Saturday, October 29, 2016
We begin in the 17th century in Moldavia, which is today part of Romania and modern day Moldova, with two witches being put to death. One is a princess, Asa Vajda (played by Steel). Her lover and fellow Satanist has already been put to death. She is being executed under the orders of her own brother. She is branded, but has time to place a curse on her family. Then a mask with spikes in it is hammered onto her face. But they can't be burned, as a thunderstorm breaks out. Instead of waiting for clear weather, the lover is buried in unconsecrated ground, and Steel is put in a coffin in a crypt, her face still in the mask, with a window in the coffin facing a cross to keep her in place.
Two-hundred years later a pair of doctors on their way to a conference pass along the road that is said to be haunted. When a wheel breaks they wander into the abandoned crypt, finding Steel's coffin. The older doctor, who is the stupid character in the film, pries off her mask. He then, fending off a bat, breaks the cross. Uh oh.
Steel, from her coffin, frees her lover, who then lures the doctor back to her to sacrifice his blood to bring her alive. The Vajda's have current descendants, including Katya (also played by Steel), whom the witch sets her eyes on to use as a new body. But the younger doctor, who actually has some sense, works to save her.
The film was directed by esteemed director of giallo and slasher films Mario Bava in his debut. It is extremely atmospheric, with lots of fog and spooky noises. If I were a teenager watching this film all alone on a rainy night I might not get to sleep for a while. It's full of horror tropes like a crumbling castle with secret passages and portraits that have figures moving inside them. It is steeped in Eastern European superstition (or is it?) and is a great film to scare your loved ones with a fright after it's over.
Steel made many horror films, and at least ten to twenty years ago was doing a bang-up business at horror film conventions. She's now 89 so I don't know how active she is at that anymore. She shows off her skills here by being a mean witch and a sweet ingenue. There's something to be said in the difficulty of acting in a horror film without coming off ridiculous.