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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT

All I have to say to this is WOW.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

IT'S A BAD BRAINS CHRISTMAS, CHARLIE BROWN!

When the excellent version of "Pay to Cum" — the one from the classic LET THEM EAT JELLYBEANS COMPILATION from Alternative Tentacles — meets A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, things become amazing. Seriously, I thought there was no humanly possible way to improve upon this song. In no uncertain terms, I was dead wrong.

Monday, December 08, 2014

IT WAS 34 YEARS AGO TODAY...

Dear Vaulties-

here's a re-run from the past couple of years, complete with the title change and a few edits to render the accurate passage of time. Bear with it, because this has become an annual fixture.
NOTE : every word of the following story is true (or rather remembered as exactly as humanly possible given that over three decades have elapsed since it happened), and if you find some of it offensive at this late date, imagine being in my shoes at age fifteen!

December 9th, 1980-

It was the start of my tenth grade school day morning and I was disgruntled (as usual) at being denied sleep and instead being herded along with the rest of the cattle at Westport', CT's Staples High School into yet another inane class. The first item of regurgitation/education of the morning was English with Mr. Dyskolos (not his real name; changed for reasons soon to be apparent), a late-forty-something red-headed guy who then resembled what Danny Bonaduce looks like today who was also among the minute handful of teachers whose classes would keep students awake because he was genuinely interesting, did not talk down to the kids, and had not allowed the thankless teaching system to beat him down and force him to consider his job a mocking reminder of wage-slavery (I'm the son of a teacher, so I speak with a working knowledge of such things).

As the students took their chairs we all noticed that Mr. Dyskolos's usual laid-back manner seemed somewhat "off" that morning and after nearly a minute of total silence as he stared into space as though contemplating some cosmic truth or inevitability, he suddenly focused himself, looked at us and said, as serious as a heart attack, "By the look of you, you haven't heard what happened this morning. I'll just get right to it. John Lennon, de facto leader of the Beatles, was shot dead by some lunatic fan." Most of the class had indeed not heard about Lennon's murder and those of us who hadn't, myself among them, were stunned. But before the horrible truth could fully set in, Mr. Dyskolos continued. "You kids probably know a lot about the Beatles from what your parents or maybe your older brothers and sisters played for you, but you can't even begin to imagine the worldwide pop culture impact those guys had at the time. Obviously I was there for the 1960's and can tell you firsthand what it was like, but I'm gonna spare you that nauseating, self-indulgent trip down memory lane. I guarantee you that all your other teachers are going to suspend actual teaching for the day and drag you along for their reminiscences of their flower-power salad days, but I'm not gonna do that to you. Instead, I'm gonna tell you a few truths that you won't hear anywhere else in this school, or damn near anywhere else, on what's gonna no doubt be a day of worldwide mourning."

He leaned forward in his chair, his face a mask of utmost solemnity, and uttered words that blew the minds of the roomful of privileged suburban white kids (and me): "The Beatles sucked. They were a bunch of marginally talented 'heads' who started out ripping off the work of their black American influences and made a hell of a lot of money for no good reason, killing real rock 'n' roll in the process and unleashing legions of even less-talented imitators in that godawful British Invasion nonsense. And then they went to India, supposedly to gain 'enlightenment' or some other George Harrison-inspired bee-ess, but if you ask me all it did was make their music more annoying." To emphasize that point of criticism, Mr. Dyskolos began making a nasal and high-pitched "neeeeeeer neeeeeer neeeeeeeeeee neeeer" sound by way of approximating the tones of a sitar.

By this point in his diatribe you could have heard an amoeba fart. Young eyes practically bugged out of their sockets and jaws had fallen into laps. This was rock 'n' roll blasphemy in the extreme, and on the morning of the senseless slaughter of a man held by most in the room to be a hero of peace, love and great music, no less. Our worlds were shaken to the core. And then Mr. Dyskolos continued, still looking solemn, but his mouth betrayed a slight half-smile as he was very obviously enjoying his class' speechless outrage.

