Wednesday 26 October 2011

Nightmare Castle

Welcome To My Nightmare

Nightmare Castle (aka Night Of The Doomed)
Italy 1965
Directed by Mario Caiano
Severin Region 1

Warning: This review has nightmarish
spoilers at every twist and turn...

Like a lot of movies I watch these days, I "ordered in" a copy of Nightmare Castle because I already had the soundtrack and I wanted to know how Ennio Morricone’s distinctive score for the film worked within the context of being heard while the film played out. However, I was at once on my guard when this one turned up for me because a review site quoted on the front cover of the sleeve wrote the following about the it...

“As good - if not better - than any Mario Bava gothic tale.”

I have to admit that this got my back up from the start with this movie because, frankly, nobody could make gothic horror like Bava... nobody. Bava’s visual style was so intense that pretty much any other films straying into the same kind of territory fall flat when it comes to a comparison. Certainly Britain’s Hammer Films couldn’t top Bava and, perhaps, the nearest in the US in terms of at least being heavily inspired by Bava’s directorial signature would be the Edgar Allen Poe cycle of films directed by a young Roger Corman.

However, I have to say that this movie here certainly comes close to at least catching a little of the weight of Bava’s own forays into the gothic horror genre (which includes movies such as Black Sunday, Black Sabbath and The Whip And The Body). There is a certain gravitas inherent in the movie from both the way the performances of the actors are pitched and from the fact that a general bleak tone is maintained throughout, propped up by some very clean and crisp black and white photography.

The story tells of Muriel, played by euro-horror queen Barbara Steele, whoo is caught making love to her manservant in the greenhouse by her husband, Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith. Being as Dr. Arrowsmith is obviously a little deranged and has a room especially set aside for his “mad experiments”, he tortures Muriel and her lover to death... but not before Muriel lets slip that she changed her will and her sadistic husband won’t inherit her castle. Instead she has willed it to her deranged, step sister Jenny who is recovering from her mental health problems in a sanitarium.

After Dr. Arrowsmith finishes killing Muriel and her lover, he takes out their hearts and uses their blood to youngify the old housekeeper woman so they can become lovers... just why he got this idea is anyone’s guess.

Somehow, after a short period of time set between shots, Dr. Arrowsmith returns to the castle with his new wife, Muriel’s step sister Jenny (also played by Barbara Steele but this time with blonde hair) and there seems to be no explanation as to why everyone is just accepting Muriel’s death without any question.

The plot from here on in seems simple... the Doctor and the housekeeper must drive Jenny insane so they can get the will ... and to act as a witness to this, they’ve hired her last Doctor from the sanitarium to come and treat her. So far so good, but it soon transpires that all is not well within the castle walls. Jenny, for instance, has dreams flashing back to the night that Muriel and her lover were killed. And of course, the young Doctor brought in to “witness” Jenny becomes the films other half, along with Jenny, of a "romantic development." Added to this, there’s the housekeeper, whose young countenance could slip any minute and whom needs periodic top ups of the blood of the two sisters in exchange for her own immortality.

Needless to say, the ghosts of Muriel and her lover come to sort things out at the end... and there’s a general creepiness to the way Barbara Steele looks in the part of the resurrected Muriel as one half of her face is hideously deformed, although she covers the whole right side of it with her long black hair... this and the long, diaphanous white dress she wears while slowly creeping towards her victims in her vengeance make her the perfect forerunner of Sadako from the Japanese Ringu movies. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the producers and directors of those smash hits of 90s J-horror had been, in part, influenced by this movie.

However, things take a turn for the worse again when the surviving members of the household, Jenny and her romantic interest, are equally pursued by the two ghosts but, luckily, this is where the hearts that Dr. Arrowsmith removed from them after he killed them come into play because, once they are destroyed by “our hero”, the to ghosts disappear up their own ectoplasm at the speed of... well... “cross cutting shots” I guess.

Morricone’s music provides a very strong melody base in a piano theme played by both incarnations of Barbara Steele and the music even has a contribution to the world of the film in that it’s the music Muriel plays to summon her lover and give him the all clear. The theme is heard in various interpretations throughout the film, pitched against more atonal selections which you may be more familiar with from Morricone’s horror and giallo writing. This, pitched against the standout photography and languid pacing of the movie where a pan or dolly shot is much favoured over the use of cutting between places, gives the film a certain edge which is undeniable when compared to a lot of the lesser efforts of the genre.

The attitude towards torture in the first reel is, perhaps, rather strong from what you’d expect in a 1965 movie... but having said that, I would certainly recommend it to fans of the slow, relentlessly paced gothic horror as something they might enjoy. One thing I will say again though is this... don’t believe the DVD sleeve. This is not as good as Mario Bava!

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