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Paradise in Hell
on 2 December 2015
This excellent serving of gothic horror was a real feast. The familiar vampire/witchcraft scenario was expertly crafted and shot by Mario Bava and we are brought back to a world of superstition and brutality in a story set in Moldavia in the 17th century and later into the 19th century.
As Barbara Steele said in a 1995 interview, the first ten minutes are very powerful as the fear is internalized. Princess Asa, a satanist, is condemned to death by her brother, an Inquisitor. She, and her servant, Vivoich are condemned to be burned but before that, they have the Mask of Satan banged on to their faces ; there is a close-up of the mask from the witch's viewpoint as she sees the spikes which will pierce her flesh. The mask fills the whole screen. They were due to be burnt at the stakes but the purifying flames are extinguished by a hard, (Satan's?) rainstorm.This is an important part of the plot's set-up because Asa and Vivoich's remains are extant.
Asa curses her brother and her family down through the generations and swears revenge. Asa is interred in the family chapel, eternally facing the Cross through a glass screen; Vivoich is buried unceremoniously in unconsecrated ground and thus the story unwinds on its own supernatural logic.Two centuries later, Asa's descendants still live in the same gloomy castle and we see that their world has become cold, rotten and ruinous. There is Katya, Asa's direct Christian relative, Constantine, her brother and her father the fearful holder of the principality with a small household consisting of servants like Ivan and young Boris. Near at hand is the village with its Church and the long-bearded Orthodox clergyman.
Two centuries of peace are disrupted on Black Sunday, St.George's Day, when the two vampires are revived accidentally by a travelling Professor who is accompanied by his assistant,Andre. Fascinated by the remains of the old chapel,the professor is bitten by a bat after he finds Asa;'s tomb . He removes the mask of Satan and the blood from his wound revives Asa and from then on Hell breaks loose. Her seduction of professor Grubayan is an excellent piece of theatre - 'Look into my eyes' she says as she promises paradise with Satan. The vengeful Asa calls out 'Rise Vivoich!' which he does in a wonderfully filmed scene- the earth moved literally.
There is much chasing round the castle, fire, secret passages and flaming portraits of Asa and Vivoich and a whole gamut of deaths as the grisly p;air pursue their revenge. Asa wants to take over the spirit of Katia now in love with the handsome Andre. At one time there seem to be two Katias but which one is the vampire? Thus there is tension right up to the end after a gripping ninety minutes packed with atmosphere ; there is use of slow pans and tracking shots as the doomed family try to fight their Fate. The dialogue was sparse as Bava wanted the camera to do the talking and letting Barbara Steele seduce the audience,especially when,during her revival by Grubayan, her breathing bosoms bring an erotic charge to the scene.
This was thoroughly enjoyable horror-film art which was generally understated and therefore worked to power the imagination of the audience.