"Then they put out that asinine White Album that had exactly two good songs on it — 'Birthday" and 'Back in the U.S.S.R.,' and those two were good because they sound like actual rock 'n' roll! — and they had the fucking unbelievable nerve to include that 'Revolution 9' horseshit! What the hell was that? (assumes comedic Liverpudlian accent) 'Noombuh nine? Noombuh nine?' What a load of crap! I'm telling you kids right here and now, remember how 'deep' that bullshit is when you decide to give acid a try!" (NOTE: this was the first time I ever hear a teacher curse when not discussing some of the content in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.)

Before he could say another word, Mr. Dyskolos was cut off and drowned out by an aural assault of irate dissenting opinion, his every word being tarred as the rantings of an anti-peace & love curmudgeon who "just didn't get it." "Who do you think you are???" shrieked several of my classmates. "The Beatles were the most important band in history! John Lennon and Paul McCartney were two of the greatest songwriters who ever lived! Are you crazy?" Dyskolos responded with a sneer that would have done Vincent Price proud and uttered my favorite comeback heard in all of my teenage years, whether I agreed with him or not: "What the hell did they ever write that was worth a goddamn? 'We all live in a yellow submarine?' Puh-leeeeze. The only reason you kids enshrine those hacks is because of nostalgia filtered down from parents who were barely your age when the Beatles showed up and absorbed by the general public and your older brothers and sisters who used that garbage as a soundtrack for when they'd sneak off to smoke weed in the back of a van. Which also explains how anybody could ever find the stomach to listen to those Doors assholes! Face it, kids. For some of what are supposed to be this country's brightest young minds, you sure are a bunch of programmed parrots!" And when one of the students blurted out that John Lennon was a symbol of "give peace a chance," our sage teacher batted that one aside with "You've obviously never heard about the time when Mr. Give Peace A Chance went to some club and hung out with a Kotex stuck to his forehead," a then-shocking truth that only elicited more teenage keening.

That was the real meat of it but the back and forth ranting went on for the class's full hour, with order barely being restored with the ringing of the bell marking the rotation to the next class. Each of my classmates and I zombied off to the next class and swiftly discovered that Mr. Dyskolos had been correct in his auguring. Indeed, each and every teacher I had to endure for the rest of the day derailed the planned curriculum in favor of rose-colored reminiscences of "a more innocent time" full of free love, "the people getting together, man!"and how the Beatles were the troubadours that saw them through all of it and changed to reflect the time. That was all well and good in theory, but not for hours on end as heard from speakers of wildly varying levels of eloquence (to say nothing of interest), with lunch being the day's only respite from what was essentially the same story only with the most minor of variations.

When the day finally ended I headed downtown to do my volunteer teaching of a cartooning class at the local YMCA and the journey allowed me some time to process the events of the day and the "truths" imparted. I'd grown up liking the Beatles quite a lot but didn't own any of their albums on vinyl thanks to their many hits being available in endless rotation on some of the nascent stations that played what would come to be known as "classic rock," and as the seventies ended I avoided the agonizing repetition of disco and such by listening to the excellent oldies station WBLI out of Long Island, a radio entity that served to plant the seeds of my passion for pre-1970's rock that was either primitive and raw or bizarre and very much off the beaten path. WBLI played some of the standard Beatles hits, but they also threw stuff like "Devil in Her Heart," "Dig A Pony" and "Rain" (nowadays my favorite Beatles tune of all) into the mix and showed me just how much the classic rock stations played the same Fab Four songs over and over and over and over and over again, ad nauseum, and taking into account the espoused theory — voiced with absolute certainty of its veracity — that myself and my fellow students may have been a bunch of programmed drones, I began to wonder if Mr. Dyskolos had in fact done his young charges a favor by showing none of the rote reverence extended to the favorite sons of Liverpool by all who drew breath. He had effectively "killed our idol" on the day when one would expect nothing but 100% adherence to the party line, and that greatly intrigued my punk rock-influenced sensibilities.

As I pondered these thoughts, I wandered past Westport Record and Tape, one of the town's most accessible record stores, and greeted Jean, the sweet southern proprietor. I asked her if the shooting of John Lennon had affected her sales that day and she said, "Honey, look over at the Beatles and John Lennon sections. Whadda you see? Tumbleweeds 'n' cattle skulls, that's what! Folks came in and cleaned the place out like they were a bunch of vinyl-eatin' locusts! On sales of Beatles and Lennon records alone, I could close early today." And it was true. Every single Beatles/Lennon platter had vanished into the Westport ether, bought up by fools who believed those perennial best-sellers (okay, maybe not SOMETIME IN NEW YORK CITY) would become instant collector's items.

