but that version has, unfortunately, been lost, leaving Bava’s film as the earliest existing movie record. A second, Soviet-era Russian adaptation was made in 1967 by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov (it’s very good, we covered it in the latest podcast), followed by Đorđe Kadijević’s Serbian/Yugoslavian version, A Holy Place (Serbo-Croatian: Sveto mesto, 1990), another Russian adaptation, Oleg Fesenko’s The Witch (Russian: Vedma; aka: The Power of Fear, 2006), a Korean version, Park Jin-seong’s Evil Spirit ; VIY (Korean: Manyeoui kwan, 2008), yet another Russian version, Oleg Stepchenko’s Viy (aka: Forbidden Empire, 2014) starring British actor Jason Flemyng, and a sequel to that film called Viy 2: Journey to China (Russian: Вий 2; aka: Journey to China: The Mystery of Iron Mask, 2018), starring Flemyng, Rutger Hauer, Charles Dance, Jackie Chan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.. A short, four-page adaptation treatment of Viy developed by Bava can be read in its entirety in Tim Lucas’ Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (2007, Video Watchdog).
The true source of Italy’s affection for witch-based retribution probably isn’t Viy, though, or any strictly literary source. That genealogy appears to stretch into the realms of the region’s favorite entertainment pastime: opera. Giuseppe Verdi’s adaptation of Antonio García Gutiérrez’s 1836 play, El trovador, titled Il Trovatore (The Troubadour, premiere: 1853), to be precise. During the introductory act, a Romani woman is falsely accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Bereft of actual supernatural powers, with her dying breath she directs her daughter to avenge her. The daughter obliges, but, in her haste, accidentally throws her own child onto the pyre, instead the son of the nobleman she was meant to kill. She decides to secretly raise the nobleman's baby out of guilt. It doesn’t quite pack the same brutal punch as Bava’s strictly horror-based intergenerational curse, but versions of Il Trovatore’s prologue frequently appear throughout Italian cinema in the years before Black Sunday, beginning with Carmine Gallone’s 1949 musical adaptation of the Verdi opera.
While Bava experts prefer to remark on his homage to non-Italian sources, like Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Universal Studios horror movies, and French silent films, another likely influence was Guido Brignone’s Maciste in Hell (Italian: Maciste all'inferno, 1925). Maciste in Hell is among the oldest surviving Italian horror features and is basically a (then) modern retelling of the Inferno chapter of Dante’s Divine Comedy with popular strongman Maciste (portrayed by Bartolomeo Pagano and not yet the Greco-Roman Hercules figure he became during the ‘50s) replacing Dante’s self-insert narrator. Instead of simply observing the levels of Hell, Maciste occasionally beats the shit out of demons. In 1962, two years after Black Sunday was released, Riccardo Freda, who co-directed some of Bava’s earliest films, including I Vampiri (aka: The Devil's Commandment and Lust of the Vampire, 1957) and Caltiki the Immortal Monster (Italian: Caltiki il mostro immortale, 1959), directed a mostly in-name-only remake of Maciste in Hell. Freda’s version eventually morphs into a peplum-type horror show (similar to Bava’s own Hercules in the Haunted World [Italian: Ercole al centro della Terra, 1961]), but is, essentially a costume-drama-cum-witch-revenge movie that owes an enormous debt to both Black Sunday and Il Trovatore.
Retitled The Witch's Curse for its North American release, this Maciste in Hell opens with an unrepentant witch being burned at the stake for her crimes against humanity. As a priest passes sentence, she curses the citizens of the Scottish town that is judging her. One hundred years later, young women appear to have been driven mad by the curse and begin committing/attempting ritual suicide. Upon learning that one of the witch’s descendants, Martha (Vira Silenti), has returned, the townsfolk descend on the family castle and are about to hang the poor girl when a shirtless Maciste (Kirk Morris – his third time in the role) arrives on horseback to rescue her. Unfortunately, Martha is still damned by association to her ancestor, so the perfectly bronzed bodybuilder is forced to journey into the bowels of Hell to save her soul.
Bava’s contemporaries continued paying homage to Black Sunday throughout the rest of the ‘60s, but few made out as well as Barbara Steele, who created a little cottage industry for herself playing similarly wronged or evil women – some of whom had returned from the grave – in Gothic horror films. The most direct lineage to Bava’s work (and possibly Il Trovatore) was probably Antonio Margheriti’s The Long Hair of Death (Italian: I lunghi capelli della morte, 1964). It takes place in 15th century Europe and opens with the familiar scene of a supposed witch (Halina Zalewska) being burned at the stake and cursing her persecutors. Her surviving daughter is raised by her mother’s accusers and is forced to marry their murderous son. Concurrently, a deadly plague strikes the village and the family’s castle is haunted by the ghost of the witch’s eldest daughter (Steele).
