Our sister site Hollywood Gothique has just posted a music video of a cover version of “Gothic Girl.” Originally recorded by The 69 Eyes, the song has been revamped into a tribute to actress Barbara Steele, who starred in such wonderfully atmospheric Gothic horror movies in the 1960s as BLACK SUNDAY, CASTLE OF BLOOD, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, and AN ANGEL FOR SATAN.
In Cinefantastique’s final Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast of 2013, Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski wrestle with the trailer for LEGEND OF HERCULES, travel to the end of Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor, examine the current slate of home video releases for Tuesday, December 31, and explore the public domain horrors of NIGHTMARE CASTLE (a.k.a. AMANTI DOLTRATOMBA [“Lovers from Beyond the Tomb”]), a 1965 Gothic chiller starring Queen of Horror Barbara Steele. The highlight is a review of TIME OF THE DOCTOR, in which Matt Smith winds up his tenure as the famous Time Lord and turns the TARDIS over to Peter Capaldi. Is it a worthwhile farewell or simply a gimmicky geek lovefest? Listen in to find out!
Along with DEATH RACE 2000, this fun-filled exploitation horror film from 1978 is one of the great achievements to emerge from New World Pictures, a low-budget company that Roger Corman created after giving up hands-on directing to become an executive. New World churned out enjoyable exploitation fare for drive-in theatres and multiplexes in the 1970s, in the process serving as an apprenticeship for future Oscar-winners like Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme. Among the budding young talent at New World were director Joe Dante, screenwriter Jonathan Sayles, and producer Jon Davison, whose combined talents turned PIRANHA into that rarest of rarities: a rip-off that surpasses its inspiration. Conceived as a way to cash in on JAWS 2 (which was released the same year), the independently produced PIRANHA bested its big-budget studio rival in entertainment value if not production value. PIRANHA is fas-paced, scary, and witty – with a pleasant awareness of its own subsidiary position that invites us to sit back and enjoy it for what it is: a low-budget, jokey variation on a blockbuster hit. PIRANHA begins with a back-packing coule trespassing onto an old military research center, where they are killed by something in a tank/pool. Skip tracer Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) traces the missing persons with the help of local drunk Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman). Searching for the bodies, Maggie drains the tank, inadvertently unleashing the piranha of the title. Unfortunately, these fish have been scientifically engineered to survive in environments (such as cold water and salt water) that are unlike their natural tropical climate; also, they are smart enough to find their way through the winding tributaries that lead down river to the ocean. The rest of the film becomes a race as Maggie and Paul try to head off the piranha before they reach open water; along the way, there is a children’s summer camp and a new resort, financed by an insider (a general privy to the military project), who is eager to protect his investment by keeping the news of the piranha quiet.
Structuring the story as a race down stream is a clever touch that lends an energetic forward momentum totally missing from the miserable 3-D remake. With only occasional pauses when our heroes are captured or incarcerated, the original PIRANHA seems to rush breathlessly to each new set-piece, including the summer camp sequence (which borders on bad taste by putting children in jeopardy) and culminating in the attack on the resort, which serves up the requisite R-rated carnage, including gallons of gore.
In retrospect, what startles the most about PIRANHA is the unexpected humanity. Sayles’ script defies genre expectations by loading the film with clever dialogue and likable characters. Time is spent setting up the victims in such a way that the correct buttons are pushed to make you laugh, cry, or cheer when the fateful moment arrives. Particularly memorable is a doomed camp counselor who vaguely senses an ill-wind blowing her direction: the underwater shot of her sinking into darkness almost leaps off the screen in its effectiveness; it’s all the more startling because, in a slasher movie, this quiet introspective character would be the “final girl” who survives to see the closing credits role. There is a nice variety to the approach. Mr. Dumont, the head of the camp (played by Paul Bartel, who directed DEATH RACE 2000), is a jerk but he is not painted as a complete asshole. When this comic relief character is presented with the results of ignoring a warning that could have prevented disaster, the effect is tragic rather than smug in an “I told you so” kind of way, and the film shows admirable restraint in allowing the character to suffer his moment of guilt in silence instead of having the hero punch him out.
