Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) and its haunted portraits.

from: The Haunted Portrait: A study of art in modern horror film.

Note, January 30, 2014

The haunted portraits of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) are two of the most basic representations of the idea in classic modern horror film: indeed, the degree to which Bava instrumentalized them as a central device in the movie may be said to have revived interest in making use of haunted portraits. But in its particulars, the instrumentation has some odd dimensions. For one thing, the prototype, the dead witch, is introduced first, as the doctors stumble upon her dark grave with the whistling destroyed pipe organ in it,

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They see her, in her mask, and it is explained that she wears the mask which tells the truth of who she was so that  Satan knows her, and that there is a small window for the mask so that the cross set on the top of the sarcophagus can continue to work, almost in the manner of a votive, to keep her in her place.

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But then it happens that the cross falls, the glass breaks, the doctor gets cut, and a drop or two of his blood drips onto the well preserved corpse, to begin to long process of her rejuvenation. It is likely that it is in the depiction of this process, providing an alternative to the Hammer vision being sported about in their Dracula movies, that Bava arrived at a level of creepiness that put him on the map

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But it is also true that in terms of the process, how on earth does a dead witch corpse become rejuvenated back to life, Bava would have none of the easy miasmatic vaporizing resurrections of the Hammer films, and demanded a more plausible and tortured process. It is hard to raise the dead, and, in fact, pretty much the whole movie is involved in a step by step scheme by the witch and her consort to get the witch back up on her feet. This plot runs parallel to the plot in the house, but then the two will converge, as members of the household are required for the fulfillment of the resurrection.

Back in the house, then, we join the three person family, brother, sister, Barbara Steele, and father, and see, right away, that a haunted portrait lords over their living room, and their lives

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There are, in fact, two portraits, either side of the central fireplace, and amazing concoction, with distinctly crushed looking gargoylesque griffins and, more importantly, a dragon emblazoned on the back wall of the fireplace, which will open

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The drama starts when the father, seated in the chair, looks up at the painting off to his left, the one of the witch, not her consort, off to the right, and says that it has changed, that the griffin in the lower right hand of the painting had moved.

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Though there is a close up of the griffin, which looks to me more like an eagle, we are shown it after his sighting, not in moving

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Then Steele joins him, and says how that painting has always attracted her, how it is always talking to her, and later on the witch will say to her no wonder you were attracted to my image you were bound to become me, it is your dark destiny. And it is a very good property, in the style of, perhaps, Winterthur

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Thus the two portraits have established that the two people to whom they refer, and who are haunted by them, are in a limbic state, aroused, haunted. And now the movie must decide which to haunt her, and that would be the father. It is the night of St George’s, he explains how it is the 200th anniversary of the burning of the witch, seen earlier, and he fears of a revisiting. When he is given a drink to calm him before bed, it becomes a prophecy drink, auguring ill, he sees not a reflection in it, but the mask of Satan, the mask on the dead prince

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This now affords us a chance, through a rather roundabout way, by an inn girl going to milk the cows, a sequence that I believe Argento played off of in his recent Dracula, and we see the mask for real, on the dead prince, risen from the grave. He is risen up because the witch has been given enough power by the drop of blood dropped on her to be able to call out his name and call him up, and then I suppose the lightning helped too, and the timing of the gateway of that night. But this is just step one.

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Now he must go through his haunting, and this involves finding the father. He knocks his way invisibly through the house, in a nice sequence, partly rationalized as a gust of wind, echoing too on the piano keys, earlier said, bouncing off of the odd noise coming from the pipes of a ruined organ in the tomb chapel, odd instrument this, which hit an odd eerie note, as if to signify something evil afoot on that night

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And so he steps into the room.

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Now, he did not step out of the painting. He was called up from the tomb by his sister, he came to the house, passed through the house, and now manifests at the bedside. Then the father shushes him off with an orthodox Moldavian cross, so he has to enlist the doctor, called to help the father calm down from his shock, and here we have a valykrie like night ride in a death coach echoing on classic Weimar German supernatural tales

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He then leads the doctor into the house by means of the tomb, and a strange backspace behind the walls, leading to it, even though we don’t know where this space is, or how it is related to the house, and then the doctor gets involved, the father dies, and the plot goes through all that. But we are still at a point where only the father has been undone, and the sister remains intact. That means that the witch does not yet have a host into which she can move. It is determined that that is how she will be able to live again: her body, after all, is decayed, and Bava has decided to leave it that way, so she is helpless, to lie on her tomb, in body, but weak, unable to move, until her consort manipulate things to get her there.

