BY-NOW-FAMILIAR VIEWING NOTE: Although the review below was written with reference to Severin’s recent blu-ray edition of ‘Nightmare Castle’, the screen shots above are fairly obviously NOT taken from that disc. They are sourced instead from the truly dreadful public domain DVD of the film I owned prior to that. Apologies for any alarm or bitter tears of rage caused by this, but I’m unlikely to acquire a blu-ray equipped computer any time soon, so whatcha gonna do?
The penultimate entry in the loose cycle of horror films Barbara Steele made in Italy between 1960 and 1966, Mario Caiano’s ‘Nightmare Castle’ provides one of the wildest, but also the most frustrating, of the Steele-starring black & white gothics.
An oddly off-kilter movie in any of its assorted iterations, the film’s scattershot script (credited to Caiano and Fabio De Agostini) mixes up more horror movie plot elements than frankly seems sensible, but never bothers to sufficiently develop any of them (never mind reconciling them into a cohesive narrative), instead relying entirely upon audience familiarity with the clichés being enacted to fill in the gaps. Classic Italian scripting then, in other words. Molto buono!
So, get this for plot line: Dr Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller), a saturnine scientist involved in questionable and secretive experiments involving frogs, bubbling test tubes and exotic plants, catches his aristocratic wife (Steele, of course) in an adulterous greenhouse embrace with the hunky gardener (spaghetti western regular Rik Battaglia). Crazed with jealousy, the good doctor vows to torture the lovers to death, making use of the castle’s conveniently appointed medieval dungeon in the process, only to discover in the midst of his gloating that his wife, “..upon realising what a vile, perverted monster [she] had married”, has already disinherited him, instead leaving her estate and fortune to her “simpering idiot” twin sister Jenny.
Unperturbed, Dr. A nonetheless subjects his captives to a grisly death by electrocution, after which he removes their hearts, drains their blood (for his experiments, we presume?) and burns their bodies, placing his wife’s ashes in a plant pot, from which a strange, “fleshy”, allegedly blood-dripping plant grows.
Quite how he manages to square all this with the coroner is never discussed, but presumably everything must be cool with the law, for the next thing we know, Dr Arrowsmith has revolved to retain his access to his late wife’s estate by means of seducing and marrying her ‘crazy’ sister (Steele again, now in a blonde wig) – a task he apparently manages to accomplish in short order, despite his lack of either charm or social standing, and a countenance that at best resembles that of a humanised bald eagle (sorry Paul).
To the doc’s chagrin though, Jenny actually turns out to be quite a demure and heroically-inclined young lady, who shows little sign of being either ‘simpering’ or an idiot. She is, however, still subject to the ravages of the vaguely defined ‘fragile constitution’ that has apparently plagued her family’s female lineage since time immemorial (this is demonstrated by a quick candle-lit spin through the family vault, where it is revealed that several of her forebears have died aged in their middle twenties).
As such, Dr Arrowsmith (whose name is amusingly pronounced as ‘Aerosmith’ by some of the actors on the English dub, I feel the need to point out) figures he can still drive Jenny crazy without too much difficulty via the usual methods employed by dastardly relatives in stories like this, after which he and his new lover, sullen housekeeper Solange (Helga Liné), can continue to live in the manner to which they are accustomed, with wife # 2 safely packed off to the funny farm. What they haven’t counted on however is the vengeful spirit of wife # 1, who is still very much at large on the spectral plain, causing all sorts of mischief and attempting to possess the body of her living sister!
Meanwhile, whilst all this is going on, Dr Arrowsmith has also used some miraculous rejuvenation techniques he has developed in his laboratory – presumably using wife # 1’s blood? - to return youth and beauty to the previously disfigured and decrepit Solange. But, wouldn’t you know it, now that she looks like Helga Liné again (minus the truly awful ‘aging’ make up used in earlier scenes), Solange needs regular transfusions of fresh blood to keep her pretty, and Jenny is first in line for the chloroform. (Always the way, isn’t it?)
So, there you go. Try picking the thread of sense out of that lot, if you dare.
