Italian Gothic Horror
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Nightmare Castle (1965)
4th Jun 09
A deranged doctor in love with his laboratory kills his rich wife and her lover, only to discover she has left everything to her unbalanced stepsister. He marries this stepsister and attempts to drive her insane but she does this all by herself. Or is it something else?
Back in the 1960’s, the Italian horror landscape was populated by monochrome castles, torture, witches, and revenge. And let’s not forget Barbara Steele, who after ditching her Hollywood career, relocated to the land of pasta and the Pope. The big break came with Bava’s gothic masterpiece, Black Sunday, whose success guaranteed a slew of similar flicks from competent, if less talented directors, like Mario Caiano – a Spaghetti Western specialist who also gave us violent poliziotteschi treats like Weapons of Death and Bloody Payroll. Good efforts as they are, they hold similar ranking in the poliziotteschi genre as Nightmare Castle does in that of gothic horror.
Caiano's entry in this shadowed world isn’t up there with like likes of Bava, but has enough going for it to warrant recommendation if this sort of thing is your bag. Set in a – brace yourself – Gothic castle, the story follows nasty Doctor Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller), who tortures and kills his annoying (but rich) wife, Muriel (Steele) and her lover, David. He then uses her blood to keep his old hag of an assistant, Solange (Helga Line), looking young, so that he can give her a good 'seeing to' every now and again.
The scheming doctor has obstacles ahead: Muriel left her assets to her mentally unstable stepsister, Jennie (also played by Barbara Steele), who Stephen promptly marries so that he can drive her completely bonkers and nab the estate for himself. Unwisely choosing to ignore the fact that Muriel is descended from a long ancestry of witches, Stephen’s dastardly plans become increasingly scuppered as his deceased wife’s spirit possesses Jennie’s body. Now Jennie’s only hope for survival lies in the hands of the nice doctor Dereck Joyce (Lawrence Clift), who would be able to get on with his job if Stephen would stop inviting him to that bloody laboratory all the time.
It’s fair to say that Doctor Stephen loves that damn laboratory. In almost every scene, he tries to mention it at least once, either in a ‘I must get down to my…’, or a ‘Would you like to see some new experiments in my…’ kind of way. He loves it. It’s where he concocts his mad ideas, like how to keep warty old Solange youthful, just so that he can have a decent shag when he feels like it. There is a strong possibility that he has had Solange in that laboratory down there too, but sadly we don’t get to see the youthful (and very hot) Solange being experimented on, all nice and naked.
Another amusing thing about Stephen is his quite outrageous voice and accent. This being an older production - and possibly set in Scotland (it’s called Hampden Castle and there is mention of Edinburgh) – the characters generally talk with that stagey, sometimes transatlantic ‘acting’ voice. And as we all know, no-one ever talks like that except in movies, but Stephen - or rather his dubbed voice actor - takes it as far as it can possibly go. It’s particularly good for saying the word, ‘laboratory’, you know
The castle setting is suitably eerie, and Caiano uses a real location to fantastic effect. Atmosphere leaks out from every crack in these stone walls (even down there in the laboratory), and everything is boldly lit for added menace. There is some proof that Caiano is capable of producing moments of genuine terror, like during Jennie’s first encounter with the spirits in the castle. It’s a sequence which brings to mind, yet predates David Lynch’s monochrome nightmares of The Elephant Man and more notably, Eraserhead. This is partly due to a score by the none-more prolific Ennio Morricone, who sounds like he has raised all the demons in hell on what was his first horror soundtrack. Otherwise, this is a fairly generic organ score from the maestro, which although effective enough, is unlikely to stick in the memory afterwards.
If you’re new to this type of thing, perhaps Black Sunday might prove to be a more suitable recommendation, but Nightmare Castle, along with other entries like Maghereti’s Castle of Blood, also starring Steele (are you noticing a theme here?), is better fun than expected, if the black and white vintage aspect of the whole affair doesn't put you off. Steele seems like she was made to act in this type of fare, and we have two of her for the price of one here. Another highlight is Enzo Barboni's stunning black and white photography, imbuing the entire piece with lashings of brooding atmosphere. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my laboratory.
Severin Films' R1 release is a real treat. The gorgeous anamorphic transfer is accompanied by a Barbara Steele interview, and a separate Mario Caiano interview, which also features his feisty ginger cat.