At this point, Bava might well have paused, thinking he has painted himself into a corner. How, he might have wondered, having killed the father, and invaded the house with the consort and the doctor as his minion, coming through the fireplace, how to get the body of the sister to the body of the witch?

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The answer is that up to now, the knowledge of the secret passageway through the fireplace was limited to the prince and then too to the doctor. No one else knew about it. As such, it remained fairly closed, and closed off to the witch too. So, Bava decided that it had to be opened up. And it is in opening up the portal connecting the house of the agents and the tomb of the prototypes that Bava creates one of the great twisting and turning strigulate (note: from stirigulus, marking on Roman sarcophagus, to move in a flowing meandering way) formations of an instrument in modern horror. For the father’s wake, laid out in the house, in the main parlor, where he sat in the first scene, bunting is put up all around. Bunting is also put over the pictures: this was no doubt because the family held traditional beliefs and fears that a dead soul might leap into a portrait if a portrait was around a wake of it (and maybe all of this arises from a reading of wake superstition). There are candles set at the bunting too, it is a lovely display, making a dark chamber, even darker,

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But then the wind comes through and blows the bunting up against the candle, and it catches fire.

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The servant sees this, and runs to put it out. In doing so, he does what one would normally do with a burning cloth, pulls it down, patting at it, stomping at it, as it falls. But in doing this, he breaks through into the picture of the prince, and ruins the portrait. It is an interesting act of unintentional iconoclasm against the agent picture, when the prototype of it roams the house

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The picture, however, reveals something inside of it. For this, the son crawls up into it, and this is quite fun, to see him crawl around in a three dimensional space behind the destroyed two dimensional space: it bespeaks, structurally, the fundamentalist bent of the movie,

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In that picture inside, he discovers that what appear to be elements of the stretcher of the picture is in fact a wooden lever, and the picture is really a cover over a machine. He turns the handle, sitting in the picture now like it is at the prow of a ship, an actual tool, an instrument in the flesh,

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And when he does, they hear a noise, coming from the fireplace. It opens the back wall of the fireplace, through which the prince and the doctor have previously come. Since the dogs were found with their throats cut directly in front of the fireplace too, again, literalizations of the gargoyles, who may have been made somewhat canine looking for that purpose, they realize that this is a secret passageway, and they must follow it.

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They now proceed through a back tunnel, behind the walls. It is not clear if they ever knew about the tunnel, if not, then, it is a palliative space, a hiding place, between the living and the dead, and at the end of the corridor, there is another portrait, this time of the witch, but now, revealed, in the nude, to be a witch, with snake and charms

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Having got in their mind that there was something behind one picture, it now makes sense that they immediately think that there is something behind that picture, so they push it, and there is,

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As they push through, we get the best view in the movie of the image in the picture, this indicates that as they pass through, though they might think they are gaining ground, they are in fact entering into the domain (and, in a way, body) of the witch,

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Its an odd portrait: more a schematic sketch, her boobs made out to be two more orbs in an hour glass, or crystal balls, and her privates covered by a drape, but given figure as devious by the snake and its double helix fold

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And, now, to our surprise, we enter into a second corridor behind even that, and, even odder, this one obviously must be enterable from the outside, because we recognize it as the strange corridor that Kuvie was lead to en route to the crypt,

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Later, coming back the other way, we get a better view of the corridor on the inside of the witch portrait, it is quite an evocative place

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And as a later fight sequence indicates, it even has a booby trap and a cage below

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this then leads us back, round from the house, into the family crypt, the first haunted place we visited in the movie, and coming in contact with it by a completely different route and through an entirely unlikely means, through the portraits, makes this discovery even more paranoid,

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what Bava has done, then, is create a corridor for action, or a machine for the plot, from hear on out. At this end, the body of the witch, still paralyzed, unable to get up, and on the other end, around a few zig zags, through a portrait, and then a fireplace, the body of the dead father, as the main parlor, we now see more fully, has been made into a wake. And sure enough, to put her in the sights, Steele walks right into the corridor of plotting, to mourn her father

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there is some business about running about too, to stretch out the connection between the crypt and the castle

