Directed by: Mario Caiano
Written by: Mario Caiano & Fabio De Agostini
Starring: Barbara Steele, Paul Muller, Helga Liné & Laurence Clift
Reviewed by: Brett H.
As a public domain DVD junkie, it’s almost miraculous that Nightmare Castle slipped through the cracks and averted itself from a home on my DVD shelves. Although I’ve seen my fair share of American gothic horrors, I must ashamedly admit that I have never seen an Italian terror of the ilk. My interest was always there, but something else has always popped up just as I decided to unwrap my copy of The Virgin of Nuremberg or Castle of Blood. Today this all changed as I sat down for my first experience in not only the genre, but also the work of acclaimed genre actress Barbara Steele. I envisioned myself watching what I hoped would be a luscious treat by the way of a scratchy old print from Brentwood or Mill Creek, but Severin Films once again comes to the rescue of an obscure flick, and the work they’ve done is nothing short of an A. Ladies, light the candelabrum and mash your boobs high. Men? Eh, just act British. We’re about to find out if one of the last gothic black and white chillers is worthy of all their hard work.
Muriel (Barbara Steele) has a thing for booze… and her butler. When her husband Steven (Paul Muller) heads off in the name of science, she gets down with her servant in the greenhouse. It proves to be a set-up and Steven bursts in on the intimacy and begins to torture each of them mercilessly. Steven has big plans for the money the rich Muriel is leaving him in her will, and this is a sure-fire way to get his grubby hands on big ducats (in the name of science, of course). Thinking ahead, Muriel breaks the news to Steven that she had changed her will and left all of her wealth to her sister, Jenny, who is locked away in the loony bin. Having gone so far with nowhere to turn, Steven dispatches the two of them and uses Muriel’s parts to spruce up the appearance of his own mistress, Solange (Helga Liné). Next, he sets his sights on Jenny (also Barbara Steele) and convinces her to marry him so he could again lay claim to the family riches. Unfortunately for Steven, death isn’t a big obstacle for Muriel. She’s coming back. And, she’s pissed…
… At least, somewhat. Nightmare Castle is a rather rudimentary undertaking that most fans will liken to eating just one potato chip or a single break of a Kit Kat bar. We were tantalized by the taste, but it’s just not enough. The film starts off with a big crack as the plot is quickly initiated alongside dubious action in the form of torture, double-crossing and promiscuity, then trails off onto the path of predictable and humdrum disinterest. Most disappointing is the fact that so little of the running time is used to boister interesting elements of the supernatural like it should. Plotwise, you’re not going to see anything here that you’ve not seen before, and if you’re devoted to the genre enough that you’re inquiring about Nightmare Castle, you probably expect and are more than willing to look beyond this. Why the filmmakers would choose to drag out a cliché, run-of-the-mill plot with a horror scene every 20 minutes or so is beyond my comprehension, though. Especially since in the last eight or so minutes when the proverbial shit hits the fan, even someone as inexperienced in her work as I, can tell that Barbara Steele could possibly be the female equivalent of Vincent Price when it comes to gothic villainy. Even on the film’s meagre budget, more creative spunk could have made this a much more exciting picture.
One claim to fame regarding Nightmare Castle is that it has one of legendary composer Ennio Morricone’s early film scores. It’s nothing to get too excited over, the music is all right and when used properly proves to be effective, but one certain happy tune is played during inappropriate scenes. There is an overall lack of music featured to begin with, and more could have created a grander ominous and claustrophobic feel. When you get right down to it, in certain stretches of the running time, you actually forget you’re watching a horror film. It’s almost as though select scenes of terror were inserted into a run-of-the-mill greed drama. The castle setting is barely utilized and most potentially scary cinematography comes off as ineffective because the viewer doesn’t know how to interpret it during the umpteen plot driven sequences. No one on screen seems to be too worried about these threats and acts of the supernatural, so why should we be? During horror scenes, the movie is incredibly effective, but the ultimate flaw is the failure to carry that tone from act to act.
Although the film itself is a bit under the weather, someone forgot to inform the fine folks at Severin as they give it the red carpet treatment! Previously incomplete and looking like it had been ran over by truck a half dozen times on public domain releases, this luscious, uncut 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer is virtually free of grain and contains very solid, inky blacks. There is a few seconds of print damage in two or three scenes, but overall this nearly 50 year-old film looks stunning. The mono track has a slight hiss, but every word is clear as a whistle. Supplements include a 14-minute interview with the director where he admits he only got to shoot about 30% of what he envisioned in terms of scare scenes due to a low budget. Although I feel his pain, I think with a bit of creativity he could have done more in spite of the budget, especially with the talent he had to work with. The grand supplement for all you Steeleheads out there is a 29-minute featurette spanning the career of Barbara Steele. She speaks of her early Hollywood days and her love of the Italian culture and working with prominent directors such as Bava and Fellini. Also included is the American and British theatrical trailers. All in all, this is a tremendous package that is probably a too good for the film at hand. Nightmare Castle is a bit of a bore, but the climax shows off Steele’s creepy demeanour to terrific demonic (although quite silly) proportions and features ample (for the time) amounts of blood and grue. Rent it!
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