British actress Barbara Steele starred in a total of nine Italian gothics between 1960 and 1966. Her foreign horror canon started with the legendary BLACK SUNDAY under the direction of Mario Bava and was followed by THE TERROR OF DR. HICHCOCK by Riccardo Freda (made during the filming of Fellini's 8 1/2). She would also go on to make LONG HAIR OF DEATH and CASTLE OF BLOOD (both for Antonio Margheriti), THE GHOST (Freda again), TERROR-CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE (Massimo Pupillo), THE SHE BEAST (Michael Reeves), and her final hurrah, AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (Camillo Mastrocinque). However, NIGHTMARE CASTLE (directed by Mario Caiano, not Allan Grunewald, which was merely a fabricated pseudonym) is easily one of her finest turns in the horror genre, essentially because of the generous amount of screen time given to the actress and her alluring features. Severin Films now revisits the film on Blu-ray, with the special added attraction of the U.S. theatrical versions of TERROR-CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE and CASTLE OF BLOOD, all presented in glorious HD!
In NIGHTMARE CASTLE, Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Müller, COUNT DRACULA) is a daffy scientist living in a large villa with his beautiful raven-haired wife Muriel (Barbara Steele, THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR), suspected of infidelity. Pretending to leave their home for a stretch, he is able to catch his unfaithful wife getting it on with the beefy gardener (Rik Battaglia) in the greenhouse. After some prolonged torture, he ultimately electrocutes the couple to death with the knowledge that Muriel has bequeathed her fortune, and their precious home, to her look-alike step-sister Jenny. The good doctor ends up seeking Jenny (Steele in a blonde wig) and marrying her, with plans to drive her mad and take her for all she's worth. Jenny has wild nightmares involving persecution by a faceless assailant, and when a helpful young doctor (Marino Masé using the pseudonym Laurence Clift) comes to visit and surmises that Jenny is possessed, an attempt is made to rub him out. But Dr. Arrowsmith’s troubles are only beginning, as the dead will not rest easily and soon return to assure that this wicked scoundrel get his just desserts!
The majority of Steele’s Italian-made horrors involve the melodramatics of estranged couples, extramarital relationships, complex revenge, and the bitter dead returning to life. NIGHTMARE CASTLE (also known as THE NIGHT OF THE DOOMED as well as THE FACELESS MONSTER) is no exception to this rule. The screenplay is rather contrived and familiar territory if you’ve seen Steele’s previous gothics, but with those profitable efforts and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe as suitable inspiration, the film as a whole is involving enough to keep the viewer interested, and the visuals alone make this an essential example of the golden age of Italian horror.
Director Mario Caiano, whose forte was largely Spaghetti westerns, obviously had a flair for atmospheric horror, here reassured by the customary creaky doors, concrete crypts and lit candelabras. But there’s more substance than just that. Caiano (who also co-wrote the screenplay) not only makes ample use of his lead actress (in two very different roles for the price of one), but effectively sets up a number of moody shocks and sometimes misogynistic setpieces which function as highlights throughout the running time. Take for example the demise of Steele’s character Muriel: we witness her chained to walls, flagellated with chains, starved, disfigured with acid and finally executed with her equally defeated lover squirming above her bondaged body. Stark, superbly framed cinematography by Enzo Barboni (DJANGO) and some proficiently ghoulish make-up (the image of the half-disfigured face of Muriel’s ghost is unforgettable) are two more of the film’s finer assets for your checklist. With this effort, the legendary Ennio Morricone composed his first original score for a horror movie, and with its haunting organ theme and assorted intense crescendos, is perfectly in tune with the macabre goings-on. The gothic villa in which the film was shot in and around, seemed cater-made for horror outings, and it could be later seen in such films as BLOOD FOR DRACULA and BURIAL GROUND.
Steele is both bewitching and beautiful in the dual roles, and seeing Muriel relentlessly tortured in gloomy black and white can be quite unsettling or fetishistic, depending on the viewer. With the blonde step-sister Jenny, a character who takes up more screen time, we benefit from hearing Steele's true speaking voice which she was able to dub in the post syncing (the only time we hear it any of her Italian films). In a ridiculous-looking hairpiece, Paul Müller (here billed as the more American-friendly “Paul Miller”) obviously relished playing a murderous mad scientist. With his awkward, lanky and somewhat homely appearance, the Swiss-born actor would find himself playing similar treacherous types in a number of genre films, many for director Jess Franco. Also no stranger to the genre, sexy Helga Liné plays Solange, Dr. Arrowsmith’s maid/mistress whom he transforms from old hag to radiant stunner through innovative blood transfusions. Liné would soon become a popular (and often nude) figure in Spanish horror, starring in such titles as HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, THE MUMMY’S REVENGE, THE LORELEI'S GRASP and many others. Appearing here under the one-off “Laurence Clift” moniker, Marino Masé is another familiar Italian character actor with an endless career, though horror fans will most likely recognize him as Rosalba Neri’s desirable creation in LADY FRANKENSTEIN (also starring Müller).
