Written by: Rudolf Stratz (novel), Carl Mayer (adaptation)
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Arnold Korff, Lulu Kyser-Korff, and Lothar Mehnert
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I thirsted to see evil...I desired evil."
One of the more notorious wrinkles of our beloved genre is its tendency to—and I say this with all love and due respect—bullshit us into watching a movie by any means necessary. Video story junkies have long told tales of being suckered in by incredible box art, only to find that the movie itself paled in comparison at best; at worst, it had no hopes of living up to whatever the marketing dreamt up (for example, I’m pretty sure the Millennium Falcon was never going to appear in Evils of the Night). It’s a “tradition” that stretches back even further, to the drive-in, grindhouse, and exploitation circuits, all of which thrived on similar hucksterism. However, if The Haunted Castle is any indication, the tactic has been with us even longer: you hear a title like this hailing from F.W. Murnau, and you expect a ghastly, spooky precursor to Nosferatu. Instead, it delivers a pretty tame, almost playful murder mystery. Certainly, there are no hauntings.
Nor is there even a castle. Rather, a hunting party has gathered at a remote mansion, where they’ve been stuck indoors, waterlogged by a days-long storm. When uninvited guest Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert) appears, whispers about his reputation abound, specifically the rumor that he killed his own brother a few years ago. To make things more awkward, his brother’s widow (Lulu Kyser-Korff ) is due to arrive at the mansion since she’s now married to the hunt’s host. Gathered under one roof, the trio lobs accusations, with Count Oetsch most ominously vow to discover his brother’s true killer. As the bummed-out hunters bemoan the weather, Oetsch wryly promises that at least one shot will be fired—and maybe two.
More of a dramatic thriller than an outright horror movie, The Haunted Castle is solid pulp nonetheless. An adaptation of Rudolf Stratz’s serialized cliffhanger (which wasn’t even published in full by the time Murnau had completed shooting), it moves with that sort of page-turning intrigue, especially when another prominent guest disappears, prompting the party to wonder if the murderer has struck again. Murnau weaves together confessions and flashbacks to shed light on an increasingly strange murder mystery, one that hinges on the silliest of motivations and perhaps an even sillier twist. Anyone going in expecting to see Murnau anticipate the creepy atmospherics of Nosferatu might be a bit surprised to discover that The Haunted Castle is a bit of a stolid, talky whodunit that doesn’t quite take advantage of a fairly killer setup.
Despite its dark-and-stormy-night setting and its wild twists and turns, The Haunted Castle doesn’t quite qualify as a prototype to the “old dark house” genre, though you can see it subtly pointing in that direction. The playfulness and a reliance on a long con especially feel like the tropes that would eventually be recycled ad nauseam, so much so that James Whale would spoof them just a decade later. Somehow, it lacks the general spookiness one might crave from a title such as this, though it’s not as if Murnau doesn’t tease it a bit during a cool nightmare sequence. A gratuitous diversion at best, it features a random houseguest dreaming about a giant, inhuman, clawed hand reaching into this room and carrying him away through the window. Apropos of nothing to be sure, but it’s one of the film’s most evocative moments. Had The Haunted Castle received a misleading VHS release, this image would have been front and center.
And while I would obviously love to see more of that kind of stuff, it’s also not exactly fair to hold The Haunted Caste responsible for not being movie in my head either. Besides, it’s not like it’s tough to acknowledge that it does succeed on many levels: Mehnert delivers a terrifically shifty performance, putting the film sort of perpetually off-kilter alongside Kyser-Korff’s similarly slippery turn. Her character is especially intriguing once she reveals her displeasure at having been a jaded housewife bored by her (now deceased) husband’s piety. “I want to witness real evil,” she boldly proclaims during one flashback, hinting at a darkness that never quite absorbs the proceedings like you might expect.
The Haunted Castle revolves around the interplay between Mehnert and Kyser-Korrf, leading the audience to an obvious overarching question: which—if either—is lying? Arriving at the answer is a jumbled, loquacious affair, full diversions meant to prolong the mystery without exactly deepening it. There’s very little in the way of actual plot events here, save for a character’s disappearance that puts everyone else on edge. However, the eventual resolution is clever enough and points towards the outrageous twists and turns that would come to define similar murder mysteries involving mistaken identities and out-of-nowhere revelations. You can faintly detect the proto-DNA of the krimi and giallo here, though those later genres are certainly more explicitly violent (in fact, no actual deaths occur during The Haunted Castle).
It’s amusing enough, though, and an almost light-hearted affair given the title and premise. If there’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates the mood of The Haunted Castle, it’s Murnau’s juxtaposition of the aforementioned nightmare sequence with the more jovial slumber of a young boy dreaming about eating pastries. This sort of playfulness pops up throughout the film, all the way until the end, as Murnau leaves on a humorous note despite all the sordid admissions and recently ruined lives. The Haunted Castle is not one to dwell on its shocks, and that’s fine—if nothing else, this is a good reminder that even a silent era titan like Murnau was not churning out masterpieces on a yearly basis. This doesn’t make the film—or, hell, any film that doesn’t live up to such lofty standards—any less interesting, though—it’s a bit of a trifle, but it’s a worthwhile one.
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