Years ago, a friend of mine told me that this movie is filmed so well that every frame looks like a painting. This compliment is not far off the mark as this is a work of gothic beauty. Director Mario Bava was a gifted cinematographer and his attention to style and atmosphere when placing the camera is something that sets him apart from many other directors and makes him one of the great genre filmmakers. Each setting in this movie captures the essence of gothic horror including a graveyard, a crypt, a castle, and a spooky forest. The black and white photography emphasizes the dark tone of the film and Bava's use of interesting angles and foreground objects makes this a feast for the eyes. He keeps the camera moving allowing the viewer to feel like a participant in the action. This technique plays on the emotions of the viewer creating suspense and unease in addition to what is already being established in the story. This is a masterpiece of how a camera can enhance a story and Bava's style has influenced many filmmakers with Dario Argento being the most obvious.
Barbara Steele stars as Katja, a woman living with her brother and father in a large castle. The family has been cursed by a witch named Asa (also Steele) who was executed two hundred years prior along with her lover (Arturo Dominici). The two were accused of being vampires/witches and a spiked mask was nailed onto each of their faces by the grand inquisitor (who happened to be Asa's brother). Long buried in the family crypt, Asa has been patiently waiting for the time to avenge her death. An opportunity presents itself when the world's most ignorant professor (Andrea Checchi) is snooping around her crypt. After a fight with a giant bat, he breaks open the coffin and drops blood on her which proves to begin her resurrection. Asa awakens and brings back her lover from the grave to start a series of events that will help her return to the land of the living on a more permanent basis. To achieve this, she needs to take over the body of Katja. As the movie progresses, the professor's assistant Andre (John Richardson) becomes a key player in the story as he falls in love with Katja and does his best to protect her as the truth of the curse is slowly revealed.
The plot of this film is one that we have seen before with doomed love, family curses, and vampires all being regular occurrences in Hammer and Universal horror pictures. The difference here is that the look of the film feels totally fresh thanks to Bava's attention to detail. We have seen castles before but never with such an epic-looking fireplace complete with griffins and a secret passage. We have seen a creepy forest but not where everything seems so dead with empty branches dominating many frames. We have seen beautiful princesses before but they are never introduced outside of a crypt holding two large dogs that look like the hounds of Hell. This amazing style makes this a film that is difficult to look away from and is thoroughly engaging despite that fact that some of the plot points would be nothing special under different circumstances. It is easy to overlook things like the convenient discovery of a hidden room or the fact that the professor takes a really long smoke break when you are so captivated by the look of this film. The movie is also notable for having a few nasty moments such as when the mask of Satan is applied and when the corpse of Asa revives itself as well as some fantastic aging effects that are still innovative today.
In addition to Bava's artistic vision, the performance of Steele is one that establishes why she was a horror icon throughout the 60s. Her unconventional beauty, dark hair, and ample cleavage is striking but she also has air of mystery about her that makes her portrayal of both characters fascinating. Although the rest of the cast is decent, Steele steals (ha ha) the show whenever she is onscreen and is who I think of when I picture a gothic beauty in the movies. She is also not afraid to show her evil and ugly side especially when having to rock spike holes in her face when she is initially resurrected. Richardson is the weakest player as the male lead and genre fans will recognize him from One Million Years B.C. with Raquel Welch. Bava was one of the true masters of horror and this is a great place to see just what an incredible eye this guy had for taking horror films to a different level. (Josh Pasnak, 8/5/13)
Directed By: Mario Bava.
Written By: Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei.
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani.