Retro Review: Watching Black Sunday & Castle of Blood at the New Beverly

Marquee Black Sunday Castle of Blood

The venerable revival house takes film fanatics on a trip through time - back to when movies flickered in 35mm on the big screen, and half the fun of horror was hearing the audience scream along with you.

Last night, Hollywood Gothique took time off from reviewing Halloween haunts to enjoy a well-deserved trip to the cinema - The New Beverly Cinema, in fact, where we watched a pair of classic, black-and-white Italian horror films starring Barbara Steele: Black Sunday (1960) and Castle of Blood (1964). We have no plans to review the films at length here; you can find plenty written about them if you search online. Rather, we want to talk a bit about the New Beverly experience, because this is the first time we have attended the theatre since it was taken over by Quentin Tarantino last year.

Black Sunday and Castle of Blood Revival Screening: A Trip in Time

First off, regarding the theatre itself: everything old is new again - which is to say, the New Beverly looks as it always did, but it's no longer shabby. The walls have been painted, and the holes patched, but the venue still exudes its familiar personality.

Second, the concession stand prices are extraordinarily reasonable: the price of a large soda is less than what you would pay for a small one at any other theatre in Los Angeles. When we remarked upon this to the smiling girl behind the counter, she joked, "Yeah, it's still the '70s in here."

Copyright 2015 Yuki TanakaWhich brings us round to our main point. More than just a double bill of favorite films, last night's experience was a trip on a time machine to decades past but not forgotten. Though not billed as such, the New Beverly is almost as much a museum these days as it is a theatre (rather like the Silent Move Theatre used to be, when it was owned by the late Laurence Austin). All the New Beverly needs is a host to offer some programming notes before the film. (We'd be happy to volunteer for the horror film screenings.)

What makes us say this? As you may know, the New Beverly's eschews digital projection in favor of good, old-fashioned film - preferably 35mm (16mm on occasion). In our digital age, striking new 35mm prints is increasingly rare, so the available prints might be old; they may not date from the original release, but most likely they were struck from the negative used for the original release - which means that audiences are likely to see the films not as they now exist on home video but as they used to existed on movie screens.

This was certainly true of last night's double bill. Black Sunday and Castle of Blood date from an era when foreign imports tended to undergo substantial revisions for American distribution. Both were re-edited and retitled for U.S. theatres; additionally, Black Sunday was re-dubbed and rescored. Eventually, thanks to home video, restored versions became available on DVD and other formats, supplanting the old U.S. theatrical versions, which are now almost impossible to see (unless you can find a version someone taped from an old TV broadcast and posted on YouTube).

Thus, the New Beverly provided a rare opportunity to view both movies as audiences saw them decades ago. As purists, we may prefer the restored versions, but as film geeks fascinated by minutia, we want to see every known variant, if only to test our skill at spotting the differences.

Castle of Blood Revival Screening - U.S. Print
Castle of Blood opening title
Can you see London Bridge behind the title? This film is English, definitely - not Italian, nosiree.

Castle of Blood has fewer variations. The first is the title: the film is known as Danza Macabra in its native country. The U.S. print begins with the credits for the Woolner Brothers American release, which superimposes "Edgar Alan Poe's Castle of Blood" over a shot of London Bridge - just to drive home the point that this movie is set in England. (This continued the original film's attempt to hide its Italian origins by filling the credits with English-sounding pseudonyms.) There are a few deletions: some dialogue by Edgar Alan Poe (who appears as a character) and an attempted Lesbian seduction are missing.

None of these changes makes the American print a particularly noteworthy variant of the film; the importance of last night's screening lies in the fact that, as far as we can recollect, Castle of Blood has not presented theatrically in Los Angeles in our lifetime. Its atmospheric photography and production design deserve to be seen on the big screen, and we are grateful for the opportunity to have done that.

Black Sunday Revival Screening - U.S. Print

The print of Black Sunday is far more interesting. As mentioned above, the film was retitled, redubbed, and rescored for U.S. consumption. Ironically, as sometimes happened with Italian genre films in the 1960s, especially with English-speaking actors in the cast, La Maschera Del Demonio (its original title) was shot in English, though the sound recorded on set was not used. Different dubs were prepared for export to different countries, including an English language version. Despite this, American International Pictures commissioned a new English-language soundtrack featuring altered dialogue, new actors (including the voice of Speed Racer, Peter Fernandez), and a score by Les Baxter.

As with Castle of Blood, Black Sunday is shorn of several seconds: in this case, flashes of violence have been trimmed, and a necrophiliac kiss between Steele's luscious vampire and her first victim (while she lies prostrate on her funeral slab) is gone completely. What's fun, however, is to see the pre-credits crawl (proclaiming the film is so shocking that it should be viewed only by people with mature minds) and to hear Baxter's occasionally melodramatic  score. Roberto Nicolosi's far more sparse music for La Maschera Del Demonio may have overdone the creepy, eerie factor, but it was a model of restraint compared to Baxter's more bombastic orchestrations. Still, Baxter's soundtrack is enjoyable in its over-insistent effort to underline every dramatic moment, and the vocal performances are probably better than in the English-dub that Italian producers exported to other countries  (and currently available on DVD and VOD in the U.S.).

Black Sunday 1960 Barbara Steele with skeleton chest
Words not heard at the New Beverly: "She's the witch - look at her chest!"

Also, the redubbed dialogue of the AIP print fixes a couple of problems. There is a ridiculous howler in the original English track: after seeing that Steele's vampire resembles a rotted skeleton (a fact hidden by her cloak), our hero proclaims to the torch-wielding mob: "She's the witch - look at her chest!" (Cue derisive laughter from the audience.) That little bon mot is thankfully missing in the AIP version, which also includes the phrase "Black Sunday" in the dialogue, justifying the title. (Current U.S. home video releases retain the familiar Black Sunday title on their cover and promotional art, even though the available print bears the title The Mask of Satan and the words "Black Sunday" are never heard on the soundtrack.)

Black Sunday and Castle of Blood Revival Screening: Conclusion

The double bill of Black Sunday and Castle of Blood is part of a month-long series of horror film screenings during the month of October, which also include The Exorcist, From Dusk Till Dawn, Night of the Living Dead, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and  Curse of the Demon.  The New Beverly Cinema is comfortably decked out for the Halloween season, with spiderwebs and lights in the lobby, and a rug that seems to be the skin of a werewolf. Fans who want to see scary movies the way they were meant to be seen - on the big screen, in 35mm - should check it out.

 

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.