La Maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan) reminds me of lunchtimes spent in my local library, pouring through the pages of Movie Monsters, Dennis Gifford’s profusely illustrated guide to everything a school kid needed to know of gruesome cinema. Of the pictures – many from films I had little hope of catching on terrestrial TV – one in particular always caught my attention, a woman’s face, punctured horrifically by some ghoulish torture device…
It would be some years later, one late night in 1986 or thereabouts, before I caught up with, and added Mario Bava’s low budget, gothic shocker to the curiosities in my VHS video collection.

Skip forward some 25 years and finally, thanks to a remarkable season of films from the British Film Institute, entitled Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, I get to see Mario Bava’s signature film in the cinema where it belongs!

That gruesome colander of a face of course belonged to raven haired British actress Barbara Steele, the queen of Italian Gothic cinema, a genre which reached an artistic crescendo in Camillo Mastrocinque visually stunning; Un angelo per Satana (An Angel for Satan) in 1966.
Mario Bava went on to create movie genres all of his own, with films like La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much) and Ecologia del delitto (Bay of Blood), precursors of the Giallo and the Slasher movie horror fans are all too familiar with today.

Barbara Steele suffers the effects of the Mask of Satan

Barbara Steele suffers the effects of the Mask of Satan

The Mask of Satan seems to linger uniquely in the mind more each time you see it. The film is a Startling fusion of purity and violence, heightened by the black and white photography, and ably demonstrated in the infamous opening scenes, when a sweating executioner hammers the titular mask on to the porcelain beauty of Barbara Steele’s face, an image that is striking now and must have been quite shocking in 1960.

The story, adapted from a Russian short story, (Viy, by Nikolai Gogol) might not keep you in your cinema seat, but the set pieces are satisfying and inspired; an exploding sarcophagus, a time ravaged body rebuilding itself (Steele as the wicked Asa), the coach journey to the castle and the skeletal torso and guts reveal at the end.

The film is also more fluid and less of a Universal throwback than I recalled, maybe now I’m simply more able to savour the artistry of the atmospheric sets, lighting and photography. If anything the film feels more like it is chasing the skirt tails of Hammer, albeit without the fangs and blood-red blood of the latter (Bava’s vampires lost their unconvincing fangs early in filming). Sexuality is explicit, in naked portraits and lingering hands, when young doctor Andre (John Richardson) reveals the crucifix around Katia’s throat (Steele in her first dual role), he nearly bares her chest in the process. This erotically charged mixture of glamour and violence caused the film censorship problems, indeed it was banned outright in the UK on its release.

Attendance on Saturday was scant, watching old horror movies in the cinema isn’t terribly popular I surmise. For the younger audience these films are as far from modern blockbusters like the Saw franchise as the Universal oldies were from The Mask of Satan in 1960.

But hey – this is gothic! Really, it is, and in this BFI season, playing alongside the likes of James Whale’s Frankenstein, Daughters of Darkness and The Innocents, Bava’s masterpiece shines like a jewel.

I caught The Mask of Satan in Edinburgh at Filmhouse where it was screened as part of Dark Visions, a season of films exploring representations of witchcraft and gothic horror in cinema. The print screened was the 35mm English dub. Dark Visions is itself part of the BFI season Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, which continues into January 2014.

More information here:

Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film
Dark Visions