Saturday, May 23, 2009

NIGHTMARE CASTLE (1965) d. Allen Grunewald aka Mario Caiano

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It has been almost 45 years since NIGHTMARE CASTLE (aka GLI AMANTI D’OLTETOMBA) arrived on the scene and since that time much about the world has changed, mostly for the worse. As film-loving goes, one of the saddest transformations has been the disappearance of the Gothic Ghost Story from the cinematic landscape. Once upon a time, the Gothic Ghost Story was one of the most common of genre films that could be found on the Silver Screen horizon, and its moodiness and delightfully formulaic but still wildly entertaining nature made it a fan favorite for decades. As tastes shifted in the latter half of the 1970s and as those market trends accelerated throughout the 1980s, the Gothic Ghost Story began to vanish into the mists in much the same fashion as did the apparitions haunting the lavishly ornamented halls of the aristocratic manors where so many of these films were set. Whether they were laughable or lugubrious, sinister or salacious, Gothic Ghost Stories often had a little something for everyone, whether it was lovely ladies for Dad, ravishing romance for Mom, ominous spirits for junior and equestrian elements for sister. NIGHTMARE CASTLE is back in public eye again, having been marvelously restored by Severin Films. For those of us who have enjoyed this flick in the past despite its less than perfect former presentations, it is a chance to revel in the lush tapestry of sights, sounds and seductive stories that we have enjoyed before but are getting harder and harder to come by today. For those who have never seen NIGHTMARE CASTLE, it is a chance to see why Gothic Ghost Stories were a profoundly fertile field of cinema’s lost youth.

NIGHTMARE CASTLE is the story of Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith, a brilliant but sadistic scientist tormented by the infidelity of his beautiful wife Muriel. Catching Muriel in the act of betrayal, Stephen visits terrible retribution upon both Lady Arrowsmith and her lover David. After Muriel’s dispatch, Stephen must find a way to insure that Lady Arrowsmith’s fortune remains his and those plans include marrying Jenny Hampton, Muriel’s step-sister and the heir to Hampton Manor and Muriel’s riches. Weaving ever more convoluted schemes with the help of his striking house servant Solange, Stephen attempts to nudge the mentally unstable Jenny over the edge into the abyss of madness, but little does he know that for every move he makes on the chessboard of duplicity, two ghosts are several moves ahead in an attempt to exact their vengeance.

Sourced from an original Italian film print, the DVD of NIGHTMARE CASTLE has an endless number of reasons why it is a jewel to be treasured. First, it is 104 minutes long, the original uncut version of the film instead of the considerably shorter 90 minute American cut. Seeing the entire film for the first time in my life after so many other “abbreviated” screenings was a real treat, for one of the lost strengths of NIGHTMARE CASTLE was its sense of softly modulated menace built patiently and yet inexorably throughout the move. Despite a small amount of film print damage that occurs VERY infrequently at the heads and tails of the reel changes, Severin Films’ restoration and remastering of NIGHTMARE CASTLE is outstanding. For the first time, I was able to see a clear difference between the parts of the motion picture that were suppose to look misty since they were dream sequences and the rest of the movie that was meant to be clear, and how VERY clear it turned out to be! This black and white film, lit so very simply and yet set in such a stunning manner within the confines of such an exquisite Italian villa has never looked so good. The black, grays and all the shades in between are starkly crisp, clean and wonderfully sharp. Every little shadow and nuance of the lighting is thrown out in clear relief so that a textural quality emerges and one can finally appreciate the richness of the fashions, the lavishness of the décor and the opulence of the interior and exterior locations. Whether it is the sumptuousness of the Victorian-age villa’s rooms or the stately elegance of its gardens, none of the grandeur of NIGHTMARE CASTLE’s visuals truly came across until now, and it isn’t just the inanimate elements that benefit. For the first time, I could really bask in the myriad of enigmatic expressions on the lovely face of Ms. Barbara Steele (Muriel/Jenny), delight in the heart-shattering eyes of Helga Line (Solange) and be equally repulsed by the soulless countenance of Paul Muller (Stephen). The superb transfer allows the Barbara Steele fan to finally feel like they can almost glimpse the fabulous curves of Ms. Steele’s matchless figure under the gauzy glamour of her filmy peignoirs. What also comes across with so much greater impact is the simple and yet effective makeup work applied to the ghosts in this story. Most of the terror of NIGHTMARE CASTLE comes from the psychological and occult trappings of the story, but the “gore” that is woven into this rich tapestry is made all the more effective by a crisp film transfer and a professional restoration effort.