As eventful as all this may sound on paper however, the sad truth is that the majority of ‘Nightmare Castle’s inexplicably over-extended run-time (the longest version clocks in at an eye-watering 109 minutes) remains a crushing bore. In keeping with most other aspects of the production, Caiano’s direction exhibits only intermittent bouts of inspiration and otherwise remains largely pedestrian, whilst the sheer quantity of time dedicated to watching characters yakking somberly in medium shot about stuff we have either guessed already or should by rights be seeing instead is simply inexcusable, even by the talky standards of ‘60s gothics. On top of that, the flat and careless English dubbing will likely provide the final KO for many viewers’ attention spans (I don’t currently have access to a subtitled Italian version, but I wouldn’t hold out great hope for it being much better, to be honest).
Despite all the plot threads flying around the place, the ghost story stuff – and the accompanying spooky atmospherics - is largely sidelined through the central hour of ‘Nightmare Castle’, allowing the rehashed mad science and half-baked thriller elements to predominate, sometimes threatening to revert to a tedious plod through the old “couple have a deadly secret, must murder others to preserve it” routine that would go on to become the prime motivator in dozens of subsequent Italian horror and giallo scripts. (Whilst you’d be hard pressed to call ‘Nightmare Castle’ a ‘proto-giallo’ in any sense, certain recurrent bits of plotting, together with a general vibe of predatory cynicism, certainly point in that direction.)
The film does at least benefit from a superb shooting location – the same villa used in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock I believe? – but, although we get a good eyeful of grandly baroque dining room, some derelict exteriors and an ancient-looking medieval-ish bed chamber, surprisingly little atmosphere is wrung from these surroundings in most sequences, whilst, unhelpfully, many scenes are instead confined to bare-walled corridor and lab sets.
Such persistent tedium is disappointing, given that the sheer amount of improper shenanigans going on in ‘Nightmare Castle’ does at least invest it with a pleasing air of of cynical, polymorphous perversity. Indeed, the film is not without thematic interest, and the few bone fide ‘good bits’ are real knockouts.
Early on for instance, there is an extremely effective fantasy sequence (perhaps modeled after the ones in the Corman/Poe films?), utilising a mixture of diffuse lighting and seemingly ‘damaged’ film stock that rendered it almost unintelligible on the much-degraded public domain prints that for many years represented the only way to see this film. Much aided by the pre-Eraserhead drone and magisterial organ dirges of what I think must have been one of Ennio Morricone’s first scores for a fantastical/genre film, this sequence makes for an authentically disorientating and hair-raising couple of minutes. As with the somewhat stoned scripting decisions, it’s basically a dry run for the kind of surrealistic cheap thrills that would predominate in the Erotic Castle Movies that supplanted the old fashioned gothics in the following decade, and it also busts open one of the more interesting elements of ‘Nightmare Castle’ - namely, its position as one of the more overtly Freudian Italian gothics.
After the initial ‘trauma’ of Muller’s discovery of Steele and Battaglia, the film constantly seems to want to drag us back to this ‘primal scene’ in (where else?) the greenhouse. During the (sadly all too rare) moments when ‘Nightmare Castle’s sense of reality becomes more tenuous, we seem to plunge into the subjective consciousness of the characters, as life/death, part/present, dream/reality etc all begin to implode into one swirling stew within the troubled psyche of the blonde sister, or the doctor, or of the disembodied spirit of Steele’s brunette incarnation, or some strange mixture of all three. If the film’s crude plotting and propensity for blandness ultimately never allows these potent ideas to fully manifest themselves, there is still enough meat within the stronger sequences for cinematic dreamers to get stuck into (and god knows, they’ll have plenty of time to chew it over whilst Muller, Line et al are blabbing inconsequentially on those drab sets).
Likewise, ‘Nightmare Castle’ is also one of the few early ‘60s horror films to directly address the subject of Sado-Masochism that so frequently hangs over these stories (Jess Franco’s ‘The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus’ (1962) being the only other example that immediately springs to mind). The depiction here of Arrowsmith’s torture of his wife and her lover is quite lengthy and mean-spirited, but also highly aestheticised, as if Caiano realised that Steele’s fans would get a kick out of seeing her writhing in various stage of torment whilst we are invited to share in Muller’s delighted smirking. Though not overly explicit, it’s all rather kinky to say the least, and likewise, the electrified bedframe gimmick that Arrowsmith subsequently uses to dispose of his victims – frying them in some hideous mockery of sexual embrace - seems an alarmingly unwholesome innovation for an old fashioned gothic horror, more suited really to some blood-thirsty‘70s exploitation epic.
