Sunday, 14 June 2020

Gothic Originals:
The Virgin of Nuremberg
(Antonio Margheriti, 1963)





(AKA ‘Horror Castle’, ‘The Castle of Terror’, ‘Das Schloss des Grauens’, etc.)

When ploughing my way through the canon of ‘60s Italian gothics a few years back, I overlooked this early effort from Antonio Margheriti – his first entrée into the horror genre, I believe - simply because I couldn’t locate a watchable copy. Nowadays of course, the internet provides, but I’m not sure that ‘La Vergine di Norimberga’ was entirely worth the wait.

Filmed in colour on the same sets used for Mario Bava’s The Whip and The Body (does the presence of Christopher Lee indicate that both films were filmed around the same time?), Margheriti conjures some splendid - albeit entirely conventional - passages of gothic atmosphere here, complete with all the looming, cob-webbed staircases, candelabra-bearing, night-gowned peregrinations and baroque, wrought iron latticework one could possibly ask for.

Ernesto Gastaldi’s script (supposedly based on a book by the fictitious sounding ‘Frank Bogart’) meanwhile throws a few novel ideas into the mix to off-set the clichés – not least the decision to make this one of the first ‘60s gothic horror films which ostensibly takes place in the present day. It’s unfortunate therefore that the filmmakers consistently fail to put these innovations to very effective use, but… more on that later. (1)

For now, let’s simply state that the idea of our unsuspecting young bride (Mary, played by Rossana Podestà, in this case) discovering that the airless rooms of her aristocratic German husband’s creepy familial mansion are haunted not only by the memory of his most infamous ancestor, a scarlet-garbed inquisition torturer, but also by the more recent horrors of the Third Reich, is a fantastic and potent one indeed.

Specifically, the heroine’s dashing husband Max (Georges Rivière) is the son of a deceased Nazi general / surgeon, whose legacy is personified by the menacing presence of Lee, who remains largely in ‘looming heavy’ mode here in the role of Erich, the taciturn, scar-faced former adjutant of the house’s dead patriarch, who, obedient to the last, now spends his days maintaining his erstwhile commanding officer’s on-site family museum, dusting off the thumb-screws and iron maidens, and keeping the black-hooded effigy of the ‘The Punisher’ (as the medieval torturer was known) in good nick.

“He laid down the law in this region, and punished adultery with death,” Max cheerily notes of his nefarious ancestor. “It seems he killed many women, torturing them to death. Was he a moralist, or a maniac?” Let’s hope that was intended as a rhetorical question.

Though this ‘return of the torturer’ plot-line is a direct lift from Corman’s ‘The Pit & the Pendulum’, which had been a huge hit in Italy the previous year, the version of it presented here must surely have exerted a strong influence upon Massimo Pupillo’s camp classic Bloody Pit of Horror (1965), after which the idea of defunct torture instruments being put to use by contemporary killers went on to become a common motif in Italian horror, recurring in Fernando Di Leo’s ‘Slaughter Hotel’, Bava’s ‘Baron Blood’ and Emilio P. Miraglia’s ‘The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave’, to name but a few.

Likewise, the rich crossover between gothic horror’s familial, sins-of-the-past atavism and unresolved Nazi guilt was irreverently explored in a number of later European horrors - Jean Brismée’s supremely entertaining ‘The Devil’s Nightmare’ (1971) and Sergio Bergonzelli’s delirious giallo ‘In The Folds of the Flesh’ (1970) immediately spring to mind - but ‘The Virgin of Nuremberg’ feels very much like ground zero in this regard.

Indeed, unease over the inclusion of such contentious subject matter at this comparatively early date perhaps accounts for the fact that the treatment of this theme is somewhat bungled here by Gastaldi and Margheriti. The shaky lines connecting dusty medieval sadism, ultra-masculine Teutonic tradition and the apparent impossibility of reconciling war-time atrocities with peace-time forgiveness are all plainly visible to the viewer, but they remain frustratingly undrawn by the writer and director.

