Severin Films | Buy at Amazon | Review by Dan Taylor
I am not, by any stretch, what you would call a "Gothic horror" fan. (Though you'd hardly know it by our recent reviews of this and THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM.) Frequently marked by its black & white cinematography, dark hallways, and nightgown-clad heroines clutching candelabras the genre has always seemed too slow, too staid and too cliché-ridden for my taste. And this coming from a guy who loves slasher flicks, the most cliché-ridden of all horror genres!
But there are times when the genre can surprise me and deliver something I not only enjoy but also find myself watching repeatedly and raving about to fellow horror buffs. NIGHTMARE CASTLE, a 1965 Italian Gothic recently brought back to life, so to speak, by Severin Films is just such a flick.
I'd actually seen bits of CASTLE before, thanks to one of those cheapie $1 DVDs you pick up at the grocery store or crappy flea market. Grabbed somewhere along the line because it contained the Klaus Kinski as Edgar Allan Poe flick WEB OF THE SPIDER, I inadvertently played the CASTLE OF FEAR side one evening (one of NIGHTMARE CASTLE's many retitlings) because the sides were poorly marked. I was about 15 minutes in before I realized that Kinski wasn't coming through that door and I flipped the disc over.
Frankly, I'm glad I waited since the crappy version on that bargain disc couldn't hold a candelabra to the print delivered here, which was sourced from the Italian rights holder and features only a few minor glitches.
Barbara Steele (billed as Barbara "Steel" in the original Italian credits) stars as Muriel, a raven-haired hussy married to a sinister scientist named Arrowsmith (Paul Muller of LADY FRANKENSTEIN among others). When Muller leaves the castle for a mad doctor conference Muriel jumps at the chance to make time with David (Rik Battaglia), the castle's burly gardener/handyman. Unaware that her husband and Solange (Helga Line of HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB), the wrinkled castle hag, have set a trap for the lovers they retire to the greenhouse only to be caught, chained up and tortured for their forbidden tryst.
Steele cuts a stunning, iconic and scary figure as Muriel. Chained to the wall and watching as her husband tortures her lover, Muriel informs him that she has changed her will and shall never leave him in peace. When she screams "Never!" it's a threat you believe.
Undeterred by his wife's double-crossing, Arrowsmith promptly marries Muriel's identical step-sister (?!) Jenny, a lovely blonde ditz who is as flighty and naive as Muriel is worldy and cunning. Also played by Steele, Jenny has spent some time in a mental institution and appears to be a ripe mark for the head games that Arrowsmith and the suddenly young and hot Solange intend to play.
If all that CASTLE offered from here on out was the gaslighting of poor Jenny I probably wouldn't find it quite as intriguing. We've all seen plenty of flicks where the poor second wife gets duped into believing she's seeing ghosts or hearing things and slowly loses her mind. While there's plenty of that here, director Mario Caiano (FIGHTING FISTS OF SHANGHAI JOE and NOSFERATU IN VENICE, which he was fired from before shooting began as the storygoes) also mines the territory of Edgar Allan Poe (specifically "The Tell-Tale Heart") and continues to work the good doctor's mad scientist angle thanks to blood transfusions, rigged bathtubs and a crazy chair that he uses to hold David captive while Muriel is tortured with an acid drip. Not to mention whatever is going on between Arrowsmith and Solange, a creepy sexual relationship that's largely left to the viewer's imagination.
With its small cast, great looking locations, and evocative score from Ennio Morriocone (his first horror effort), NIGHTMARE CASTLE sets the blueprint for what we've come to expect from Italian Gothics. But by including the mad doctor and slightly sleazy sexual hijinks it rises (or sinks) to a level that's much more to my liking.
As for Steele, she's definitely the star attraction here. She does an excellent job of giving her two characters wildly diverse personalities and you buy Muriel's seething hatred from beyond the grave as much as you do Jenny's bewilderment and fear at what is happening. With her striking features and expressive eyes it's no wonder the actress has a legion of fans that seek her out to this day.
Be sure to check out the disc's all-too-brief interview with the actress as well. She talks candidly about her early days as a Hollywood starlet, working with Elvis, her fear of rejection, and her eventual move into production. While I never had strong feelings for her one way or the other, this disc has made a Barbara Steele fan out of me.