Later that night as I lay there in my bed staring up at the white stucco ceiling, I listened to my cassette tape of SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (the only Beatles album I owned at the time) and experienced it in a way that I never had before. I'd listened to it about two dozen times since acquiring it a couple of years previous, but now it served as a poignant grave marker for my favorite member of the Beatles and its words took on a whole new timbre. No one would be "fixing a hole" in Lennon and ensuring he would live to see sixty-four and beyond. He would not be getting better and there would be no more good mornings for him. Yet tragic though it was, this was just another day in the collective life, and that life would go on without John Lennon (though obviously not "within").

I remember the hue and cry when Elvis Presley, the so-called King of Rock 'n' Roll, gave up the ghost and people acted as though the world had come to an end, and I frankly didn't get it. I liked some of Elvis's music, but it didn't really speak to me in the way that the Beatles had and I now chalk that up to the Beatles happening during what could arguably be considered the most pivotal period of the twentieth century, a time that redefined much of American culture and into which my generation was born. We didn't grow up with Elvis, whose music helped set the template of rock 'n' roll, but we did come along during the rise of the Beatles and reached early sentience while under the influence of their sound. We couldn't know at the time just what their contribution meant, but we did know that we liked it. Obsessive poring over the minutia of the whys and wherefores of their lives, art and careers would come later. At that point in our young lives love was indeed all we needed, and in the wake of the plastic disco era and what small impact punk had in the U.S. at the time, that wasn't a bad thing.

So today marks the thirty-fourth anniversary of John Lennon's senseless slaughter and for me the day that it happened becomes ever more remote, so I figured I'd jot down my experience of it before age robs it of what clarity remains. If any of you have tales of that day, please write in and share.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Dear Vaulties-

May all of you have a happy Thanksgiving and survive the annual familial dysfunction, acid reflux, embarrassing drunkenness (and attendant convulsive vomiting), and — most of all — the horrendous three-hour commercial that is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. This year I am once again dateless and stuck at my mom's, but she's 81 and pretty much alone, so I'll take one for the team. I'll be back in Brooklyn soon enough...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ADVENTURES DURING ERRANDS

I just got back from doing some errands and while waiting for the bus to pick me up when I got started, I sat on the bus stop bench next to a casually-dressed woman who was maybe sixty. She stared at me for a few moments and then asked, "Mister, could you give me some money so I can buy Chinese food?" Then the wind shifted and I was nearly knocked over by her powerful stench, a potent blend of B.O. and stale Port Authority-style ammonia piss. I politely told her I did not carry cash and then I got up to pretend to look and see if the bus were coming, but in actuality I got up to remove myself from her toxic miasma. I was actually relieved to end up standing next to some Cugine who was merrily puffing away on a Marlboro. And upon being politely denied a handout, the woman's attitude changed and she denounced me as a "motherfucker" and a "white man's nigger." Ah, the rich pageant of humanity...

In marked counterpoint to my experience with the redolent beggar-lady at the bus stop, on the way back from my errands I stopped in at a local boutique, Beacon's Closet, to visit its co-owner, my friend and fellow tokusatsu junkie, Adrian. He was not in today but on the way out I saw a young trans kid who was maybe around 20 years old. The kid's wardrobe was boldly gender-divided right down the middle, with the right half being a ratty, frilly dress and drawn-on fishnets (with the line down the back drawn on in green Sharpie), while the right side was straight-up old school punk with plaid pants. The look was completed with liver-colored Doc Martens and a beat-up leather jacket with band names scrawled all over it, and the kid rocked a black Mohawk, neatly-trimmed beard and 'stache, and black lipstick and eyeliner. I was struck by just how cool all of that was, especially in a place as sickeningly trendy as Park Slope, plus to say nothing of simply being balls-out brave as fuck, so I tapped the kid on the shoulder. The kid turned to see me, a big black dude dressed in black from head to toe and draped in black leather, so a bit of trepidation was facially registered. I then said "I have to tell you, your look is fucking BRILLIANT. Just thought you should hear it and know that your bravery is both respected and admired, and I say that as an aging old school punk and misfit of society." The kid's face broke into an ear-to-ear grin, complete with "I've been touched" tears of happiness starting to well up, and I was responded to with a heartfelt "Thank you!" (I would have taken a photo but I did not want to come off as a possible cruiser for freaks who would post the shot online in a transphobic screed of some sort. Still, the look was absolutely worth chronicling for posterity.)