In particular, the final act revelation (conveyed to us via a crudely assembled stock footage-based flashback) that Max’s father was actually one of the conspirators who plotted to assassinate Hitler circa 1944, and that he was subsequently disfigured and driven insane by the punishments inflicted upon him as a result, feels like a real face-palm-worthy example of missing the point.

Thereafter, the film’s villain is allowed to become an ultimately sympathetic figure, somewhat akin to the tragic / damaged characters played by Vincent Price in the early Poe films, rather than the black-hearted, unrepentant monster from Europe’s collective id which this story’s younger characters should really be finding a way to stand up to and deal with as they try to build a new life for themselves in the 1960s.

Whilst the skull-faced killer’s depredations may be curtailed in the physical sense at the film’s conclusion, the psychic and historical wounds he represents remain untended and unacknowledged, lending the film a numb, depressing feel which is only enhanced by the longueurs of relative tedium which precede its finale.

Readers familiar with Margheriti’s work will be aware that his chief behind-the-scenes innovation involved dramatically speeding up production schedules on his films by using the kind of multi-camera shooting style which would later become the norm for TV soap operas and sit-coms. Said readers will also sadly be aware though that, however much money this technique may have saved for his producers, it also had a tendency to leave Margheriti’s films feeling distant and emotionally uninvolving, even when (as here) all the necessary ingredients for a greatness were seemingly present and correct.

This was by no means always the case of course (career highlights like ‘Castle of Blood’ (1964) and Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) remain absolute bangers), but ‘The Virgin of Nuremberg’ suffers particularly acutely from Margheriti’s characteristic lack of dynamism, to the extent that it’s run-time feels padded to an absurd degree, even at a double-bill friendly 80 minutes.

The purportedly exciting final act in particular feels like a master class in how to not generate tension, as Rivière’s character finds himself stuck in that ever-green classic, the locked room slowly filling with water, whilst Podestà, unaware of her husband’s predicament, traipses around the house’s interior in the company of a maid, in search of a door that the killer hasn’t yet locked.

Suspenseful stuff, you might think, but as Margheriti proceeds to simply cut between master shot footage of these two scenarios for about ten minutes, with no narrative development and no clearly defined, visible goal for his imperilled characters, even the most indulgent of viewers will be liable to find their eyelids crashing down in anticipation of bed-time.

Performances are likewise pretty flat across the board. Not even Sir Chris (who is dubbed by other actors in all of the film’s extant language tracks, much to his chagrin no doubt) manages to make much of an impression, despite some impressive scar make-up, whilst editing and audio/visual match up feels sloppy throughout (in the version viewed for this review, at least), suggesting that a rushed and/or uncaring attitude prevailed during the film’s post-production.

An incongruously upbeat, jazz-inflected score from the usually reliable Riz Ortolani doesn’t exactly help matters either, incorporating a series of hysterically bombastic cues which sometimes feel entirely inappropriate to the relatively sedate activity on screen.

In accordance with its torture theme, ‘The Virgin of Nuremberg’ does dutifully include a few ghoulishly sadistic horror ‘bits’, which I’m sure must have sent the British censors in particular into a veritable meltdown when it arrived on these shores as ‘Caste of Terror’ in 1964. Most notably, one somewhat revolting scene involves an unfortunate woman getting a basket containing a hungry rat strapped to her face - whilst ‘The Punisher’ meanwhile delivers a chilling monologue concerning the universality of torture techniques across the globe, which serves as probably the film's most legitmately unsettling moment.

The rat device dates from the fifteenth century and was utilised as far afield as China, he calmly informs his victim, as if she might find this interesting. Whilst the modern era has brought us many innovations, he darkly reflects, the old methods are the best.

Though not as explicit or impactful as they might have been in the hands of some of Margheriti’s more visually daring contemporaries, such ‘shock’ moments – including the ‘Black Sunday’-influenced opening in which Podestà finds a mutilated corpse within the iron maiden, and some equally gory B&W surgery flashbacks - have a touch of sordid, low rent nastiness about them which makes them feel like distant precursors to the hey-day of Nazisploitation other more full-on forms of Italian exploitation, which were still some 15 years down the line at this point. (The idea of a hideously mutilated, insane surgeon lurking in a darkened dungeon even reminded me slightly of Fulci’s ‘The House by the Cemetery’ (1981), if we’re keeping score.)