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when then is this, we can see now that in the repeated suits of armor, in, mostly, the odd Gorgonlike gargoyles on the fireplace, in the existence of one zig zig hidden chamber, entered into after a trial by fire, over a pit, there is another image, and another door, and then entry into the inner tomb, this is an Egyptian style tomb, created in the space between the castle and the crypt by some ancestor of the family, to make the connection between the portrait agents and the actual prototypes of the portraits, the dead people they refer too. And this palliative, in-between space, this is an architecturalization of a link to make the reversion to prototype possible, it is an instrument of resurrection, built into the castle. It is an Egyptian tomb, pure and simple. The castle is the antechamber, the memorial chapel, apparently unconnected to the tomb, on the other side of the mountain. But then the fireplace is the secret entrance, there is a passageway to an annex, it is filled with objects, it is also lined with picture frames,

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these possibly indicate that the annex space was made use of in the past by the witch and pictures were the instruments she used to cast spells on people, it is hard to say, perhaps her image was there because at some time in the less recent past, the witch was worshipped, or the center, still, of a surviving coven, like in Witchcraft, in which case they would have met in that annex space in front of a portrait of her as a witch, in the nude. And then there is no apparent entrance, but the picture turns back, and it becomes the cult picture, as the body of the real thing is behind, in the crypt. In its complexity, it is an Egyptian tomb (even, at the end, when the doctor looks out of the grated window at the burning, then looks back at Katje comes back to life, that makes of the window a false door, a contact by which spirit passed into and out of and back into the crypt. So, a very rich space indeed).

Once Steele begins mourning,

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Things heat up, the father, at the hour of darkness, comes alive, he is a vampire, she is terrified, they fight, somehow the father gets caught in the fire, and burned

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And he is burned in the fireplace, in, again, one of the movie’s most evocative scenes, echoing on House of Wax (1953), but also strongly situated in the tradition of burning something of import in the fireplace. And as a form of portrait, this is an effigy,

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Then the prince gets her, and now he can carry her through, all the paths now open, to the crypt

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Where he lays her down, and the witch and her go through the last symbiosis: the witch touches her, we see a shift of lighting and makeup, Katje ages as the witch grows young, and at last the witch has the power to stand up. It has taken a long time, the whole movie. Her consort has had to to a lot of for her, he has spooked the father, mislead and vampirized the doctor, come for the father a few times, then burned the father, and now, finally, all defenses of her down, he gets her and carries her in: interesting, in the above shot, the portrait of the prince is exposed, its torn opening too, while the portrait of the witch remains under bunting, a sign that she is still in need of the body of the living one

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The make up effects of the aging are not great, likely borrowed from the lighting-makeup devices made use of in the original Frederic March Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde, but then when the young doctor gets involved in a roundabout way through a priest and the townspeople, they come in on the two, Katje now presumed dead, the witch now young, and they chase the witch, to burn her, but curiously, we find that she still has not entirely materialized, she has miasmic gooey ribs, which still show through, so, even now, it takes time. And so she is burned,

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And then, in a surprise ending, her death restores the life and youth she stole from Katje to her, and they live happily ever after (the young doctor finally to get that heaving bosom under a crucifix that he so illicitly desired while caring for her shocked body).

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It really is all about the prototype, the witch, and her contemporary counterpart, Katje, both played by Steele: but the haunting started with the portraits, and with the portraits too the degree to which the house was connected to the tomb, and their whole life was found to be linked to the actual bodies, and not just the memories, of the curse of the prototypes, makes the portraits significant instruments, true haunted portraits. At the same time, at no time did they become cult pictures, with the spirit of the ghost coming into the physical construct of the picture, or stepping through or out of it, Bava chose to sidestep this function. He made of the whole castle-crypt complex an architectural rendering of the idea of the relationship between the agent pictures and the prototype dead they referred to. He chose to create in 19th century Europe an atavistic revival of an Egyptian tomb, a classic sacred space, with its outer antechambers, and inner sanctum sanctorum. In the same way, he made the process of revivification of the dead witch just as zig zag difficult: in short, he strigulated both the body of the with and the body of the castle, and the portraits play the part of the key that makes the connection between the past and present (a thought which makes me think they are more gateway figures too). All in all, I have always admired the device of the hidden truth behind the haunting portraits in Mario Bava’s classic of modern horror, Black Sunday.