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Director/Cinematographer: Mario Bava
Story: Based on "The Vij," by Nicolai Gogol
Screenplay: Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei, and Mario Bava
Camera Operator: Ubaldo Terzano
Editing: Mario Serandrei
Music: Roberto Nicolosi (U.S. version re-scored by Les Baxter)
Main Players: Barbara Steele (Princess Asa / Princess Katia); Ivo Garrani (Prince Vaida); Andrea Checchi (Professor Kruveian); John Richardson (Dr. Andre Gorobec); Arturo Domincini (Javutich); Enrico Oliveri (Konstantin); Tino Bianchi (Ivan)
Alternate titles: The Mask of Satan, Mask of the Demon, Black Sunday, House of Fright, The Hour When Dracula Comes
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Princess Asa, a beautiful witch, is sentenced to death by her brother, the grand inquisitor. As the executioner ties her down to the stake, she swears vengeance. The executioner then positions a spike-lined metal mask over the girl's face. On the inquisitor's command, a hammer blow drives the mask into her flesh, killing Asa immediately. She is then interred in the Vaida family crypt in a coffin equipped with a window, through which the sign of the cross is visible. With the cross forever visible to her, it is said, she will never be able to return to life to carry out her vengeance.

Two hundred years later, Professor Kruveian and his young protégé, Dr. Gorobec, are travelling through the forest on their way to Moscow, when a whell on their carriage becomes damaged. Leaving the driver to repair the damage, they proceed to investigate an old ruined chapel, where they discover the witch's coffin. Kruveian is attacked by a large bat, and when he beats it to death with his cane, he accidentally smashes the stone cross which is positioned over the coffin's window. The fragments from the cross smash the glass, enabling Kruveian to pull away the witch's mask. Her face is sunken and decayed, but in remarkably preserved condition. Gorobec convinces the elder man to leave the crypt, but neither of them realize that some blood from the professor's hand, which was cut by the shattered glass, is already working to revive Asa.

Outside the chapel, the two doctors are startled by the entrance of Princess Katia, the daughter of the new Prince Vaida. Gorobec is immediately smitten by her. The sad, seemingly ixed expression she wears is mirrored by her dialogue. "My father refuses to fix even this old chapel," she says, "This place, in his eyes, is a curse."

Following this enconter, the men continue on their journey, stopping for the night at a small inn which is not far from the Vaida castle. At the castle, Prince Vaida is uneasy. He reminds his servant, Ivan, that this day marks the two hundredth anniversary of Asa's execution. On this same day, every one hundred years, mysterious events have transpired. The prince fears for Katia's safety, particularly since her resemblance to Asa seems to mark her for a very special fate. Ivan puts his master at ease, reminding him that so long as he wears a cross, no harm can befall him.

In the crypt, the witch completes her resurrection. Using her special powers, she calls her lover, the vampire Javutich, from his grave. The vampire rises from the earth and proceeds to act on Asa's instructions. He calls at the inn and fetches Dr. Kruveian, claiming that the prince has called for him. Upon his arrival at the castle, the doctor is led to a downstairs chamber. To his astonishment, the chamber connects to the old crypt, where he is summarily locked in. Kruveian's fear turns to sheer terror when Asa calls to him. The witch places him under his power, transforming him into a vampire who is doomed to carry out her orders. The first such task he is required to carry out is the death of Prince Vaida.

The next morning, Katia and her brother Konstantin are grief-stricken by their father's death. Yet he is not the only one to have died mysteriously: one of the family's servants is subsequently discovered, his body completely drained of blood.

Puzzled by the mysterious goings-on, and by the disappearance of Kruveian, Dr. Gorobec involves himself in the matter. Together with Konstantin, he sets out to discover the truth. At the same time, his infatuation with Katia blooms into a full-blown romance.

All of the talk of vampires excites Gorobec's curiosity, and so he seeks out the asistance of the parish priest. Assuring the young doctor that such creatures do exist, the priest accompanies Gorobec to the cemetery where Javutich is reputed to be buried. Finding a freshly dug grave, they open the coffin -- only to discover Kruveian. The priest puts Kruveian to rest by piercing his left eye with a piece of wood, while Gorobec hurries back to the castle.

Gorobec arrives at the castle and engages in a drawn-out fight with Javutich. Eventually the doctor dispatches his foe and makes his way to the crypt, only to find a horrifying sight: Asa has kidnapped Katia, and is in the process of draining her beauty and life force. He initially believes the witch's claims that Katia, whose appearance is now haggard due to the loss of blood, is the guilty party and prepares to stake her. At the last second, Gorobec notices that the "witch" is wearing Katia's cross. As it is impossible for an evil entity to wear a cross, he turns his attention to the real culprit. Peeling away Asa's robe, he sees that her body is still undeveloped -- a literal mass of rotting flesh and exposed bone. It is perhaps ironic that the witch who represents earthy sexuality should be exposed by her hideous body, but Bava is no doubt suggesting the ugly reality which lurks beneath beautiful surfaces. The priest arrives, accompanied by a mob of villagers, and they put the witch to death at the stake. As the witch dies, Katia's life energy and beauty are restored.


LA MASCHERA is, by anybody's standards, a stunning debut. Even mainstream critics seem to enjoy it. So strong is its continuing popularity that the concensus among fans is that it towers above any of Bava's later work. There is no denying that LA MASCHERA is a fine film, and an exquisite example of the gothic horror genre, but the story is routine -- even old-fashioned -- and the intensity which typifies Bava's finest work is not immediately evident.

