Friday, September 9, 2016

Nightmare Castle

Nightmare Castle (1965)
Dir. Mario Caiano
Written by Mario Caiano, Fabio De Agostini
Starring Barbara Steele, Paul Muller, Helga Linè,

Another day, another classy Italian Gothic Barbara Steele joint, and in this case another one with some startling similarities to the previous year’s LONG HAIR OF DEATH. For the second time in two years, Barbara plays a woman murdered by a jealous lover who returns to get revenge in the form of another Barbara Steele. But whatever, it’s not like Seagal movies all have radically different plots or anything either. This is just Barbara’s thing, and she’s aces at it, even in the hands of a more minor Italian genre director -- in this case Mario Caiano (mostly known for his swords n’ sandals works, though by 1977 he had fallen upon times sufficiently hard to make the truly repellent-sounding Nazi hardcore sexploitation debacle NAZI LOVE CAMP 27).

This one is maybe a tad less obviously exploitative than LONG HAIR (no boobs, no maggot-ridden corpses), but it’s much more solidly constructed, with an unusually complete and satisfying screenplay that actually adds semi-logical complications and builds tension like a real movie would. LONG HAIR probably had more weird stuff, but it’s kind of a strange, meandering movie which needlessly convolutes what should theoretically be a pretty straightforward revenge plot. NIGHTMARE CASTLE gets to the point much more directly, with the despicable Dr. Arrowsmith (Paul Muller, JESS FRANCO’S DRACULA discovering his wife (Barbara Steel #1) shtupping the gardner (Rik Battaglia, DUCK, YOU SUCKA) and promptly murdering them both, but not before saving their hearts in a secret tank in a hidden compartment of a statue (for, you know, reasons). I know you Mens’ Rights types would consider this justified behavior, but did I mention Arrowsmith is himself banging the septuagenarian Lady MacBethian maid (Helga Linè, HORROR EXPRESS, HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB), and using his ex’s blood in a bizarre medical procedure to make her young again? So sorry, no excuses.

Unfortunately for Arrowsmith, it turns out that the sole heir to his wife’s enormous fortune (and her opulent gothic castle, where he currently resides) is her sister Jenny (Barbara Steele Part 2: The Blonde One). We’re told that Jenny is mentally unstable (though I don’t see a lot of evidence for that) and so Arrowsmith strikes on a plan: marry the sister and then act all creepy to drive her insane, so he can claim her inheritance. Jenny is surprisingly willing to go along with that (well, the first part anyway), and of course it’s not long before she’s being gaslighted and having nightmares about her sister and those mysterious disembodied hearts. But you gotta figure the dear departed Barbara Steele #1 is not done with her murderous husband yet, and, true to form, it builds to a solid revenge-y ending (though one not quite as perfectly sadistic as LONG HAIR OF DEATH).

The film itself is handsomely shot in black and white (though a bit lacking in stylish flourishes, the blu-ray offers enough high-contrast darks and lights to look sufficiently pretty) and features a strong classical score by Ennio Morricone (in his first horror film!) with a hypnotic waltz refrain and uneasy string section stings, plus plenty of that ol’ gothic pipe organ. But the real hidden weapon is shrewd-faced Paul Muller as the villainous husband. He’s quite a bit sharper than the antagonists in LONG HAIR, and able to quickly think his way out of the holes the ghosts keep pushing him into. He’s cocky and feels like a legitimate threat, and our heroes (handsome generic Doctor Derek [Mario Masè, LIVE LIKE A COP DIE LIKE A MAN] and Blonde Steele #2) are always a step behind him, so it makes his eventual comeuppance all the more sweet, even if it’s not quite as glorious as the death in LONG HAIR. A good villain is key to making these ponderous gothic revenge tales work, and Muller is among the best I’ve seen, really giving the story a solid anchor. Steele’s main role isn’t one of her best, mostly just calling for her to look confused and frightened (though apparently Caiano did the film just to work with her and it shows -- the camera is positively pornagraphic about capturing her unearthly beauty) but she does get to have a little more fun with her smaller and more sinister role as the undead sister.

A notable lack of sleazy thrills leaves a lot of the film as a nicely mounted but somewhat stuffy melodrama. Even so, two sequences do stand out. There’s a strange, surreal dream sequence where the original murders get reenacted, but with a sinister blank-masked figure standing in for the killer. Strikes me that this is an early percolation in the collective mind of Italian horror of the masked giallo killer -- a figure who would come to completely redefine and dominate the horror landscape in the next few years (and who had already made it to the screen a year earlier in Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, a movie Caiano has since pointedly denied he ever saw). Of course, while the face-obscured figure is familiar enough, he’s used here as more of a symbolic representation of the unknown-to-Blondie-Steele murderer than a literal masked killer. We’re still on the borderline here. 

That’s made amply clear by the other great sequence --the finale-- where Steele’s final revenge as the resurrected sister is graced with one of her wildest performances. Caiano’s direction is generally too languid and pedestrian to wring the most out of the overwrought gothic melodrama, but there is one thing he does get: how to use Steele’s unique, otherworldy features to great effect. And he does it while simultaneously showcasing some of the strangest and coolest makeup effects in all of pre-giallo Italian horror, a mutant eyeball getup right out of THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT or something. I guess it’s kinda a spoiler since it gets a big reveal, but what the hell, take a look here:

Anyway, I can’t claim that NIGHTMARE CASTLE is required viewing or anything, or even required viewing in the pre-giallo Italian gothic horror category, which it turns out is a pretty deep one with some real gems. But it’s got some crisp Black and White cinematography, a fine classical Ennio Morricone score, a sufficiently repellent villain, and plenty of that ineffable Barbara Steele magic. That’s certainly all you need for a very satisfying time with this sort of thing.

Still, if you have to watch only one mid-60’s black-and-white Italian Gothic horror movie where Barbara Steele gets murdered by a jealous lover and then comes back as a ghost in a dual role to get revenge on her killer specifically by burning him alive and also there’s a sort of vaguely defined gaslighting plot and the whole thing is set in a creepy castle, probably check out THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH first. But obviously you should see them both.

Play it Again, Samhain

A Mad, Sadistic Scientist on the Loose! Accurate, I guess, if not exactly catchy.
Wikipedia claims it “re-uses ideas from Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart,” I guess in the sense that there are literal tell-tale hearts in a preserved aquarium here which bring back literal ghosts for revenge, which if I remember correctly is not exactly the point of Poe’s story.  
Barbara Steel, and I’ll go ahead and say Paul Muller too, since he did a bunch of these.
More or less, a recently married Barbaba Steele #2 gets made love at by her new husband, and doesn’t look like she’s really into it.
Not a lot of bloodletting, but some nifty makeup effects
Haunted Castle!
There does seem to be the suggestion that Steele #1 is putting the whammy on Steele #2, but it’s never exactly clear.
No, although it does feature a classic masked killer. But only in a dream sequence.
Yeah, it looks like Ghost Steele is mutating or something.
Yeah, creepy maid is always skulking around watching.

Pretty obscure, but it does have a handsome blu-ray from Severin Films
Don’t marry your sister’s widower after she died under mysterious circumstances and then you inherited her opulent palatial estate where the guy currently lives. Jesus people I would think this would be obvious.
There is a castle, and she has nightmares there, sure.

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