Saturday, March 21, 2009

Grievous battily harm

In Mario Bava's proper directorial debut LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO (UK: MASK OF THE DEMON, US: BLACK SUNDAY, 1960), horror emanates - and the plot (oh so loosely cribbed from Gogol's satirical supernatural tale Vij) evolves - from the chance disturbance of a grave... the resting place of an undying, vengeful wraith.

On his way to a medical convention, seasoned sawbones Dr. Kruvajan (Antonio Checchi) happens upon the ruin of an ancestral crypt and his innate curiosity compels him to investigate. While poking around in a particularly dark corner of the subterranean mausoleum, Kruvajan discovers an odd casket, particularized by a glass window over which looms a crucifix. While puzzling over this funereal oddment, the movement of something overhead pulls his focus.

It would not have been unreasonable for Kruvajan to expect to encounter a bat in this setting but all to soon it becomes apparent...

... that this is no ordinary bat. Bava and camera operator Ubaldo Terzano provide only synechdocal flashes of the creature, much as future filmmakers would depict great white sharks vis a vis their doral fins. Still, the particular physiognomy of the batwing - the almost Gothic arch of its membranous segments - is unmistakable.

These glimpses, accompanied by an ungodly flapping, which cracks the air like a muslin sail torn loose from its ties, give the viewer the subjective impression of one extra fucking large predator.

Kruvajan reacts as any of us might - he pulls his walking stick and begins beating the thing as it hovers over him.

But killing this beast is no mean feat. With the precision of a skilled surgeon (which he is), Kruvajan aims for the brain, thumping the monster on the head repeatedly. While the doctor's reaction is understandably frenzied, he makes a man's work of his defense... but the damned thing just won't go down.

Shadowy cutaways give us a better idea of its profile. Large ears and an impressive wingspan. Good lord, what if there are more of these ungodly things down here?

A close-up of Kruvajan's reaction gives us a sense of his horror and the dread attendant to the collision between a free-range modern man of reason with something ancient, prehistoric, territorial and very possibly evil.

Unable to smack the creature out of the air, Kruvajan goes for the big guns.

As big a gun as he has handy, anyway.

Pulling a one-shot derringer from his waistcoat, he takes aim.


The uberbat drops onto the coffin with a juicy kerplop. But as if Kruvajan has seen too many slasher flicks where the killer never dies, he moves in to finish the job...

... using his walking stick to cudgel the abomination into guava jelly.

So furious is his coup de grace...

... that Kruvajan accidentally smashes that odd custodial crucifix...

... affixed to the coffin lid.

As the dust clears, and with the casket window free of the oppressive shadow of that stone cross, Kruvajan peers inside.

The corpse, the deceased, the condemned - whomever or whatever is interred within this sarcophagus - has been laid to rest wearing an odd ceremonial mask...

... a ghastly thing resembling a devil or a demon...

... or perhaps a giant bat!

Kruvajan's imprudent removal of this mask sets LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO in motion, with his blood (spilled by contact with jagged shards of the coffin window glass) resuscitating the long dormant witch/succubus Asa Vadja. The doctor ultimately revives her with a kiss, in a perverse nod to/inversion of such popular fairy tales as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (which, Bava biographer Tim Lucas has written, had a big effect on Italian children when it was released abroad). With so little of the bat actually shown, it's difficult to say who might have constructed the prop - one suspects the hand of Bava's father Eugenio - but whether there really was a fat bat prop remains as shadowy as the critter in question.

Fat bats were later a staple gimmick of the Hammer Studios house of horrors, flapping heavily through such well-loved romps as BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) and SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) and monster-themed fan magazines did booming business in rubber bats.

Yet for all their popularity during the Space Race as a reassuringly Gothic throwback, a kind of fairytale anti-ICBM, the fat bat became steadily and irreversibly déclassé as horror movie violence shifted from fantastical themes to go for the jugular with a greater emphasis on forensic verité.* That change was to be expected, I suppose, but it's rather sad that horror fans became interested more in the narcissistic simulacrity of their own viscera than in mythical creatures spawned from our collective Id. We lost a great deal of our shared cultural innocence when we retired the fat bat.