Speaking of the story, what makes NIGHTMARE CASTLE a little surprising is its mix of plot characteristics that is a bit of a Mulligan’s Stew as Gothic fare goes, but it works. There is a heady blend of ghost story and Gothic horror, but liberally applied to that core is a thick veneer of Regency Romance starkly contrasted with some Euro-sadism. As a result, there are some shocks, but they are punctuation to the long and thoughtful statements that are the atmospheric foundation of this film. There are long holds on the emotive faces of the talented and capable cast. Those poignant interactions are even more powerful when coupled with the atypical and yet still masterful score of the legendary Ennio Morricone. The camera work of NIGHTMARE CASTLE is excellent and while not ground-breaking, it is much more impressive then I had originally thought due to my past viewing experiences. We are treated to scene after scene where the skills of the actors must carry the moment, but the cinematography helps to build a detailed and wonderfully complex mosaic of sights and sounds. Now that NIGHTMARE CASTLE has been restored to its former glory and looks probably as goods as it did when it first appeared on the Silver Screen in Rome in 1965, lovers of European Gothic Ghost stories can revel in a movie that is as good an example of the genre as you are likely to find with the exception of a few iconic classics like BLACK SUNDAY or CASTLE OF BLOOD.

As Bonus Features go, the offerings on NIGHTMARE CASTLE are about average when it comes to quantity but simply OUTSTANDING when it comes to quality. First up is the prize we have all been hungering for, a 30 minute interview feature called “Barbara Steele in Conversation”. This “exclusive new featurette with the Queen of Horror” is the grail that many of her devoted fans have been awaiting for many years. This interview looks at Ms. Steele’s career from its beginnings in the late 1950s, through her glory years in Italian cinema of the 1960s and then through her later work in grindhouse flicks of the 1970s, all the way to her work as a producer in the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout her thoroughly enjoyable recollections of her film days, Ms. Steele also recounts her life experiences, reminiscences on directors and co-stars and it is all related in her delightfully dramatic vocal style. Accompanying Ms. Steele’s many anecdotes is a dizzying array of old modeling and promotional photographs and clips from her many films. For someone like me who can never get enough of this elegant and glamorous icon, I was inundated by sounds and imagery that was so multitudinous as to almost quench my thirst for such fare. Almost, but at least I can say that this may be one of the top five most exhilarating bonus features viewing experiences I’ve ever had. All praise to director David Gregory for his work on this supplement. Next is a 14 minute interview segment with director Mario Caiano called “Black, White and Red”, which is a look at Mr. Caiano’s film experiences, but unlike that of Ms. Steele, his focus tends to be more upon NIGHTMARE CASTLE. It is another excellent offering on this disc, and the two featurettes complement each other perfectly and when added to the UK and US trailers, this set of supplements is a plethora of joy to be unearthed once you’ve reveled in the feature and then are ready to bask in the extras.

My only concern when it comes to Severin Films outstanding release of NIGHTMARE CASTLE is that the audience for this motion picture may not be as sizable as it once was. The older folk like me may not be as willing to stroll down memory lane as I am and the younger folk may not see the appeal. Too many of them are beguiled by glitz and other saccharine silliness and they may not be able to appreciate the subtlety of a flick like NIGHTMARE CASTLE. I hope that such is not the case for like so many other Severin Films gems, NIGHTMARE CASTLE is a precious stone of surpassing beauty and value. As has so often happened I am both deeply impressed and even more grateful for Severin’s healthy respect for the lesser known treasures of yesteryear. For those of us who still love the Gothic Ghost Story and still swoon over Barbara Steele, NIGHTMARE CASTLE is succor for the jaded spirit.

1 comment:

hitfan said...

I enjoyed reading this review. I especially liked this passage:

"Once upon a time, the Gothic Ghost Story was one of the most common of genre films that could be found on the Silver Screen horizon, and its moodiness and delightfully formulaic but still wildly entertaining nature made it a fan favorite for decades. As tastes shifted in the latter half of the 1970s and as those market trends accelerated throughout the 1980s, the Gothic Ghost Story began to vanish into the mists in much the same fashion as did the apparitions haunting the lavishly ornamented halls of the aristocratic manors where so many of these films were set."

I grew up in the 1980s, and the only horror films I got to see back then were the slashers. But whenever there was a TV segment that talked of horror screen legends like Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, they always interested me. The tiny little bits I got to see showed these lavish gothic settings, and I craved to see these movies.

About 7 or 8 years ago, I started to buy cheap public domain DVD sets of horror movies. From the "50 Horror Classics" collection, one movie that particularly stood out for me was NIGHTMARE CASTLE. I think I would have to consider it my favorite movie of all time. A couple of years ago, I actually flew all the way from Calgary to Toronto to get an autograph from Barbara Steele at the Fan Expo convention. I was so intimidated by her regal presence, that I could barely stammer a few words. While everybody else waited hours in line to get an autograph of Bruce Campbell, I was there to see a true legend of horror. She certainly belongs in the upper pantheon of legends among the likes of Chaney, Lugosi, Karloff, Cushing, Lee and Price.

I wonder if the gothic horror film is due for a revival of sorts? Just like "Pirates of the Caribbean" revived a genre that was thought to be date half a century before, is gothic horror ready to be revived in a $200 million dollar grand production that makes haunted castles, portrait paintings of dead beautiful women and creepy atmosphere cool again? And I don't want something ala Twilight (I'm agnostic in regards to those movies, I just ignore them).

It's understandable that the AIP/Hammer era that glutted the marketplace with gothic horror from 1957-1974 had to eventually fall out of fashion. But sometimes what is old can become new again.