Continuing from my earlier post on the welcome appearance of La Maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan) on cinema screens in the UK, It seems appropriate to follow up with some thoughts on home viewing.

Over the last decade, DVD presentations from Image Entertainment, Anchor Bay and Ripley’s Home Video, have opened the door to Bava’s sinister world of revenge, sex and death. Since the Spring of 2013 however, movie fans have also had two Blu-ray releases of this important film to consider. So which of these is the definitive disc of Bava’s film?

Well, none of them actually!

But first, a little background on language and cuts.

The dramatic US poster for Black Sunday

The dramatic US poster for Black Sunday

In accordance with Italian studio practises at the time and the desire to keep costs down, The Mask of Satan was shot silently, with dialogue added after filming was complete. Actors on set spoke in their own tongue, and the film was post-synced into various languages during production, including Italian, French and English.
American International Pictures (AIP), who purchased the film for distribution in the US, were unhappy with the studio prepared English language cut however, and created a new edit of the film re-titled Black Sunday. A number of violent scenes were trimmed and completely new voice and sound tracks added.
It was this version of the film which was infamously banned outright in the UK, by the British Board of Film Censorship when distribution was sought in 1960.

Confused?

The three readily available versions of the film are thus;
The original, or European cut of the film with English audio, The European cut with Italian Audio and optional English subtitles, and the shorter AIP version with its English audio and alternate soundtrack by Les Baxter.

Incidentally, you won’t hear star Barbara Steele’s voice on any version of the film, she wasn’t present when the final audio was recorded!

The Mask of Satan on DVD and a soundtrack CD

Image Entertainment was the first to release The Mask of Satan on DVD. This region free disc, which appeared in the December of 1999, was welcomed by fans and well received by critics, boasting a 16:9 widescreen presentation of the European cut of the film with English audio, letter boxed to accommodate the movie at its correct aspect ratio and running to the full 86minutes.
The DVD also included a highly informative, and trend setting commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, discussing Bava, aspects of the film and Italian gothic cinema.
The Image DVD subsequently become the standard for viewing the film. Minor improvements were made to picture quality on a Region 1 release by Anchor Bay in 2007, using the same source material.

A 2 disc special edition from Italian company Ripley’s Home Video in 2004 is also of note, for restoring a newly found, ‘missing’ dialogue scene to the film and including the Italian audio track, though no English subtitles are present.

For those interested in Les Baxter’s Black Sunday score for AIP, this became available on a limited edition CD by Kritzerland in 2011, using MGM provided source materials.

Blu-ray

The Mask of Satan first appeared on Blu-ray in September 2012. This eagerly anticipated disc from Kino Lorber, again featured the European cut of the film, with the English language audio track. Interestingly, though reviewers praised the Kino disc for bringing this pivotal film to the Blu-ray format, the disc was met with mixed reviews on fan forums, where concerns over picture quality were further fuelled by initial reviews which concluded picture quality to be excellent, yet accompanying screenshots showed a print which to some appeared less satisfactory than the preceding Image DVD.

Those disappointed by the Kino disc looked to a second Blu-ray, announced by UK distributer Arrow in early 2013, to address these concerns, and indeed though both appear to use the same source material a close inspection reveals an improvement in picture quality.

The Arrow presentation includes the same original uncut European version of the The Mask of Satan, presented like the Kino disc in letter-boxed widescreen 1.69:1 format at the correct aspect ratio, but this time with the choice of either English or Italian audio tracks, and SDH subtitles – which include information on who is speaking and non-dialog events.
Also, for the first time on DVD or Blu-ray, Arrow have included the AIP cut, with its alternate Black Sunday titles in place.