NIGHTMARE CASTLE has been available on DVD through various companies who specialize in public domain features. Often seen in edited and poor quality presentations, Severin Films released it on DVD in 2009 from an HD source with a rightful back-cover exclamation of, “Throw away all those inferior transfers from censored TV prints: This is NIGHTMARE CASTLE like you've never seen it before!”, a claim also on this release, but of course looking even better. The HD transfer is now presented on Blu-ray in 1080p in its correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio and it looks absolutely terrific. The black and white image is crisp and well defined, and the original negative source is in spectacular condition, aside from a handful of fleeting blemishes. Black levels are very strong, matching the rich grayscale quite nicely. The 2.0 audio presents a clean replication of the English language track, with no mentionable shortcomings. No subtitle option is provided (nor for the two bonus films included). This is the fully uncut and restored version, running over 104 minutes and the print maintains the title “The Night of the Doomed”, with Italian credits appearing at the end.
The first bonus feature on the Blu-ray is CASTLE OF BLOOD (known in Italy as “Danza Macabra”). In the 19th century London, starving young journalist Alan Foster (Georges Riviere, HORROR CASTLE) pursues visiting American author Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli, BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA) to give him an interview. But Poe’s friend Lord Thomas Blackwood (Umberto Raho, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH) makes a wager with Foster that he can't spend one night in his abandoned mansion and survive until the following morning. Foster accepts the wager (and gets his interview with Poe on the carriage ride over) and is locked inside the dark mansion for the most terrifying night of his life. First he encounters the beautiful specter of Blackwood’s sister Elizabeth (Steele), a seemingly tortured soul who he falls madly in love with. And the castle is filled with many other ghostly inhabitants who re-enact their grisly deaths every year on the same night, including one Dr. Carmus (Arturo Dominici, BLACK SUNDAY) whose ordeal, including an unsettling visit to the crypt, is on full display while Foster is unable to help him or any of the other past victims (including a foolish young honeymooning couple who stumble upon the mansion).
Released in the U.S. in 1965 by Woolner Brothers on a double feature with Mario Bava’s HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, CASTLE OF BLOOD was originally to be directed by Sergio Corbucci (using the extravagant sets from his earlier film THE MONK OF MONZA) but after a scheduling conflict (and only directing a brief part of the film) he handed it over to friend Antonio Margheriti (credited as “Anthony Dawson”). Margheriti, who became a horror and sci-fi specialist in the 1960s and more or less a poor man’s Mario Bava, criticized the film as being “boring” years later, and would remake it in color in 1970 as WEB OF THE SPIDER. Actually, CASTLE OF BLOOD is an intriguing, claustrophobic period horror film that’s pure gothic from beginning to end (best viewed late at night), and like many Italian genre films from the period, it manages to be far more erotically charged than its American and British counterparts from the same era. Even though her screen time is limited, this is prime Steele, and the film includes a tense score by none other than Riz Ortolani, and his CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST director, Ruggero Deodato, served as the assistant director on the set.
The second bonus feature, TERROR-CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE (1965) has attorney Albert Kovac (Walter Brandi, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA) arriving at a European villa to check up on the will of Jeronimus Hauffl. He is greeted by his daughter Corinne (Mirella Maravidi, REQUIESCANT) and his second wife Cleo (Steele), Corrine’s stepmother. Kovac shows a letter which is clearly in Hauff’s handwriting, but the ladies inform his that he’s been dead for almost a year. As a mystery unfolds, it’s learned that Hauff was involved in making contact with the spiritual world, and recordings were left behind documenting that he raised some 15th Century plague victims back from the dead. A number of the townspeople are murdered, and a theory arises that Hauff may still be alive (he supposedly fell down the stairs after a night of boozing). So on the anniversary of his death, his grave is dug up and no corpse is found, so naturally, Hauff is not dead as a doornail and will enact revenge of five doomed souls.
Originally released in Italy as "5 tombe per un medium", TERROR-CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE wasn’t released stateside until 1967 when Pacemaker Pictures played it on a double bill with BLOODY PIT OF HORROR from the same director/producer team. Actually, director Massimo Pupillo is credited as “Ralph Zucker”, the producer of this film (and a number of other Italian sleaze gems) who has nothing at all to with direction (Pupillo would usually use the pseudonym “Max Hunter”, but his dissatisfaction with the results here made him choose otherwise). The film is dialogue heavy and somewhat plodding, but it certainly has the right amount of period gothic atmosphere (shot in and around Rome’s Castel Fusano) and such delightful sights as plague victims with pus-filled, bubbling wounds and living mummified hands kept on exhibit. Steele’s screen time is very limited here, but she’s as ravishing as ever as the adulterous wife and is even seen taking a bubble bath, and her character is very typical of her Italian horror films. The final 15 minutes or so provide a nice payoff (the living dead destroyed by rain water!) and the cast also includes the grimacing, bald character actor Alfredo Rizzo, THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE) and Italy’s answer to Peter Lorre, Allan Collins (aka Luciano Pigozzi, BARON BLOOD) as a sinister caretaker.