Thursday, November 06, 2014

THE ROMANTIC FLOWER (1990)

I'd recently had it on my mind, so I dug around through my apartment's stacks and unearthed THE ROMANTIC FLOWER (1990) for a long-overdue read. At first glance it appears to be a standard European erotic graphic novel, perhaps a Milo Manara knockoff, that might be read and swiftly forgotten among the legion of such material, but this effort rises above the pack by virtue of its truly gorgeous art and a touching, lyrical story. The titular character is an anthropomorphic bit of flora that learns to adore the Earth and its inhabitants thanks to being influenced by and participating in acts of human sexuality. Though technically X-rated in content, the story is never offensive and the sexual encounters are never portrayed in a less-than-warm and positive light. In fact, it's downright sweet and has a truly feel-good tone throughout, even when its surprisingly downbeat ending hits. (The plant does not die but events take a quite unexpected turn...) 

Highly recommended, plus it makes a great gift for those who won't be put off by its frank (but utterly charming) nature, so pick up a copy. (Used copies are available on Amazon for very reasonable prices.)

Friday, October 31, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 31: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)

Mr. Hyde (Spencer Tracy) turns Ivy's (Ingrid Bergman) life into an abusive living hell.

One of the drawbacks to being addicted to scary movies when one is a kid is that while devouring such fare by the metric ton at a tender age, sometimes some great stuff might not seem to be all that because of the viewer's youth and lack of life experience. As a kid I watched horror movies for monsters, gore, violence, pretty girls, and whatever other lurid content I could garner from films that more often than not had been edited for TV. The genre's deeper aspirations and examination of the human condition meant less to me than the startled look on the face of my dimwitted Collie when he'd let out a particularly clamorous fart, which is why I always wrote off the 1941 Spencer Tracy version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE as a non-event. Well, watching the film again with a mindset and worldview quite far removed from my perceptions of things at age nine or ten revealed a film far more horrible than I remembered it being, and by "horrible" I mean that the most real horror is that which we human beings inflict upon one another.

Four's a crowd.

This iteration of the classic story finds Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy) very much in love with and engaged to pretty blonde innocent Beatrix (Lana Turner), but their ardor is serially quashed by her father's insistence that Jekyll confine his work to conventional medicine rather than pursuing crackpot theories on the nature of good and evil within man. When her father takes Beatrix away to Monaco for an extended vacation — in actuality a massive case of ultra-assholish cock-blocking on the part of daddy — Jekyll uses his unwilling singlehood to create a serum that will fully unleash man's evil side, using himself as a test subject. Thus is born Mr. Hyde, the living, breathing, nasty expression of the saintly Jekyll's basest urges, and he wastes no time in hitting the town in search of some strange. Having previously committed an act of gallantry while Jekyll, namely rescuing a young woman from a back alley rape at the hands of a random brute, Hyde encounters the toothsome lass at her job as a barmaid at a local dance hall. The barmaid, Ivy (Ingrid Bergman), earlier proved to be a bit of a bawd when Jekyll gave her a once-over following her thwarted violation, so Hyde, recalling her saucy attitude, engineers her getting sacked from her job (while instigating a riot at the same time) and offers to see her home. However, the gallantry of Jekyll does not exist in Hyde and he immediately rapes Ivy, subsequently keeping her in a state of perpetual terror as he makes her his sex slave and the recipient of beatings that escalate in severity. 

Ingrid Bergman as the tragic Ivy.

When Beatrix returns from her vacation, Jekyll decides to abandon his sordid second life as Hyde and settle into staid normalcy, but, following weeks of abuse at the hands of Hyde, Ivy works up the courage to seek help, so she goes to see Jekyll, not knowing that he is in actuality her tormentor. She vents her tragic state of affairs to Jekyll, even going so far as to get down on her knees and offer herself as his concubine in exchange for his help, and from there things spiral to inevitable blackness as Jekyll, to his horror, discovers that his shifts to his Hyde persona are no longer in his voluntary control...