Of course, Sayles knows the satisfaction value of setting up someone who deserves what he gets, and also of having someone who pays for his sins but goes out on a note of redemption. SPOILER. In the former case, a general figuratively goes down with the ship, his hat sinking to the riverbed as we cheer. In the later case, Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) pays big time for being the scientist responsible for the piranha program, suffering one of cinema’s great melodramatic deaths. It’s a moment both expected and unexpected: you know the guy has got to go, but you are surprised to care when it happens. (I stand in a small minority, possibly of one, in finding this moment more convincing and touching than Alec Guiness’s last-minute change of heart in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.) END SPOILER.
Joe Dante serves the action up with a knowing wink. He expects us to recognize McCarthy and Barbara Steele (as another scientist) for their genre associations, inviting us to see PIRANHA a a movie-movie. He introduces Maggie playing a Jaws arcade game and has an anonymous woman reading Moby Dick on the beach – reminding us that, although PIRANHA may be a rip-off of JAWS, JAWS itself was hardy a complete original. Fortunately, the tongue-in-cheek approach never diminishes the thrills;l the requisite car chases and explosions are delivered with a gusto that belies the modest budget. There is even some genuine suspense when the film leaves the pyrotechnics behind for the finale, with Grogan descending underwater to open a valve that will hopefully poison the fish – a scene that almost literally invites you to hold your breath as you wonder whether the character (attached to a boat by a tow line) will be pulled to safety before he drowns, or before the piranha get to him. The carnage consists mostly of Karo syrup, with a minimum of prosthetics, although there is a brief gruesome cut of a severed head-and-torso floating in the water. Instead, Dante builds tension through editing, carefully building to his shock effects. This style of montage is in the best tradition of Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian filmmaker and theorist who literally wrote the book on the subject, and it is fun to see this meticulous craftsmanship lavished on a little horror movie. The special effects are relatively primitive: some models, puppets, a brief bit of ell animation. There is even a cute stop-motion creature glimpsed lurking in Hoak’s laboratory – a throw-away included just for the fun of it. The approach works, because physical models are better suited to simulating the inexpressive scaliness of live fish (as opposed to the hyperactive CGI creations of the remake). Also, the live, underwater photography creates a believable ambiance missing from pristine CGI: real water is murky when stirred up, especially when laced with blood. The blurry shots of multiple fish – quickly intercut as they attack – are, more often than not, convincing in their abruptness.
Menzies and Dillman make a good on-screen couple, and it’s good to see that the film never reduces her character to a damsel in distress. Dick Miller is a hoot as Buck Gardner, the corrupt businessman in league with the general; Buck’s exasperated reaction to unwanted news about the piranha leads to the film’s best line, as his assistant uncomfortably informs him: “The piranha…they’re eating the guests.”
There is a nice post-Watergate, post-Vietnam vibe to the back story. Sure, we need an excuse for the Piranha, but this element does not feel like an arbitrary explanation; it carries weight as the kind of heavy-handed, melodramatic statement that an exploitation film can pull off, because who expects subtlety in a movie titled PIRANHA?
TELEVISION & SPIN-OFFS
On network television, PIRANHA took a slightly different form. Most of the R-rated gore was removed, and several dialogue scenes were reinstated. The changes are not improvements, but there is one interesting comic bit that allows Paul Bartel and Dick Miller to share a scene together, as the camp counselor wanders into the background of a commercial that Buck Gardner is filming to promote the opening of his resort.
PIRANHA spawned a sequel, PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING, which marked James Cameron’s feature-film directing debut. There was also a remake for Showtime television, which omitted the humor but recycled the effects footage. And of course now there is a remake, PIRANHA 3D, directed by Alexandre Aja, about which the less said the better.
