This review was written by Appellate Judge Tom Becker's emotionally unbalanced identical twin. Obviously.
"Poor Jenny. She becomes stranger all the time."—Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller), referring to his new wife (Barbara Steele), whom he is trying to drive insane, and who might be possessed by the spirit of his first wife, Muriel (also Barbara Steele), whom the doctor tortured to death
Beautiful, raven-haired Muriel Arrowsmith (Barbara Steele, Mario Bava's Black Sunday) lives in a spooky castle with her doctor husband, Stephen (Paul Muller), and their aged crone of a servant, Solange (Helga Liné, Horror Rises From the Tomb). When Stephen leaves on a business trip, Muriel drops the lady-like act and gets down and dirty with hunky field hand David (Rik Battaglia, Duck, You Sucker).
Unfortunately for them, Stephen didn't go away after all, and he catches them in flagrante in the greenhouse. Stephen subdues them and then carts them off to the castle's torture chamber for some little non-consensual high jinks. After a few whippings, a branding, and other dreadful punishments, Muriel reveals that she'd seen this coming (!) and changed her will, leaving everything to her half-witted step-sister, Jenny. Zip zap, the doctor kills the pair, then goes off to fetch the lovely but deranged Jenny (Steele in a blonde wig). Stephen ups and marries Muriel's lookalike step-sib, much to the chagrin of Solange, who is now no longer an aged hag but voluptuous young thing.
The doctor and the rejuvenated Solange—who, we find out, is his mistress—have a plan: Give Jenny that little push she needs to go off the deep end, and they can live happily ever after. Just Solange and Stephen, and the bizarre experiments he carries out in the basement.
At first, they're delighted to see that Jenny seems to be following the Path of Whack without any assistance. She even thinks she's being tormented—by the ghost of Muriel. Solange starts to wonder if she's not telling the truth and that perhaps there's a haunting in progress.
Then Jenny's own doctor, Derek Joyce (Laurence Clift) turns up to check on the fragile girl and finds her in the middle of a nightmare—a Nightmare Castle!
Nightmare Castle is an extravagantly ridiculous and endlessly enjoyable dubbed-in-English Italian gothic horror favorite. By turns sordid, sexy, and silly, Severin gives us what might be the definitive DVD release of this '60s cult classic.
Set in 19th Century England, and filmed in a villa in Italy, Nightmare Castle is a great showcase for horror icon Barbara Steele. Along with Barbara Shelley and Ingrid Pitt, Steele was one of the most memorable and identifiable "horror actresses" of her time—the '60s and early '70s, when horror movies became more overtly sexual and explicitly gory. Steele's expressive and beautiful—but sinister—face could turn from innocence to evil in a split second, and her presence elevated most of her films to cult and minor classic status.
Nightmare Castle was not the first time Steele played dual roles—she'd done so in Black Sunday and The Long Hair of Death, and had played a scheming, "two-faced" adulteress in Roger Corman's The Pit and the Pendulum. Here, she gets to run the gamut: fiery, sexy, arrogant, evil, and crazy as Muriel; vulnerable, unstable, terrified, victimized, and crazy as Jenny. Steele might not be a great actress, but she's great fun to watch, as is Muller as her evil husband. Muller's voice is dubbed—badly—by an overemoting English-speaking actor, but Steele dubbed her own voice as Jenny—usually, in her Italian films, her voice was dubbed by someone else. There's an odd cadence to her speech, and she seems to emphasize random words. Her dialogue synchs up very well to her mouth movements, suggesting that she might have been speaking English while her co-stars spoke Italian.
The film itself is a delirious mess, a heaving smorgasbord of plot threads that seem imported from some florid repository of horror films gone by. There's a new kink in the story tangle every two or three scenes, and this thing just bleeds plot threads. We get gothic horror, a haunted castle, a mad scientist, grand guignol, erotic melodrama, demonic possession, blood-borne youth restoring experiments, sadistic kills (including early and inventive uses of electricity), passions muted and unleashed, vengeance-happy ghosts, acid scars (where no acid was used, confusingly), and more, all in glorious black and white, with an early and impressive Ennio Morricone score.
If you've spent time watching late night or Saturday afternoon Creature-Feature-Chiller-Theater-type horror movie offerings, you've likely caught Nightmare Castle, perhaps under one of its many aliases (including Lovers From Beyond the Tomb and The Faceless Monster). You might have picked up a version of it from the DVD or VHS "cut-rate" bin, as Nightmare Castle was in public domain for years. What's been released on home video has looked awful, and the film has been cut up for time and for content—the Steele-Battaglia scenes are actually pretty sexy, and the torturing-of-the-lovers business, including Steele chained up and whipped, is as fetishistic as it is ghastly.
Severin's release is outstanding. This is the uncut version of the film, clocking in at 105 minutes, a rarity—remember, this was shown on television in 90-minute time slots plus commercials. They've done a beautiful job remastering the picture, which still sports the occasional nick or crease but is overall quite clear with very good contrast. The print sports the original, untranslated Italian credits in the beginning and end; at one point, we see a letter that a character is writing, and it's also in Italian, suggesting that the source print is more pristine than what was screened in the U.S. all these years. Audio is a solid mono track that nicely serves the can't-get-it-out-of-your-head Morricone score. The obviously—and badly—dubbed voices boom out nicely, adding greatly to the whole Saturday Afternoon at the Movies sense.
For extras, we get a fantastic half-hour interview with Barbara Steele. Filmed in 2009, Steele looks great, and her remembrances are terrific, particularly her memories of working with Fellini in 8 1/2 and Corman in The Pit and Pendulum. If you're a fan of the actress or the era, this feature makes the disc a must own. We also get a 14-minute interview with director Mario Caiano, who talks primarily about the making of Nightmare Castle and his experience working with Steele.
We also get the US and UK trailers. The UK trailer—for The Night of the Doomed—is 3:18 and treats the film as more a provocative, adult entertainment, focusing on Steele's performance. This trailer is in surprisingly good condition. Not so the one for the U.S. release, which looks awful, runs 1:20, and plays up the cheap-o horror elements.
Cheerfully perverse and agreeably grotesque, Nightmare Castle is a good-time relic from the days when horror was more fun than it was stomach churning. Severin's work on this release is awesome. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
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