I had dinner with a friend in Amsterdam and learned that to him, Mario Bava is a major director of accomplishd dramas, and oh yeah, I guess he also did some giallos, whereas my view had been that he was primarily known for giallos and also did some other stuff of no consequence. So I didn't realize he was considered by some to be such a major talent, but the evidence is there in this, his debut film, which is just a stunning knockout for the first half, before running a bit off the rails in the second. But this, I am also to understand, is another common tendency in his films.
So this is from 1960, stars horror icon Barbara Steele, and is based, in the most tangential of ways, on some tale by Gogol. This movie won favor with me as we are less than 60 seconds in before we're seeing musclemen executioners. Barbara Steele is this witch, and she's tied to a stake and has this mask with a bunch of nails pointing inside--that would be the mask of Satan, thank you very much--put on her face, then POUNDED on with a huge mallet! That's going to cause unsightly blemishes [as it indeed soon does]. They light the pyre beneath her to burn her, but her buddy Satan intervenes and sends the rains to put out the fire. She curses the descendants of the guy doing this to her, then--200 years later!
We join this guy Andre and this older guy the professor, and they're in a carriage traveling down the classic spooky dark road. By now you're starting to notice that this thing has some gorgeous black and white photography, nice compositions and just has a really good sense of propulsion and atmosphere. The guys get out and go investigate this tomb, leading to a 360-degree pan around the place. They find the tomb of the lady from 200 years ago, with a window over her face and a crucifix right above, the idea being that constant sight of the crucifix is what's keeping her trapped there in the grave. Then the professor is menaced by the all-too-common giant [i.e. fucking GIANT] bat, which just happens to land on the crucifix, which he destroys in swatting at the bastard. See Satan's nefarious ways? I but you can guess where this is headed.
Then they go to their destination, where they meet Barbara Steel as Katya, young and innocent descendant of herself as the witch. We also hear about this curse that's on the castle, yadda, yadda. Andre is all over Katya and makes quite clear that he'd like to put his fly in her soup. Meanwhile, back at the dessicated corpse, we see blood from the professor dripping into the eye socket of the dehydrated witch. Then there's some sick maggots all on her eye, and then--surprise--these somewhat nauseating eyeballs rehydrate to fill the eye sockets! That was an effect I didn't expect, and it's quite good! Especially when you think the best you're going to get is a lame time-lapse.
Then we meet this young girl who is told she must leave in the dead of night to cross the creepy cornfield to milk the cow. Around now is when you really appreciate that this movie has everything you could want in a creepy black-and-white ghost story, including castles, graveyards in eerie fog, spooky black carriages, web-stewn tombs, it's all here! And it's all gorgeously photographed and looks amazing. All you need is a Saturday morning and to be fourteen again.
Meanwhile, also poppin' out of the grave is the old witches' husband, who wastes no time in killing and possessing the good doctor who is rushing to the bedside of Katya's dad, who ain't feeling so good. He arrives in the doctor's body and is about to off dad when he's repulsed by the dude's crucifix. But soon enough he gets Katya to remove it and dad's a goner.
Well, all these good things can't really last, can they? Soon what was delightfully simmering at the brim boils over the top, and it all just kind of falls apart. People start dying left and right. Andre and Katya's love heats up fast. There continues to be much spookiness, but it's coming so thick and fast it starts to have diminished effect. Things wrap up precisely as you expect they might, although this time Satan doesn't show up with the well-timed rain.
Nevertheless, an hour of first-rate spooks can redeem a final half hour of general mess, and leave a smile on your face. It's too bad, as I stopped ths movie in the middle thinking it was amazingly great, only having to conclude at the finish that it was only quite good with excellent elements, but still, that's worth a watch. If you want all the super-fun elements of your classic horror brought into one creepy package, here you go! Too bad they couldn't have sustained it right to the end, but let's not ask for the moon when we have the stars.
Ya sure should! It's a good old classic spookfest.