DVD AND BLU-RAY DETAILS
PIRANHA was issued in a special edition DVD by new Concorde in 1999. This disc included a full-frame transfer (which looks reasonably good when expanded to fill a widescreen television). Extras included a trailer, a blooper real, behind-the-scenes home movies (with audio commentary), and a feature-length commentary track from director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison.
On August 3, 2010, Shout Factory re-issued PIRANHA on DVD and Blu-ray. The discs featured a new widescreen transfer. The old bonus features were ported over, and new ones were added: a making-of featurette, stills and poster galleries, radio and television spots, and footage from the Network Television version.
PIRANHA proves that low-budget does not have to mean low-ambition or low-quality. It is not just a good exploitation movie or a good camp movie or a good schlock movie. It’s a good movie, period, thanks to a clever script, lively performances, and solid craftsmanship. As crazy as it may sound, I actually prefer this upstart little film to its more famous progenitor: the rest of the world can sing hymns of praise to JAWS; I’ll stick to PIRANHA. PIRANHA (1978). Directed by Joe Dante. Written by John Sayles, story by Sayles and Richard Robinson. Cast: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas Scott, Bruce Gordon, Barry Brown, Paul Bartel, Shannon Collins.
No new genre films hit theatres this weekend, but fear not: Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski once again rev of the time machine and take you five decades into the past, for a look at one of the greatest horror films of all time, director Mario Bava’s masterpiece of black-and-white Gothic horror, BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN, 1960), starring the Queen of Horror, Barbara Steele. It’s all part of Cinefantastique’s on-going celebration of 1960’s Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films. Also on the menu: a weekly round-up of news, upcoming events, and home video releases.
Widely regarded by fans as a genre masterpiece, BLACK SUNDAY is a magnificent work of black-and-white horror, filled with wonderfully atmospheric effects and punctuated by moments of brutality quite grizzly for their time. Also known as “The Mask of Satan,” “Mask of the Demon,” or “Revenge of the Vampire” (depending on the country of release), the film simultaneously harkins back to the Universal classics of the 1930s and emulates the then-contemporary verve and dynamism of Hammer Films productions like HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). The result is a unique piece of Gothic visual poetry that retains its power to thrill and entertain with all the tenacious vivacity of its centuries-dead vampire-witch, who refuses to lie quietly in her grave.
In 17th century Moldavia, Princess Asa (Barbara Steele), along with her servant Igor Yavutich (Arturo Dominici), is sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft—by having a spiked mask nailed onto her face. Two hundred years later, Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) and Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) stumble into her crypt when their coach breaks down on the way to a convention. Kruvajan cuts his hand while defending himself from a bat. On their way out, they meet Asa’s descendant, Princess Katia (also Steele), whose father (Ivo Garrani) lives in fear that the witch’s curse will claim the life of his daughter.
Later that night, Kruvajan’s blood revives Asa. Now an undead but immobile vampire, Asa summons Yavutich from the grave; her servant lures Kruvajan back to the crypt, where Asa drains the rest of his blood. Sought to help Katia’s ailing father, the vampirized Kruvajan kills him instead, then disappears.
Dr. Gorobec, who has fallen in love with the young princess, offers to clear up the mystery, with the help of a local priest (Antonio Pierfederici). They trace Kruvajan to the cemetery and destroy him by driving a wooden stake through his eye. Meanwhile, Yavutich has abducted Katia, bringing her to Asa’s tomb, where the vampire-witch drains off her lifeforce—the last ingredient she needs to become fully mobile. Returning to the crypt, Gorobec almost stakes the unconscious Katia—until he sees the cross around her neck. When the priest arrives with a throng of villagers, Gorobec uses the cross to reveal Asa’s true identity. The mob burns her at the stake; as she dies, her lifeforce drains back into Katia, reviving her for the happy ending.