This post was written exclusively for The Flying Maciste Brothers' Destructible Blog-a-thon.1, which continues through the end of March.

* Obviously, horror films were changed dramatically and irrevocably after the examples of William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST (1973) and Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974). While these two productions - one a big budget studio event and the other a flinty independent concoction - might be perceived to have turned the representational tide away from demure, mythic themes to graphic, unblinking depictions of horror hardwired to a greater emphasis on sexuality and bodily functions (evacuatory, ejaculatory, and arterial), both films fit comfortable into the tradition of folklore. For what is THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE but an expansion of Hansel and Gretel, with Franklin and Sally Hardesty standing in for the eponymous siblings and the witch's hut supplanted by the charnal Sawyer house; and who is THE EXORCIST's Regan O'Neil but a modern take on the supine, bedridden heroines of both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and the not-quite-dead Cossak's daughter who torments the maladroit seminarian Khoma Brut in Gogol's Viy?


The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

Stunning contribution to the DESTRUCTIBLE BLOG_A_THON.1 , you fat bat-tard!

Greg F. said...

Not only a great contribution but I can't believe you put your picture up at the end.

Aside from making me want to watch Black Sunday (sorry, that's the title I grew up with so I use it. Like trying to get me to call Breathless A Bout de Souffle, I just can't do it) again immediately it brings to mind how much we have lost thanks to the wide dissemination, via cable and the internet, of knowledge about nature.

Two hundred years ago most of the wild life in Africa was wild and fanciful to most peoples minds and as a result widely misunderstood, like gorillas being bloodthirsty man-killers. We learned otherwise eventually. Then we learned Octopi are really small and pretty much harmless. Then we found that even when a squid is big enough to be deadly it lives at the bottom of the sea and only tussles with whales. And whales are harmless too, despite Moby Dick.

Well, bats took longer to get there but eventually, thanks to Wild Kingdom and Animal Planet we learned bats eat insects and even the bloodsuckers pretty much stick to sleeping cattle and goats. So they become ridiculous in a horror setting to the modern eye unless used in a "realistic" way, likes the hordes flying to the surface at the beginning of the cave expedition in Descent.

And I guess that's the real loss, the need to take everything so goddamn literally. We can't have a Murder in the Rue Morgue anymore because orangatans aren't mad killers. So what? I say bring the bats back.

Arbogast said...

Coincidentally, I've been reading a bit about vampire bats lately via Bill Schutt's Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood Feeding Creatures. His observations and findings are revelatory regarding the adaptability of vampire bats to a nature ever more touched and shaped by man. Yes, the old school fat bats have been relegated to the dustbin of antiquity... but it's fun to dip back into that dustbin from time to time.

micha mae said...

excellent post. i especially love the play-by-play bat bit. plenty to think about as well [which is always good].

... and thanks for reminding me that revisiting old favorites is NOT a waste of time. with so many films i have yet to see, i almost feel bad about spending so much time re-watching the ones i have. there is something more to gain by second, third + the occasional fifteen viewing. black sunday has always been on my list of films-to-be-seen-again + again. i think now though, that re-visitation will be more soon than later.

Arbogast said...

thanks for reminding me that revisiting old favorites is NOT a waste of time

Speaking of this movie in particular, I had to see Black Sunday six or seven times before it really won me over. And mind you, the first time I ever saw it was on the big screen, so it wasn't the case of an inferior VHS transfer cooling my potential ardor. No, the movie has a somewhat somnambulant quality to it and, while I liked the movie generally speaking, I thought it lacked a certain (for want of a better word) oomph. Now it works for me and somewhere around the sixth or seventh viewing I started to develop definite, palpable feelings of dread and revulsion connected to the unholy rebirth of the witch Aja and that's the feeling I now enjoy when revisiting Black Sunday.

You go back to movies for a reason - they're still working on you, or you're still trying to figure something out, and that time is not wasted time.