LA MASCHERA is strongest in individual set-pieces: the ressurection of Javutich is brilliantly handled; the opening execution of Asa is strong even by today's standards; and so on. On the other hand, a subplot detailing the budding romance between Katian and Gorobec backfires totally -- consequently, the scenes between them tend to drag without really advancing the narrative. What the film does offer -- and what it must be praised for -- is the consistency of its vision: the surreal, shadowy mise-en-scènes created by Bava never fail to impress even the most unsympathetic viewers. Unlike many European directors of horror films and thrillers, Bava understood that consistency is the key to success in any film. A flatly shot gothic film with moments of visual intensity (cf. the films of Antonio Margheriti) does not qualify as a successful movie. The fact that Bava manages to make such a consistently satisfying visual experience in his first (solo) directorial outing is a testimony to his genius.

Bava's main innovation was to inject into this old-fashioned scenario some surprisingly blatant dollops of sex and violence. The British censors felt sufficiently offended by Asa's opening execution to bar it from release until 1968; to this day, the uncut edition (THE MASK OF SATAN) remains banned in the U.K. as a "video nasty." Bava's camera seems literally haunted by Barbara Steele's ethereal beauty, capturing her other-worldly persona from every conceivable angle. Other Italian shock-meisters tried to get similar results from the English actress in other films, but except from her memorable collaborations with Riccardo Freda (L'ORRIBILE SEGRETTO DEL DOTTORE HICHCOCK / THE TERROR OF DR. HICHCOCK, 1962, and LO SPETTRO / THE GHOST, 1963), Steele's subsequent horror films were picturesque but routine. The impact that LA MASCHERA had on the public cannot be underestimated, but Bava was hardly the first director to explore the emotional possibilities of brutal violence and sensuous, perverse sexuality. By 1960, the Hammer films of Terence Fisher had totally redefined the Gothic genre and other films, like CIRCUS OF HORRORS (British, 1959) and LES YEUX SANS VISAGE / EYES WITHOUT A FACE (French, 1959), had taken screen violence to previously unimagined extremes. Bava instead synthesizes the previous strains of horror (Germanic expressionism, Hammer-esque sensuality, bold violence) into a single unified form, adding to it a sensibility which is both distinctly Bavian and distinctly Italian.

Apart from defining the "look" that would become so important to Bava's style (truthfully, it is a look which developed during Bava's tenure as a cinematographer, notably in Freda's I VAMPIRI), the film also deals with some of the major themes that occur so obsessively in the director's subsequent work. The idea of the family unit torn apart from within, as it were, finds fuller expression in LISA E IL DIAVOLO (1972), LA FRUSTA E IL CORPO (1963), LA VENERE D'ILLE (1978), and others. Here it is a very important part of the scenario. Princess Asa curses her descendants out of pure spite. The conventional situation in films such as this is for the witch/warlock to curse the townspeople who had wronged him/her (cf. Roger Corman's THE HAUNTED PALACE, 1963, and John Moxey's HORROR HOTEL, 1960), but Bava narrows this convention down to an even smaller group: the family unit. Because of the curse that she places on her descendants, the family and its property gradually deteriorate over the years. Upon her final "return from the grave," Asa attempts to use her resemblance to Katia as a way of permanently re-entering the realm of the living. As she drains Katia's body (of blood, life, spirit, beauty, etc.), Asa becomes the prototypical, cannibalistic wicked stepmother who feeds off of her own children in order to replenish her own fading youth. The ties to Freda's I VAMPIRI are obvious, but Bava takes the idea even further. Asa's actions are made all the more perverse by her blood-ties to Katia. One of the established norms of society is the solidarity of the family unit: family members are supposed to look after each other in all situations. Not so with Bava, however. In this film, as in many others, the family is transformed into a kind of grotesque parody of the idealized image which typifies such "wholesome" television sitcoms as LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and THE BRADY BUNCH. The presence of one dissenter is enough to tear the entire unit apart. In this film, it is Asa's greed and recklessness which dooms her ancestors, in the same way that Kurt's moral bankruptcy and Carlo's sadism doom their own family units in, respectively, LA FRUSTA E IL CORPO and SCHOCK -- TRANSFERT SUSPENCE HYPNOS (1977).

Combined with the attraction/repulsion of sexuality and the deceptive nature of appearances -- both embodied most clearly in the characters of Katia and Asa, and their respective Italianette connotations of Madonna and Whore -- these ideas represent some of Bava's core thematic obsessions. Even at this stage in his career, Bava is already imbuing pulp-ish scenarios with a depth and maturity that is rare in commercial cinema. When dealing with a visually oriented director like Bava, there is a tendency to push thematic concerns into the background. Yet the consistency of so many key themes and ideas belies the argument that Bava was exclusively concerned with visuals at the expense of character and plot -- it is simply part of the director's game to develop plot, character, and theme in a highly coded way which defies conventional interpretation. Taking a conventional story and populating it with generally flat characters, Bava nevertheless works wonders, lending his films a stately dignity and poetry which is genuinely startling. This much can definitely be said of LA MASCHERA, for all its flaws, and it remains true of the films Bava continued to make for the next eighteen years.

Review © Troy Howarth

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