The script, loosely based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol called “The Vij,” has a plot hole or two; for example, why does Asa need Katia’s life-force to become mobile, while Yavutich is fully functional from the beginning? Fortunately, the carefully crafted mise-en-scene sweeps away any reservations, providing numerous memorable images: the stone coffin that explodes to reveal Asa’s revived body; the pockmarked face of the witch after the spiked Mask of Satan has been removed; the eerie, slow-motion coach ride, with secondary vampire Igor Javutich lashing the horses forward (an obvious visual quote from DRACULA’s coach ride, yet in many ways superior). Director Mario Bava (who also photographed) uses trick photography and lighting effects to create a stark Gothic atmosphere, then injects decidedly adult elements of violence and eroticism. More than anything, the film is an exercise in visual style, demonstrating that camera movement, composition, and lighting can combine to create a splendidly cinematic work that far outshines any narrative weaknesses.
To a large extent, BLACK SUNDAY’s reputation rests on the convergence of two cult figures: Mario Bava and Barbara Steele. Bava was a talented cinematographer making his directorial debut, and Steele was a British actress who had moved to Italy after a career in Hollywood failed to work out. Bava went on to become a prolific director of horror, science fiction and fantasy films, and Steele became the reigning Queen of Horror (at least in Italy)—the closest cinema has ever produced to a distaff version of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee.
At the time BLACK SUNDAY was shot in late 1959 (under the title La Maschera Del Demonioin Italy), the traditional horror film had only recently come back in vogue after a decade dominated by science fiction monster movies. Having completed two films left unfinished by director Ricardo Freda, I VAMPIRI (1956) and CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (1959), Bava finally was given an opportunity to direct an entire feature film by himself when CALTIKI’s executive producer, Lionello Santi, showed his appreciation by offering Bava his choice of projects. Bava selected Nikolai Gogol’s “The Vij,” which was then adapted into a screenplay by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei. About the only story element that survives in the film is the concept of a beautiful vampire-witch who emerges explosively from her coffin.
For the dual role of Asa/Katia, Bava selected British actress Barbara Steele, who had previously appeared with her co-star John Richardson in BACHELOR OF HEARTS (1958) while the two were under contract with J. Arthur Rank Productions in England. “It’s very odd that we both ended up being in the film,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why I was there. I had a little spread in Life magazine, and I think Mario Bava saw one of these photos. Anyway, he invited me to go to Rome, where I’d never been, and I must say I’ve never recovered. It’s a very small city, but it had such an optimistic and rich energy. It was an incredibly vibrant and voluptuous period: sunshine and jasmine and gorgeous men! So it was like a love fest really—especially coming from a repressed English environment.”
No doubt part of the reason for the casting decision was the Italian film industry’s concern with international market appeal. The casting of British actors in the leads would make his film seem more in the vein of recent Hammer productions like HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). And of course, shooting the film in English would make it easier to export to the United Kingdom and the United States. As Clint Eastwood would later do in his Westerns for director Sergio Leone, both Steele and Richardson spoke English while filming an Italian movie in Italy—a fact that is clearly visible when watching the film, even though both actors (unlike Eastwood) have been dubbed with other voices.
The Galatea-Jolly production then shot on the Titanus Studios in Rome, where Freda and Bava had worked on I VAMPIRI. “It was strange to go from this incredible Italian energy to this very dark, tomb-like set—which was totally monochromatic,” Steele recalls. “It’s supposed to take place in Russia, because it’s taken from a story by Gogol, but I must say, the film feels incredibly Nordic. It was very familiar, this landscape Mario Bava drew, because it reminded me of where I grew up in Scotland and Wales, a wild Gothic environment with wild storms. Looking at it, it’s just impossible to imagine that this film was shot in Italy! It’s extraordinary. It’s just inspired, really.”
Bava exploited Steele’s physique for the remarkable scene wherein the prostrate Asa seduces Kruvajan, her chest heaving erotically beneath her black gown while her voice urges him to approach. “They were so frantic that people wouldn’t notice,” she laughs. “I mean, I hadn’t had to breathe like that since I saw the doctor when I was five: Inhale! Exhale!”