Steele’s went on to portray a benevolent ghost trying to save others from vengeful spirits in Margheriti’s Castle of Blood (Italian: Danza Macabra, 1964), a fake vengeful spirit in Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), led her own cult in Vernon Sewell’s Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), flipped the roles for Domenico Massimo Pupillo’s Terror-Creatures from the Grave (Italian: 5 tombe per un medium; where a male necromancer returns from the grave to exact revenge on her), and played more dual roles in Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (Italian: Amanti d’oltretomba, 1965) and Camillo Mastrocinque’s An Angel for Satan (Italian: Un angelo per Satana, 1966).
Camillo Mastrocinque’s Terror in the Crypt (Italian: La cripta e l’incubo; aka: Crypt of the Vampire, 1964) arguably latched onto Black Sunday’s implied vampiric elements by replacing Steele’s Satanic witch with the reincarnation of a vengeful vampire. I say “arguably” because – in spite of a busy, yet rushed production (Margheriti was the intended director) that likely forced the filmmakers to draw inspiration from/rip-off recently popular titles, like Black Sunday and Hammer’s Dracula series – Terror in the Crypt is technically an adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 pre-Dracula sapphic vampire tale, Carmilla. Still, the credited screenwriters, Tonino Valerii and Ernesto Gastaldi, made enough changes to the original text that comparisons to Black Sunday are apt.
Michele Soavi’s The Church (Italian: La Chiesa; aka: Cathedral of Demons or Demon Cathedral, 1989) is perhaps the final word on Italian Gothic horror and posthumous witch revenge, though it approaches the concept through a cacophonous prism of surrealism, Catholic guilt, ‘80s pop culture, M.R. James’ short story The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (original published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904), and the ideas of no fewer than seven credited screenwriters. Originally intended as the third entry in the Dario Argento-produced, Lamberto (son of Mario) Bava-directed Demons series (including Demons [Italian: Dèmoni, 1985] and Demons 2 [Italian: Dèmoni 2, 1986]), The Church begins in medieval Germany, when a conroi of Teutonic Knights massacre a village of accused Satanists. When they’re finished, the crusaders bury the bodies in a mass grave, consummate the ground with a giant cross, and erect a Gothic cathedral. Several centuries later, a young priest (Hugh Quarshie), the church’s librarian (Tomas Arana), and restoration expert (Barbara Cupisti) stumble upon the intricate mechanisms meant to destroy the church if the spirits of the murdered villagers ever escaped. What’s particularly unique about The Church is that the supposed witch cult is never seen doing anything evil. They are epitomized mostly as young women and children in the flashbacks and never invoke any curses against the knights. The entities that later possess the church’s visitors are undoubtedly demonic, but Soavi seems to be indicating that the mayhem is the righteous retribution of wrongfully brutalized members of a non-Catholic religious order. (We also covered The Church on the podcast)
Black Sunday is available on RA Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in separate US and Italian cut discs. Both cuts are available together on Arrow’s RB/2 BD/DVD combo pack. It is also currently streaming on Shudder and Fandor. Maciste in Hell’s US release cut, The Witch’s Curse, appears to be public domain. It is available on budget label DVD and is streaming on YouTube. The City of the Dead is also in the public domain and can be seen on Youtube and Fandor. Remastered versions are available on Blu-ray via VCI in RA and Arrow in RB. The 1967 version of Viy is not in the public domain, but is also currently unavailable on North American home video, so I feel safe recommending the subtitled and dubbed versions that can be found YouTube. The Long Hair of Death is available on RA BD from Raro and RB BD from 88 Films. Terror in the Crypt is OOP on DVD, but appears to be grey market streaming on YouTube. The Church is pretty easily found on Blue Underground DVD, but was also released as standard and limited editions from Scorpion Releasing.
Italian Gothic Horror Films (1957-1969) by Roberto Curti (2015, McFarland & Company, Inc.)
Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark by Tim Lucas (2007, Video Watchdog)
Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby by Lucy Fischer; published in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant (1996, University of Texas Press)
Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film from the 1950s to the 21st Century by Charles Derry (2009, McFarland & Company)