The black and white TERROR-CREATURES (1:24:01) has been transferred in 1080p from a nice 35mm print in a 1.78:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. White levels look correct, black levels are solid, and the light grain structure offers an attractive, well-detailed presentation. There is some minor softness on occasion, but the image is mostly crisp, and aside from a few seconds of frame damage during a reel change, any blemishes on display are minor. The 2.0 audio of the English language track sounds perfectly fine, with some pops detectable on occasion. Likewise the U.S. version of the black and white CASTLE OF BLOOD (1:22:27) has been transferred in 1080p at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and is virtually on the same quality level as TERROR-CREATURES, but the 35mm print source suffers from more lines and dirt and debris, as well as damage during several reel changes and a handful of splices. The print source runs just over 82 minutes, so it’s significantly shorter than Synapse’s restored DVD of the French version (which included scenes never dubbed into English, as well as a brief nude scene by actress Sylvia Sorrente). The 2.0 English track is fine, with no noticeable defects except for some occasional scratchiness.
For the main NIGHTMARE CASTLE feature, David Del Valle sits down with Barbara Steele for a new audio commentary as he points out that back in these days, the actress tended to play roles in the vein of a female Vincent Price. Steele remarks that it was better to play predatory creatures than the helpless victim and she says she appreciates the films more now than she did then due to their fine visual aspects. She goes on to discuss her director, as well as some of the other directors she worked with during this period (Bava and Freda), her love affair with Italy and she accurately points out how the hanging portraits in these gothic outings never look like they’re from the period, but rather as if they were done by a 1960s art student. Even when the conversation goes off topic (it usually does stay on the topic of Italian horror movies and Italian cinema in general) it’s still engaging, and Del Valle and Steele have a nice rapport, as proven by their recent commentary for CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR/THE CRIMSON CULT.
Carried over from Severin’s 2009 DVD is the featurette “Barbara Steele – In Conversation” (29:30), an excellent on-camera interview with the iconic actress. Steele looks terrific and is in fine spirits as she goes through her career from her beginnings as a model to being a contract actor, to her tenure in Italy and starring in all sorts of films, but becoming most popular through the horror ventures. She also touches upon a number of the well-known directors she’s worked with through the years (Bava, Freda, Fellini, Corman, Cronenberg, etc.). Also carried over from the DVD is the featurette, “Black, White and Red – An Interview with Director Mario Caiano” (14:06) is exactly that. Speaking from his home in Italy (with special appearances by his playful cat and his wandering dog), Caiano seems like a really nice fellow, as he mentions how before making the film, he was very much a fan of the writings of Poe and scary literature such as Dracula and Frankenstein. He goes on to tell how the premise for NIGHTMARE CASTLE was inspired by both “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Lady Chatterley's Lover” and reveals how the “Allan Grunewald” name came about, as well as touching upon the main actors in the film, among other subjects.
“Vengeance From Beyond” (26:19 ) is a new featurette on NIGHTMARE CASTLE and includes interviews with film historian Fabio Melelli, actor Riccardo Garrone (who played “Joseph Morgan” in the film) and director Massimo Pupillo villa a 1993 tape-recorded conversation (he discusses the mysterious Ralph Zucker and how some of the special effects were done, stating that Carlo Rambaldi was on the set in such a capacity). Garrone has a good laugh reminiscing about making the film and shares several amusing anecdotes and obviously didn’t take the film seriously at all (“I was an actor. They called me, I did the movie and goodbye”). “A Dance of Ghosts” (16:53) is a new featurette for CASTLE OF BLOOD which again features Melelli and the recorded voice of the late director Margheriti who talks about making the film on a very tight schedule and touches upon the production, the cast, the other movies he was making around the same time, and his name-change to “Anthony Dawson”. Metelli, who did the two recorded interviews of the directors, shares some intelligent criticism during these featurettes (both which are entirely in Italian with English subtitles). There’s a section of Italian video-sourced deleted scenes (14:17) from TERROR-CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE (in Italian with English subtitles). The bits mostly center around Brandi’s Kovac character (before his arrival to the villa, and then having a discussion about the villa’s room of clocks with Cleo) as well as the suicide of one of the film’s characters. Rounding out the Blu-ray’s extras are U.S. and U.K trailers for NIGHTMARE CASTLE, as well as the U.S. theatrical trailers for CASTLE OF BLOOD and TERROR-CREATURES. (George R. Reis)
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