Once filming was completed, different versions were prepared in the editing room for domestic release and for export. The Italian language prints contain one scene not present in any other version, a brief dialogue between Katia and her father by a fountain, wherein he expresses concern for her state of mind and promises to take her away from the family’s gloomy ancestral castle. Apparently, the dialogue is a remnant from an earlier script draft that was dropped from other cuts of the picture because it no longer fit; in the Italian version, this daylight scene is awkwardly intercut with the nighttime sequence of Igor Javutich’s resurrection!
An “international” version of THE MASK OF SATAN (as it was called) was then completed for export to English-speaking territories like the U.S. and England, with dubbing credited to George Higgens III. As was often the case in Italian film from this period, the original actors had their voices replaced even in their own language; neither Steele nor Richardson can be heard in any version. “The dubbing ended up as a plus for him and a minus for me, because in actual fact he has a much lighter voice,” says Steele of her co-star. “The deeper voice gave him a great presence, I thought.” Fortunately, the dubbing process could dim but not destroy the effectiveness of Bava’s visuals. The international version of MASK OF THE DEMON was eventually released in Britain in 1968 under the title REVENGE OF THE VAMPIRE. Prior to that, Americans saw a slightly different version in 1961, when American International Pictures released the film as BLACK SUNDAY. AIP co-founders Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson had seen the film in an Italian screening room during the spring of 1960. Arkoff thought it was “one of the best horror pictures I had ever seen.”2 Nevertheless, AIP edited, redubbed, and rescored the film for its U.S. release. It is a testament both to the power of Bava’s original film and to AIP’s handling of the American release MASK OF THE DEMON survived its transformation in BLACK SUNDAY. The U.S. version is not a complete hatchet job but a reasonably careful revision that removes a few sentimental moments, improves the lip synchronization of the vocal performances, and substitutes new music by the late ultra-lounge composer Les Baxter. The most serious flaw is an overabundance of caution that led to the trimming of several crucial moments of horror.
The result was fairly effective. The new dialogue actually follows the original English-language script more closely, and the voices are relatively indistinguishable from those in the international version—except for that of Constantine, Katia’s younger brother, who now speaks with the unmistakable voice of Peter Fernandez, who later dubbed the title character in the Japanese animated series SPEED RACER. Baxter’s score is too insistent upon emphasizing the suspenseful moments, but his romantic theme for Katia is a bit more subtle than Roberto Nicolosi’s: while using a similar arrangement of piano and strings, Baxter tones down the excess, with a few simple chords on the keyboard creating a suspended feeling somewhat less hokey than the original.4
The result became a big success not only in the United States but also around the world, and helped raise interest in releasing subsequent Italian horror efforts. “I don’t know who it made money for,” says Steele. “All I know is that several years ago I was in a screening room watching a private screening, and some distributor came up to me and said, ‘I just adore you.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘We distributed BLACK SUNDAY in England, and it made eight to ten million dollars.’”
Despite its success, BLACK SUNDAY never generated a sequel. However, it was remade in 1989 by Bava’s son Lamberto, who had established his own career as a horror director with films like DEMONS (1985) and DEMONS 2 (1986).
Although clearly a product of its era, BLACK SUNDAY has not dated badly. The truncated AIP version, known to American fans, remains a powerful work, marred only slightly by the inevitable problems that arise in the process of dubbing and recutting a foreign import. Thanks to Image Entertainment’s DVD release, the film is now available in all its original glory, with its missing footage and original music intact. This international version of the film (bearing the original title THE MASK OF SATAN) restores a certain punch that increases the film’s effectiveness by contemporary standards.
The execution of Princes Asa has far more impact thanks to two shots that are allowed to run longer than in the American print. In the first, the witch has the mark of the devil branded into her flesh (actually a wax stand-in), and instead of cutting away as the brand is applied, the camera lingers until we can see the result. In the second restored shot, one of cinema’s great moments of brutality is rendered even more horrific: as the Mask of Satan is hammered onto the witch’s face with a mallet large enough to knock a mule unconscious, the shot no longer quickly fades to black but instead shows a fleeting moment of blood spewing from beneath the mask, driven forth by the impact. The credits that immediately follow are effectively superimposed over a medium shot of the titular Mask of Satan (instead of being seen merely against some nondescript flames), and we can see that the witch is still alive and breathing, with blood running down her neck.