Spencer Tracy as Hyde.

Very adult for its era, this version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE's potency eluded me during childhood, largely due to Hyde's monstrous nature bearing only relatively-subtle markers of the bestial. Rather than the werewolf-like fiend of the 1931 Frederic March version, Tracy's Hyde starts off looking like a swarthier, darker-haired and caliginous version Jekyll, gradually evolving into what could be mistaken for a long-lost Marx Brother. That allows Tracy to give free rein to the all-too-human monster within, and this take on Hyde is all the more believable for it. This is the familiar embodiment of the self-absorbed asshole who courts and creates trouble and misery for all around him, taking sadistic pleasure in his sheer palpable malevolence intimidating those unfortunate enough to cross his path. A hateful expression of the male at his very worst and most unchecked, Hyde is the most loathsome kind of bully in that he won't hesitate to follow through on the promise of his intimidation, gleefully stooping to excessive physical violence, rape, and outright murder, and he could not care less about any possible consequences of his foul actions. His lack of such blatant physical cues to his demonic nature as fucked-up teeth, coarse body hair, and claw-like hands only bolsters Hyde's evil and renders him as horrifically mundane as a wife-beater, a date-rapist, or the common violent street thug. 

The element in the film that resonated most strongly with me was the plight of the story's women, neither of whom get what they want or need and are destroyed by the man to whom they would gladly give their love. Beatrix is on hand to be perpetually frustrated, first by the machinations of her father and later by the existence of Hyde, thus her virginal innocence serves as a sexually and emotionally-stifling trap. Ivy, on the other hand, makes it crystal clear that she is no stranger to the pleasures to be had with men, has an endearing lust for life, and a working class earthiness that radiates sensuality, but those healthy attributes are crushed like so many dried flowers beneath the heel of Hyde's shattering abuse. The Madonna/whore dichotomy may be a bit on the nose but it is given vivid expression as part of an hallucinatory vision during Jekyll's first transformation into Hyde. Jekyll sees himself in the role of a fevered carriage driver, viciously whipping a pair of horses into a crazed gallop, only to have the equines morph into nude representations of Beatrix and Ivy.

The whore and the Madonna, galloping mares in Jekyll's transformative vision. 

So, yeah, there's a hell of a lot going on here that would have seemed boring or ordinary or simply gone over my head when I watched it as a kid, but a solid knowledge of grownup cruelty and dysfunction gained over the past four decades or so helped shed light onto the worthiness of the 1941 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. It's a surprising gem that I can't believe slipped past the watchful eye of the Hays Code, and I've gained a new and deep appreciation for it. If you have not seen it or if you, like me, wrote it off for not being a straight-up monsterama, it deserves a second chance.

 Poster from the original theatrical release.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 30: THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963)

Not exactly my idea of a party snack.

All kids know what vampires are. We learn about them early from cartoons, comic books, TV shows, and of course the movies, but it's a real moment of growing-up clarity when we realize for ourselves that there's more to vampires than them simply lurking in the night in search of blood to sustain their un-deaths. I'm referring to the seductive/sexual aspect of the vampire, which could only be alluded to in the most tasteful of ways in the movies of yore. and which was easily missed by a pre-teen audience back in more innocent times, and my own personal first experience with that side of the undead suckface on screen came when I was around six years old and saw THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE — under the American television title of KISS OF EVIL — on the old Bob Wilkins iteration of CREATURE FEATURES during my family's years in South San Francisco.

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is one of Hammer's signature undead suckface flicks, bearing all of the earmarks of the studio's indelible style and flavor, though lacking some of the visceral oomph that garnered the brand's well-deserved rep. Set sometime in the early-1900's, the story focuses on a newlywed couple, Gerald (Edward DeSouza) and Marianne (Jennifer Daniel), whose car breaks down near the chateau of Doctor Ravna (Noel Willman) and his two adult children, Carl (Barry Warren) and Sabena (Jacquie Wallis). Ravna and his kids are the core of a vampire cult and the not-so-good doctor sets his sights on the toothsome blonde Marianne as their next disciple, so it's up to Gerlad and a man with a vendetta against the Ravnas, the booze-soaked Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), to set things put the boot straight up some nosferatu ass.

Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) beckons. In a case like this, the difference between seduction and rape is a matter of semantics.

While not as straight-up sexy as any number of other vampire antagonists in film, Dr. Ravna exhibits the classic attribute of dark seductive power that he wields quite effectively against Marianne, and it was during that seduction scene when my mind was opened to the concept of vampires using such a mind-trick to do forbidden things to pretty girls. I was too young to understand what rape was but when Ravna slowly mounts Marianne while she's wearing that red ball gown and hypnotized, there was no doubt that something "adult" was taking place, even when the scene cuts away from the action. And when a newly-vampirized Marianne is introduced to the cult, we see Ravna dress her in the group's white ceremonial robes, which gives the audience a tasteful glimpse of Marianne's unclad shoulder, an image that gets across the point that she was just naked in front of Ravna and the cultists. 

The glimpse of shoulder that introduced me to the fact that horror and sex often go hand in hand.

Though I was too young to know what it was, I recall with crystal clarity a pleasant shiver running through my wee naughty bits during those sequences and it gave me much to ponder over the next week or so. (It was also not long after that eye-opening bit of entertainment that the cute little girl who lived next door was kind enough to show me her most intimate of female anatomy — and it was her idea to do so — thus compounding the things I had to ponder, but that's another story altogether.)

And along with that early twinge of sexuality, the film also shook my perception with the means by which the story's heroes vanquished the vampire cult. Rather than the traditional holy water, garlic, crucifixes, stakes, and sunlight, Professor Zimmer, who lost his beloved daughter to the suckface Ravna, performs a black magic ritual that summons up hundreds of vampire bats, presumably from the very depths of Hell itself, to suck the cultists dry of their own ill-gotten fluids in a bit of ludicrous poetic justice.

It's Satan to the rescue! Yaaaaaay!!!

No, seriously. Zimmer calls on the power of FUCKING SATAN HIMSELF in order to win the day. Think about that one for a minute. As anyone who has even the most rudimentary understanding of vampires and how to kick their coffin-slumbering asses can tell you, their biggest weakness is all things related to Christian iconography and suchlike. To have Zimmer summon the blackest of black forces to get the job done is essentially saying "Fuck Jesus and fuck God, you gotta fight evil with evil!" and let me tell you that that approach confused the living shit out of me, being stuck as I was at the time in a churched-up household. Now that I think about it, this movie may have been the earliest work in media that added fuel to the pyre of my disbelieving heathenism.

So, THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, while not a classic along the lines of some of Hammer's other efforts in the same department, ranks high in my nostalgic estimation and I heartily recommend it to those who want to start their kids off on post-Lugosi vampire flicks with a non-explicit piece that works minor-league titillation and the totally unexpected deus ex machina of outright Satanism into the mix.

 Poster from the original theatrical release.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

DANZIG-ERA MISFITS + VINTAGE MONSTER FOOTAGE = BLISS

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 29: THE MASK OF SATAN (1960)

The film's unforgettable opening moments: the sequence that ushered in the distinctive look and flavor of non-Hammer 1960's Euro-horror.

In seventeenth century Moldavia, the eerily beautiful Asa (Barbara Steele) of the house of Vajda is condemned by her brother to death for being a witch and consort of Satan, along with her servant/lover Javutich (Arturo Dominici). Before her accusers seal her fate by hammering a spiked bronze mask to her face, Asa curses her brother's descendants. Two centuries later, Asa's crypt is disturbed and she and Javutich rise from the grave as doubly-nasty witch-vampires with the blackest of intentions, namely to get their evil mitts on the innocent Katia (Steele in a dual role), a ringer for Asa who happens to be one of the accursed descendants of Asa's brother. Supping on Katia's blood will grant Asa eternal life, so it's only a matter of time until the house of Vajda's past catches up with it and makes good on its fell threats...

