Lamberto Bava’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Vij’ begins with the arrival by helicopter of eight twenty-somethings (including eighties horror regulars Mary Sellers and actor-turned-director Michele Soavi) onto a snow-capped mountaintop for some skiing. The earth opens up under them, plunging the group into an icy cavern containing the frozen corpse of witch Anibas (Eva Grimaldi, INTIMO) with a spiked metal mask affixed to her face. The removal of the mask coincides with bizarre behaviour by six of the group (one of whom is killed in a supernatural avalanche).
The two unaffected are young lovers Davide (Giovanni Guidelli, WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD) and Sabina (Debora Kinski aka Deborah Caprioglio, PAPRIKA) who has hurt her ankle in the fall. The group are taken in by a blind priest (Stanko Molnar) who lets them in on Anibas’ backstory as various members of the skiing party start demonstrating possessed behaviour and it becomes clear that Anibas has set her sights on the body of Sabina for her resurrection (hint, spell her name backwards).
Bava’s adaptation of the same source material that served as the basis for his father Mario’s official directorial debut LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO (aka BLACK SUNDAY, 1960) is co-written by that film’s producer Massimo de Rita and co-writer Giorgio Stegani, and is somewhat more faithful to Gogol with flying coffins, witchly tauntings, levitations, and other flashy demonstrations of the witch’s power. Although it could be seen as a return to form by Bava after a series of TV movies produced by Reteitalia (including UNTIL DEATH and the not-bad THE OGRE), LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO (1989) could also be seen as an extension of Lamberto Bava’s own brand of horror with a better budget (with backing by Reteitalia and Silvio Berlusconi) and a little more inspiration as all of the eighties Italian horror standbys are here: composer Simon Boswell and cinematographer Gianfrano Transunto – who, respectively, scored and shot all of Bava’s “Brivido Giallo” telefilms), make-up artist Franco Casagni (OPERA and STENDHAL SYNDROME), and animatronics artist Sergio Stivaletti among others, who all put in great work here, though their contributions are not significantly different than on other, sometimes lesser or sometimes better, eighties Italian horror works.
Boswell’s synth and percussion score is effective, but it seems like the tracks could have come from unused cues in STAGEFRIGHT and DELIRIUM while Transunto’s cinematography is attractive (without the annoying gauzy filtering of much late eighties Italian horror) but too slick – including many sailing distorted POV crane shots – to rival Mario Bava’s contributions to the original. The sets of Giuseppe Mangano (assisted by OPERA’s Davide Bassan who has returned to working with Argento as production designer in the upcoming GIALLO) are exquisitely medieval.
Although Soavi (in a small role) and Sellers were familiar faces in the genre (Soavi also directed Sellers in STAGEFRIGHT), Stefano Molinari played a demon in EVIL CLUTCH and also had a role in Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS 2, while Ron Williams encountered more demonic forces in Jeff Kwitney’s Yugoslavian-shot, Italian-crewed BEYOND THE DOOR III. Caprioglio was a fresh face in Italian horror but achieved more notoriety for the later PAPRIKA (which also featured another of this film’s alumni Alessandra Bonarota) and Klaus Kinski’s PAGANINI while Colin Farrell lookalike Guidelli who ultimately has to face off with the witch and his former friends, now transformed into DEMONI-type creatures after much writhing around in human form.
Stivaletti also gets in a cool scene where Caprioglio shifts back and forth between herself and a shrivelled witch when Guidelli isn’t looking. The flashback featuring dark-haired Kim Basinger lookalike Grimaldi (the resemblance is more pronounced in the NINE ½ WEEKS-ish INTIMO) being lead to the stake by the villagers almost seems to have been more of an inspiration on the look of Tim Burton’s SLEEPY HOLLOW than Mario Bava’s film. Although it was the second time Molnar had played a blind man for Lamberto Bava, he looks completely different than he did in MACABRO and BLADE IN THE DARK (in which he played the red herring handyman).
The film was never dubbed into English and was only available to English audiences as a horrid-looking subtitled Video Search of Miami tape, though it seems to have been difficult to see elsewhere as well. The only official tape releases seem to have been in Japan (where it was retitled DEMONS V – THE DEVIL’S VEIL as a follow-up to DEMONS IV – THE SECT and DEMONS III – THE CHURCH, after the Lamberto Bava originals) and in Spain. The Japanese tape was fullscreen in Italian with Japanese subtitles and quite nice-looking. I have not seen the Spanish tape. The film was recently issued in Spain on DVD as part of a six disc two volume series called SABBATH that reveals that Bava’s film was actually part of a six picture collaboration between Reteitalia (Italy), Television Espana (TVE), Beta Film (German), SFP (Switzerland), FR-3 (France) and RTP (Portugal) that produced one film per country each. The other two on this first set were the Spanish LA LUNA NEGRA (there are no subs on the Spanish discs so I didn’t get all of the story but fans of more recent “restrained” Spanish horror offerings will recognize some elements of this one’s setup) and the German ANNA GOLDIN: THE LAST WITCH.
The films were shown in Spain under the series title SABBATH which explains why the Spanish film has filmed titles (except for the video introduction) while the Italian and German film feature video-generated Spanish language credits (the Japanese tape featured filmed Italian credits). Indeed, the VSOM tape grafted the Italian opening credits (but not the closing ones) from the Japanese tape onto the beginning of the Spanish TV broadcast which explains why their subtitled tape was in Spanish rather than Italian (since the only Italian source had burnt in Japanese subs). The Spanish disc obviously comes from a video master (likely a broadcast master than a VHS tape as there are fortunately no dropouts, tracking lines, or that little bit of noise at the bottom of the frame on most VHS to DVD recordings. The image is softish on progressive monitors but colours are still bold and the sound is really strong (especially the percussion of Boswell’s score).
With its combination of greater production resources and creative ambition, Lamberto Bava’s LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO should not be lumped in with his variable late eighties TV output. One thinks that had this film either been dubbed in English and had wider distribution it might have been seen as the real last gasp of traditional Italian horror. TVE/So Good Entertainment’s Spanish-only offering, with its tacky video generated titles, may not be the ideal way to see the film (though, really, neither is VSOM’s subtitled but putrid-looking edition). Given the availability of anamorphic transfers of Lamberto Bava’s Reteitalia TV movies, one would assume that they still have good film elements for this one.