If the sheer number of later films I’ve managed to name-check above might suggest that ‘The Virgin of Nuremberg’ deserves to be reconsidered as a significant landmark in the development of Italian horror though, this would have been cold comfort to anyone who actually paid to see this visually attractive but otherwise rather dreary plod through the halls of gothic cliché in the early 1960s, especially after the local censors’ scissors had inevitably done a number on it.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the film doesn’t seem to have made much headway in winning over the hearts and minds of horror fans in the decades since then either, despite of its scattered innovations and points of interest, joining such later cobweb-strewn Margheriti snooze-fests as ‘Web of the Spider’ (1971) and ‘Seven Deaths in a Cats Eye’ (1973) on the “walk don’t run” / “not as good as it sounds” list.

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(1)Curiously, this film also assigns an extremely unlikely co-writing credit to Edmond T. Gréville, the Anglo-French director best remembered for 1960s ‘Beat Girl’. Quite how he got involved, god only knows, but I think it's fair to say that the finished script feels far more like Gastaldi's work than anyone else's, to the extent that I'm comfortable with naming him as the primary author. 

(Pure speculation here on my part here, but, given that Christopher Lee also appeared in ‘Beat Girl’, and also boasted an Anglo-French background, perhaps he and Gréville were friends? Perhaps Lee brought him in to do some rewrites, or perhaps Gréville just threw in some ideas over dinner which were then brought to the production by Lee, or something? Who knows...)

2 comments:

Cam1020 said...

I have to agree with you on all fronts regarding Virgin of Nuremberg - a very middle-of-the-road effort from the generally reliable Margheriti. Regarding Castle of Blood and Web of the Spider, though, I recently had a much different experience than yours. I watched the Garagehouse Pictures Blu-ray of Web back to back with the Synapse DVD of Castle a few months ago, and I walked away with renewed appreciation for Web. Castle on the other hand felt very much like a "museum piece" (as Jess Franco once described The Awful Dr. Orlof), very old-fashioned and soap-operatic. Castle undoubtedly has more atmospheric cinematography and enjoys the significant advantage of casting Barbara Steele, but overall I found Web of the Spider to be the more dynamic and nuanced of the two films. I can't help but feel that if Web had more adventurous, Bava-style lighting, it would be much better regarded today. I also feel that the Riz Ortolani soundtrack for Web is a significant improvement over his work on Castle. In all fairness to Castle of Blood, I should probably watch the HD copy from Severin Films before passing final judgment, and I only watched the shorter American cut of Web of the Spider. Though I recall enjoying the Italian cut when I watched it several years ago, seen today it could drag in spots.

Ben said...

Thanks again for taking the time to comment Cam1020 - that's a really interesting take on things. I also picked up the blu-ray of 'Web of the Spider', watched it via the longer Italian cut, and found it to be a bit of a slog. It has a good story of course, but I'd probably side with the general belief that 'Castle of Blood' handles the material better. Although I've not seen the earlier film for a few years, I recall it being more eventful, more successful in building a genuinely uncanny/unsettling atmosphere, and for including a few shockingly violent/kinky moments which the '70s version surprisingly didn't seem very interested in returning to or amping up.

I do agree though that the music for 'Web..' is great, and your thoughts on the film definitely make me think I should give it another go, perhaps trying the American cut. Like all of Margerhiti's horror films, it definitely has some good set dressing and dusty gothic atmos.

(Oh, and just a bit of probably-unnecesary consumer info re: Severin's release of 'Castle of Blood' by the way - if I recall correctly it's just a new scan taken from a slightly battered print of the shorter American version, which is why they included it as a bonus on their 'Nightmare Castle' disc rather than giving it a standalone release. It looks pretty good, but I think the older DVD with the full length/uncut version is probably still preferable.)