The Italians are an artistic, passionate people who have refreshingly never shied away from the bloody and gruesome — the fun had at the Roman Colosseum, anyone? — so it was perhaps inevitable that their cinematic forays into the horror genre would reflect that ingrained enjoyment of grue and nastiness. Helmed by the now-legendary director/cinematographer Mario Bava, THE MASK OF SATAN — better known to English-speaking audiences as BLACK SUNDAY — exploded across Italian screens with seismic effect, simultaneously paying loving tribute to the horror cinema that had preceded it while setting new rules in place for what would follow, and its impact was felt well beyond the confines of the Boot.

Atmosphere, thy name is THE MASK OF SATAN.

THE MASK OF SATAN bears the influence of decades of monochromatic horror outings, most particularly the Universal horror cycle of the 1930's and 1940's, with its levels of eerie atmosphere a reflection of those films as filtered through Bava's artistic eye. Bava had a flair for providing his fantastical films with a sense of heightened unreality that lends the films their own narrative-specific visual logic and believability, and this film reads like a very dark Gothic fairytale. There are fog-shrouded forests, remote hillsides, a castle complete with spiderweb-draped underground tombs, thunder and lightning, and at the heart of it all, the Stygian presence of Asa, a truly scary arch-fiend who was something of a revolutionary figure for the genre at the time. There had been female monster prior to her arrival but their function was more often than not decorative rather than horrific, and Asa turned that around big-time. Her double-threat of witchery and vampirism are immeasurably bolstered by Barbara Steele's singular eerie beauty, even when her face is newly-regenerated and still bearing the wounds inflicted by the masked that was forcibly nailed onto her face.

Energized by drops of blood, Asa regenerates as her empty eye sockets grow new orbs (an effect accomplished with back-lit poached eggs being pushed up into a life mask of Barbara Steele).


Asa lives again and immediately gets down to the job of seduction.

When bearing in mind the horror climate when Asa showed up, she really must have come as quite a shock, especially with her undisguised Euro-style sexuality. Fresh from the slab and with a face full of holes, she puts the moves on the doctor who unwittingly reawakened her, so if you think about it you can also add reverse-necrophilia to her list of offenses. That's some pretty heavy shit for 1960! Seeing it as BLACK SUNDAY when I was a small child really did a number on my head as I tried to process its content. I had been exposed to scary stories in fairytales and some early exploration of horror movies on TV, but BLACK SUNDAY was my first encounter with adult-level scares and it left a permanent mark upon my imagination and sensibility. 

Javutich (Arturo Dominici) rises from the grave. This sequence scared the shit out of me when I was little.

The film's atmosphere-drenched imagery is truly the stuff of nightmares and its aesthetics seared themselves into the genre's DNA the second it hit the screen. The visual mood bears an almost-palpable sense of dread things lurking in the shadows just out of our sphere of perception, and the dusty, web-festooned tomb set is the kind of place where it is simply impossible for anything good to take place. I could go on and on but in short, THE MASK OF SATAN delivered its creepy excellence  to the audience on a silver (screen) platter, and in no time it was influencing other genre entries. Case in point: during my re-watching of classic horror films for the 2012 edition of 31 DAYS OF HORROR, I sat through the excellent Mexican shocker THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN (1961), and as I watched its horrors unfold I had a strong feeling that I'd seen it before and I could not understand why. Sitting through THE MASK OF SATAN again during this year's research/refresher finally answered that question, because THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN owes a massive debt to what Bava had wrought a year prior to its release. In fact, if I were being unkind, I would tar THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN with the epithet of "bold-faced ripoff" for just how much it "borrowed" from THE MASK OF SATAN. (That said, I love THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN, so I'll just shut up from here on out.)

The bottom line is that THE MASK OF SATAN/BLACK SUNDAY was a game-changer that still resonates some fifty-plus years later, and seeing it again for the first time in ages — and in the uncut European version, no less — was like a long-overdue reunion with an old friend who taught me something of great import long ago. I adore its every tenebrous frame and looking at it again from my just shy of fifty-year-old perspective, I rank it among my Top 20 horror films of all time. Your mileage may vary but I urge you to give it a serious look and judge for yourself. Films of this nature are rare treasures and should not be missed. Now, if only one of NYC's classy revival venues would run it projected on the big screen so I could see it all proper...

Poster from the original U.S. release.