Where the Kino disc is a rather spartan affair, albeit with the welcome inclusion of the engaging Tim Lucas commentary prepared for the 1999 Image DVD, the Arrow presentation not only offers the film with all three language and edit combinations, but includes the Lucas commentary and a substantial extras package.
Though not of concern to those seeking the ultimate version of the film, extras are of particular importance in the Blu-ray marketplace, where discs, competing for sales in home entertainment magazines and online review sites, are rated on the quality of their extras and compete against special editions, steel books and the like for the attention, and wallet of a digital audience increasingly spoilt for choice.
The extras on the Arrow disc, which also include Bava’s earlier film I Vampiri and a further written interview with Barbara Steele, are a major bonus for Bava-virgins, or those who want everything in one box.

Arrow Blu-ray v Image DVD

In a comparison with the Image DVD, the Arrow Blu-ray boasts more detail in the darker areas of the frame, where textures can readily be discerned, though the blackest tones in the frame remain impenetrable. Many shots benefit from this enhancement, in particular detail around the decor, fittings and fixtures in the castle interior.

Arrow screen capture - increased detail in walls, doors and woodwork afforded by the HD format

(Arrow) The increased detail in walls, doors and woodwork afforded by the HD format is evident in this shot

Image screen capture - background textures are blurred

(Image) Background textures are lost, blurred

Unfortunately, revealing texture in this way also appears to have burned out detail in some of the lightest of areas.

Arrow screen capture - loss of detail in brightly lit areas

(Arrow) Though we gain detail in the brickwork and woodwork to the left in this scene, the glass details in the window and contours of the actors face are lost.

Image screen capture - brightly lit areas are well defined, though backgrounds are indistinct

(Image) The swirls in the window glass are well defined, though the background is somewhat indistinct.

While the enhanced detail of the HD presentation adds enjoyment to a viewing of the film, even with the apparent compromises in the rendering of brightly lit areas, the picture itself has a distinct grayness, which is harder to accept as correct. Seeming at times like a semi-transparent gray overlay has been superimposed over the film.

Arrow screen capture - sharp and detailed, though curiously flat in tone

(Arrow) Slightly sharper in focus, particularly the background. Yet curiously flat in tone. Is Barbara Steele bathed in flickering candle light?

Image screen capture - light and shadow in mid-tones are more pronounced

(Image) A little bolder in mid-tone contrast on Barbara Steele’s dress and skin tones. Light and shadow are more pronounced

The Italian authored English audio tracks on both releases appear crisp and acceptable, Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono on the DVD, uprated to 16-bit LPCM Mono on the Blu-ray.

In terms of the Arrow cut, it is worth noting that the missing dialogue scene first seen inserted in the feature presentation on the Ripley’s Home Video DVD, is now thought to have been discarded by Bava prior to the films release, and is thus relegated to inclusion as an extra.
It would have been interesting to see an updated commentary for the film, perhaps with Barbara Steele taking part in the discussion, in a similar fashion to the 2009 Dark Sky films commentary for La Sorella di Satana (The She Beast), which is quite fascinating.
Steele was slated to appear in an on camera interview for the Kino Blu-ray disc, which fell through. The Arrow disc does however include an interesting Italian video interview with Steele from 1995, in which she discusses her film roles.

Conclusion

If your home video tastes demand purchases on the Blu-ray format, then the Arrow release is the way to go.

The film in its various versions and audio mixes is readily accessible and thoroughly enjoyable. I like the detail enhancements, which benefit some of the key scenes, including the ghostly carriage ride to the castle. I did however find myself wishing for more definition in costumes and skin tones, particularly in later indoor scenes.
If you are seeking Black Sunday, the American International Pictures version with the Les Baxter score, or indeed The Mask of Satan in Italian, with English subtitles, the Arrow release is the only option.
The Arrow release also boasts a prestigious array of extras and well thought out packaging.

Other viewers may prefer the picture quality of the Image Entertainment DVD.

Though over 13 years old and thus lacking in detail and finese compared to contemporary transfers, the DVD still captures the vivid essence of Bava’s gothic nightmare. The video track sparkles, the depth and detail of the picture, though weighted to the foreground, reaching out to gently draw the viewer into what seems a more 3 dimensional cinematic experience.