Mario Bava – The Road to Black Sunday

With the forthcoming screening of Mario Bava’s Le maschera del demonio AKA Black Sunday, this blog focuses on the early career of one of Euro Gothic cinema’s most influential filmmakers.

Born in San Remo, Liguira on 31 July 1914, Bava’s early life was centre around film and art. His father Eugenio Bava was a successful sculpture who worked as a cameraman and special effects photographer during the pioneering days of Italian silent cinema.

Mario himself was a talented painter who followed in his father’s footsteps into the film industry where he worked as assistant to the cinematographer Massino Terzano and also for his father in the special effects department at the Istituto Luce Studios.

Thanks to his artistic background, Bava had a strong sense of atmospheric visual composition that influenced his later work as director. becoming a cinematographer in 1939, he divided much of his early career between cinematography and special effects, working for the likes of Roberto Rosselini, Paolo Heusch and Raoul Walsh.

Bava’s directorial career more or less came by accident. He was cinematographer and special effects wizard on Riccardo Freda’s I vampiri (1957), the film that kick-started Italy’s post-war Gothic horror cycle. When the volatile Freda walked out halfway through the production, Bava took over the directorial duties and completed the film within a few days.

A similar situation occurred when Bava replaced Freda on Caltiki: The Immortal Monster (1959) and Jacques Tourneur on The Giant of Marathon (1959). He also co-directed, with Antonio Margheriti, Italy’s first science fiction film The Day the Sky Exploded (1958).

Up until then, Bava’s directoral work remained uncredited. All that was to change at the start of the new decade. Shortly after completing The Giant of Marathon, Nello Santi, head of Galatea Films, clearly impressed by Bava’s efficiency when replacing Tourneur and Freda at the last minute, offered him the choice of any film subject for his official directorial debut.

As an admirer of Russian literature, Bava adapted Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Viy for his forthcoming big screen project. Although the screenplay bore little resemblance to Gogol’s original, Bava retained elements of the story to create evocative and atmospheric visuals that was to become his trademark.

This production would be known as Black Sunday.

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