Once Steele (brunette version) returns as an undead avenger during the film’s conclusion, these intimations of S&M are made explicit, as she says to Muller, “you gave me extreme pleasure, you taught me the pleasure of the torment of the flesh, which turns into ecstasy that passes beyond life and death and into eternity; now I’m going to reward you with that same pleasure…” – not much room for ambiguity there.
And that brings us to the main reason why it’s worth sitting through catatonic drag of ‘Nightmare Castle’s director’s cut – namely, the fact that the movie’s closing reel is flat-out fantastic. Suddenly, the camera spins, the castle’s ornate interiors become vast, shadow-haunted and oppressive, and, as thunder roars and Ennio goes nuts on the organ, the film fully embraces the kind of maniacal atmosphere that has been so sadly lacking up to this point, as the bodies of Steele and her lover arise as avenging, acid-scarred zombies (you what!?) for a brief but exhilarating campaign of baleful carnage.
Steele is magnificent here, her performance dripping menace. Her initial appearance from the deep blackness of a castle hallway, the left side of her face covered by hair, has a quite haunting, genuinely spectral feel to it, and, once she reveals her scarred face and gets down to business vis-a-vis giving Muller what for, she just goes all out – guffawing and hissing and growing in wonderfully unhinged, scenery-shredding fashion. Tremendous stuff.
Belatedly introduced during this final fifteen minutes, her family’s ‘twin hearts’ coat of arms, ironically mirrored by the hearts of the two lovers that Arrowsmith has kept impaled on the same spike in his lab, makes for a great horror movie motif, with the closing image of the hearts consumed by flames providing an effective – if not exactly subtle – commentary on the petty cruelty and self-interest that has motivated just about every plot point in the preceding ninety minutes.
Buried somewhere within ‘Nightmare Castle’s rambling, nap-inducing expanse is the essence of a great, transgressive horror movie. As David Del Valle points out on the Severin edition’s commentary track, its best moments represent an early exemplar of the kind of delirious, irrational take on horror cinema championed by France’s Midi Minuit Fantastique magazine, and as such, it still packs a considerable punch for fans of this-sort-of-thing.
So - what went wrong? In answering that question, an interview with director Caiano on the same discs provides some illuminating background.
In short then: Caiano’s father Carlo had been a successful producer in Italy during the ‘50s, but by the early ‘60s, had fallen upon hard times. Having naturally enough grown up around movies, but with no direct writing or directing experience of his own, young Mario was mad on gothic fiction, and, seeing how the genre was ‘in’ at the time, convinced his father to give him a shot at making a horror movie, as a kind of “one last mission” deal.
Initially, Mario had envisaged more delirium, more camera tricks and special effects, and, most importantly, he wanted to off-set the film’s black & white photography by strategically inserting blobs of bright red blood (ala the techniques used in Roger Vadim’s ‘Blood & Roses’ (1960), presumably). Finances were tight though, and, after shooting began, Dad put the nix on all this.
And suddenly, the mysteries of this odd film fall into place. The over-extended run-time, the over-ambitious but nonsensical script? These are of course common errors of rookie filmmakers the world over, especially when working, as here, with no professional studio backing or more experienced creative hand on the tiller. Unable to realise his more ambitious visual ideas, Caiano must have taken the decision to concentrate on the strongest element he did have to work with – namely the excellent cast – whilst minimising action and cutting back on unnecessary camera set-ups, and… at the end of the day, we get what we get.
And if what we get is about half a year’s worth of flatly dubbed yakking, well, no matter. God bless you Mario, you tried your best, and, viewed in the context outlined above, I think you did pretty damn well - ruffling a few feathers, cannily anticipating a few subsequent developments in the horror genre, and giving one of said genre’s finest ever actresses a few of her best ever scenes. I think that’s more that worthy of celebration, and, if ‘Nightmare Castle’ isn’t exactly the rip-roaring Friday Night Horror Movie some may be hoping for, it’s still an experience that devotees of this particular corner of cinema should definitely make time for once or twice a lifetime. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just went through it a third time to get the screen grabs, and I really need a snooze…