In many older horror films, "atmosphere" is just a code word for "nothing ever happens." One would be hard-pressed to find a film with more genuine atmosphere than Black Sunday. Every scene is full of mood, and dread is everywhere. Gusty winds swirl and storms roil, while an oppressive mist hovers over everything. The film made a horror icon out of a previously unknown Barbara Steele.
Black Sunday puts the "black" in "black & white." There is no gray in this film, only black and more black. This movie looks richer in black and white than many films do in color. The film is very quiet, with a sparse soundtrack. The menacing silence is punctuated with otherworldly howls. An early scene features Romantic-era piano music that sets an elegant mood, but otherwise what little music exists consists of sinister clarinets that seem to rise from out of the ground and clutch at the characters.
Black Sunday is originally titled La maschera del demonio, and is based on Nikolai Gogol's "Vij." It is a very simple tale that begins with a centuries-earlier witch trial, and the infamous, iconic scene in which Steele, as Asa, has a mask hammered into her face. Cut to the 1800s, and two gentlemen traveling by carriage to Moscow pass through the area, which is now rumored to be haunted. The carriage loses a wheel, and the duo wander off and find Asa's tomb. The actions of Prof. Kruvajan, the older of the two, inadvertently revive Asa.
This is where many reviewers take the opportunity to get snarky, and point out the unlikelihood that someone would perform the exact sequence of events that would revive the witch. That's the wrong way to watch this movie: the odds of her being revived were 100%. There was a prophecy, and it's going to get fulfilled. Destiny weighs heavily over the film's characters, who are unlucky enough to get caught in its teeth.
While Asa begins to reassemble, the two emerge from the crypt to find the beautiful Princess Katja, also played by Steele, out walking her dogs. Prof. Gorobec hits it off instantly with Katja. Steele represents a big departure from previous actresses of the black and white era, as her quivering lips and heaving chest provide a sensuality that had not previously been seen in horror films. When Gorobec loosens the blouse of a fainted Katja, it's as though film itself is forever freed.
Asa gathers strength, then takes possession of Kruvajan. He enters the Vajda castle under the pretense of helping, but oversees the father's death, kills Katia's dogs, and warns Dr. Gorobec to leave. Gorobec is left to, with the assistance of a local priest, defeat the witch and her revived lover.
Black Sunday has long been regarded as a horror classic, and would make a great introduction for someone interested in learning more about the black and white era. The film's only major negative is its bad dubbing. It was policy for Italian films to dub their actors' English dialogue, but the actress who dubbed Steele's parts never sounds natural, and was not as good an actress as Steele herself.