Asa lures a victim to a fatal kiss.
The true highlight of the international version emerges after Asa has been reawakened in her tomb. Alive but still immobile, she draws her first victim to her prostate body with the mesmeric influence of her eyes. Steele’s heavy breathing in this scene is almost orgasmic, but the American print faded out on a close up of her face before she made contact with her intended victim. In THE MASK OF SATAN, at last you can see the lingering kiss that climaxed the scene.
Still later, there is an additional brief romantic interlude between Katia and Dr. Gorobec, who tries to convince the young princess not to give in to despair despite the horrible events occurring around her. The final restored moments occur near the climax, when Gorobec speaks several more lines of dialogue lamenting the apparent death of Katia, after her life-force has been drained by her vampiric ancestor. This helps to make Katia’s revival, as Asa is burned at the stake, seem like more of a surprise and less of a foregone conclusion.
The print used for the DVD transfer is in great shape, with only an occasional scratch here and there; the image, letterboxed to a 1:66 ratio, is clear and sharp, as is the Dolby Digital, monaural soundtrack. The special features are impressive as well: a brief Mario Bava biography, filmographies for both Bava and Steele, a theatrical trailer, and a gallery of photos and posters. The latter includes rare behind-the-scene shot of Bava being strangled by Arturo Dominici, who plays Javutich. Also of interest is a shot of Dominic modeling his vampire fangs, which are nowhere seen in the film. The disc also contains a transcript of the dialogue (translated by Christopher S. Dietrich and Lucas) from the missing scene between Katia and her father. Of course, it would have been nice to see the footage as a supplemental scene, but the transcript is an adequate substitute.
Tim Lucas’s audio commentary is a highlight of the DVD. He spews out trivia and behind-the-scenes anecdotes almost faster than you can keep track of, yet somehow, he never bores you with his expertise. He even does some interesting second-guessing about how some scenes in the final cut may have survived from previous drafts of the script; for example, Lucas suspects that the original intent may have been to have Asa replace and impersonate Katia at a much earlier point in the narrative. Unfortunately, Lucas does tend to overlook the film’s minor flaws, which mostly consist of a few risible moments in the dubbing. (My personal favorite: Dr. Gorobec advises the torch-bearing villagers on how to distinguish Asa from Katia: “She’s the witch. Don’t’ be deceived by her face—look at her body!”)
Overall, Image’s DVD is about the best presentation imaginable of the original version of the late Mario Bava’s masterpiece, short of getting an audio commentary from Barbara Steele herself. Unfortunately, this we are likely never to get, as Steele claims that trying to remember details of the filming is as hopeless as trying to remember the details of her high school prom. Nevertheless, in recent years she has come to acknowledge the film’s greatness in a way that she seldom did when while fighting the typecasting that resulted from her performance in it: “As an actress, it’s not exactly something that lets you do any tour-de-forcing,” she explained years ago. After reviewing the film, however, she has a more balanced view:
“Mario Bava made a brilliant, brilliant film, and I’m deeply grateful,” she says. “BLACK SUNDAY looks so exquisite to me as a film, today; frame for frame, it looks so beautiful. It’s like a Rembrandt. Visually, it is stunning, and that’s what cinema is: visuals and atmosphere. Really, it could be an incredible Silent Film—you could take the soundtrack right off, because it’s such a visual masterpiece.” BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. La Maschera del Demonio [“Mask of the Demon”], 1960). Directed and photographed by Mario Bava. Screenplay by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei, based on “The Vij” by Nikolai Gogol; English dialogue by George Higgins. Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Enrico Olivieri, Antonio Piefederici, Tino Bianchi, Ciara BIndi, Mario Passante, Renato Terra.