Rural Russian in the late Middle Ages - a witch (Barbara Steele) and her partner are sentenced to death, as she dies she curses the family of her persecutor - her own brother. Two hundred years later, two doctors are passing by the now largely ruined family castle when their coach loses a wheel. Taking the time to explore a ruined chapel they discover the witch's coffin and Doctor Kruvajan manages to break a cross standing over the coffin as well as removing the 'Mask of Satan' placed on the corpse to stop it coming back to life. They meet Princess Vajda (also Barbara Steele) who now lives in the castle and is the spitting image of the witch, who now rises from the dead to take revenge on the family who killed her...
Mario Bava had a sucessful career in the late 1950s as a cinematographer, particularly on the popular peplum 'sword and sandal' films - while working on The Giant of Marathon (1959) he was put into the director's chair after the credited director, Jacques Tourneur, walked off the set. Seeing his potential and as a thanks for his work, the production company Galatea Film, for whom Bava had worked on three pepla and the horror picture Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959) (which he had also largely directed) offered him a chance to direct a project of his own choice, complete with a lavish six week shooting schedule and a suitable budget.
The opening titles credit the inspiration for the story to Viy, a tale written by persecuted Russian writer Nikolai Gogol and written in the style of ancient folk legends, although the link to this work is incredibly loose, providing only really the setting for this tale (the Russian setting does at least provide some variation from the generic mittle-Europe of the Hammer and Universal gothic horror films). The script itself was written by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei who had both worked on the Bava lensed Le fatiche di Ercole (1958) - although neither had written horror films before, they provide a solid storyline that allows for plenty of creepy atmosphere, unfortunately their attention to detail is a little poor and the film does feel rather contrived in places - Doctor Kruvajan's all-out vandalism of the family church in the beginning is unintentionally comic, while the incredibly convenient presence of two hundred year-old paintings of the witch and her servant is never explained. The film is generally quite slowly paced and does come close to dragging in places, but builds up well to the climax - unfortunately it is somewhat let down here by a drawn-out fistfight between the hero and the demon that just seems completely inappropriate and a rather uninspired conclusion.
Visually the film is outstanding, every shot looking like a work of art - Bava was an experienced cinematographer and shows off some genuine talent - using the black and white photography to its full in the shadows and darkness of the castle. The set design is perfectly suited and helps to give the film its strong and often scary atmosphere - he uses a number of long tracking and panning shots to show off the impressive scale of the sets. The soundtrack from Roberto Nicolosi is good at building up the mood in many scenes, but unfortunately is often missing when it could be helpful (the ending fistfight in particular seems even more daft when it plays out in silence) and a cloy Rachmaninov inspired love theme does get rather annoying at times.
One of the biggest problems affecting the distribution of Italian horror films in the early 1960s was that domestic audiences would not accept the idea of a home-made horror and so to tie the production in to the popular British gothic horrors of the era, two English-born stars play the lead roles. Barbara Steele makes the first of what would become a career of Italian gothic horror roles here in the dual role of witch and princess and is joined by John Richardson as the young doctor. While their performances are generally acceptable and Steele gives a good shot as the re-born witch, their romantic scenes are completely devoid of any chemistry. The Italian cast are strong however, including Le fatiche di Ercole (1958) co-stars Ivo Garrani and Arturo Dominici.
La Maschera del Demonio is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful gothic horror films ever made and an easy match for the very best of Terence Fisher's Hammer productions and the Roger Corman Poe films - unfortunately it is let down considerably by the script, soundtrack and the acting all of which could have been considerably better. Still, it remains a must see film for all gothic horror fans and a great place to start exploring the world of Mario Bava.
|Anyone famous in it?||
Babara Steele - British actress who became a gothic horror icon, also appearing in Nightmare Castle (1965)
John Richardson - an English actor best known for starring in caveman epic One Million Years B.C. (1966)
|Directed by anyone interesting?||Mario Bava - Often ranked among the best of the European cult directors, he made his name with horror films like The Whip and the Body (1963), Black Sabbath (1963) and Kill, Baby, Kill (1966).|
|Is it scary?||There are a number of atmospheric scenes that, watched properly, will be very scary - don't expect any jump shocks or cheap scares.|
|Any gore or violence ?||Some bloody deaths.|
|Any sex or nudity?||None|
|Who is it for?||A must-see for fans of gothic horror.
|Visuals||Original Aspect Ratio - 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. Black and White.
The print is strong, with good detail. It is quite grainy and has some minor flickering and damage in some scenes, but is free of speckles. The additional scene (see cut? below) is slightly darker than the rest of the scenes, but similarly undamaged.
|Audio||German, Italian and English mono. The Italian and English tracks are strong, although German is slightly tinnier.
The English track is missing one scene (see cut? below) which plays in Italian only - the English track is the original Rome recording and not the later, rescored AIP version.
The German track is missing several scenes which play in English or Italian.
|Subtitles||German - translation of the Italian track.
German - infill of the missing scenes.
|Extras||The disc includes:
|Region||Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL|
|Packaging||A standard Amaray case contained within a cardboard slip-cover.|
|Availability||German release. DVD Title: Die Stunde, wenn Dracula kommt
|Other regions?||Available from Anchor Bay in the US as part of the 5 film Mario Bava Collection Vol. 1 - includes a similar print with English audio only, bonus features are the Tim Lucas commentary and some trailers - missing the additional dialogue scene from the Italian prints that is on this DVD. Italian version from RHV has Italian or English audio (although no English subtitles) and more features including English subtitled interview with Steele and includes the original 'intermission break' cards on the print.|
|Cuts?||The film is believed to be fully uncut as per the original Italian cinema version. This version includes a dialogue scene between the Princess and her father that was only present on the Italian print of the film. This version is missing the 'End of Part 1' 'Part 2' cards present on the original Italian cinema print, and included on the Italian RHV DVD. On original release in the US the film was edited, re-scored and dubbed by AIP, this version is not currently available on DVD.|