Follow the bouncing ball
The march of Eurothrillers onto American DVD continues with this Mario Bava classic, originally known as Operazione Paura.
The opening of the film echoes Dracula, with a handsome young foreigner (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arriving by coach to a remote district of Transylvania, warned of a curse on the region by the coachman. The natives greet the stranger with fear and suspicion. However, it’s not a vampire that the stranger is there to meet — he’s the region’s coroner, Dr. Paul Eswai, and he’s there to assist the town’s police inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) and the burgomaster Herr Karl (Max Lawrence) investigate the mysterious death of a servant girl named Irena Hollander. The girl left a note hinting at the knowledge of a murder, but fell (or was pushed) to her death — impaled on a spiked fence — before she could tell any more.
The locals try to bury the body to prevent any examination, but Inspector Kruger stops them. A local nurse, Monica Shuftan (Erica Blanc), is called on to assist the doctor in his grisly work. The autopsy reveals a shocking clue: a gold coin buried in the victim’s heart.
The gravediggers attack the doctor in a dark alley, but they’re stopped at the command of the local sorceress Ruth (Fabienne Dali). The serving girl Nadine, who thinks she’s said too much, is haunted by a vision of a ghostly child. Ruth appears again to offer aid. It becomes evident that while the police have been searching for a flesh and blood cause behind the murder, Ruth is on the trail of a supernatural cause.
Paul attempts to get more information from Ruth, but can’t accept her explanations. He goes to the Villa following Kruger and meets the mysterious Baroness Graps (Gianni Vivaldi), but she says that the inspector never arrived. Later, he encounters a little girl, who says her name is Melissa, in the Villa’s hallways. What he does not realize is that little Melissa Graps has been dead for several years.
The spooky Villa and misty walled streets of the town employ familiar sets seen in other Italian productions, including the creepy spiral staircase, of which Bava makes excellent use.
When Monica sees the girl’s doll in her bed, and feels a presence outside her room, she becomes afraid that she may be marked as the next victim of the curse. She’s got competition — Nadine is in a fever of fear from the apparition, and is eventually driven to her death.
Paul finds Kruger shot dead in the cemetery, and when told of this, the burgomaster advises Paul to accept the supernatural explanation — that ten mysterious deaths in the village are the work of the vengeful ghost of Melissa Graps. Paul tries to reject this, but when he sees the ghost again — and when Karl is also driven to take his life — Paul attempts to rouse the villagers to defend themselves.
Bava’s visuals are a gothic masterpiece of light, shadow and color. Here he takes the neon look he devised for giallo thrillers like Blood and Black Lace and applies it to the textured 19th Century setting of Black Sunday. The chilling idea of a ghost child used here was to be widely copied, and even stolen outright, by such otherwise respectable films like Don’t Look Now and The Shining.
The cast includes many familiar faces from European genre pictures of the 1960s. Star Giacomo Rossi-Stuart was Vincent Price’s vampire enemy in The Last Man on Earth, fought blob monsters in Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, and appeared in many other pictures, sometimes billed as “Jack Stuart”. Lovely Erica Blanc would show up in Kiss Me Kill Me, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and the outrageous The Devil’s Nightmare. Piero Lulli was in dozens of Italian peplums and spaghetti Westerns.
This full frame presentation is marred by scratches and uneven fleshtones, but looks better than any previous video release of the film. The English dubbed soundtrack is flat and murky, despite being presented in 2 channel Dolby.
The disc includes trailers for Bird with the Crystal Plumage (presented widescreen), Blood and Black Lace (ditto), and The Night Visitor (full frame). The inappropriately knife-themed menu leads to a brief biography of Mario Bava, including a fairly complete filmography.
No doubt VCI’s heart is in the right place, but this relatively frill-free DVD is due to be made instantly superfluous once Elite Entertainment releases their long-awaited (and no doubt superior) version some time in the future. But until then, this disc will do fine.