A few years back, Severin released a spiffy Blu-ray transfer (from the original negative) of Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (Amanti d’Oltretomba), the 1965 Italian gothic horror shocker starring the incomparable Barbara Steele, along with Paul Muller, Helga Line, Marino Mase, Rik Battaglia, and Giuseppe Addobbati.
By Paul Mavis
A really strange mixture of high-voltage (for 1965) sadism and violence, with low doses of sex and romance, Nightmare Castle is admittedly a pastiche of gothic and horror stereotypes…but it’s damned good pastiche, with Barbara Steele always endlessly interesting (even if she’s just prowling around darkened black-and-white sets), and director Caiano nimbly jumping from full-blown sadistic horror scenes to languid, dreamy, sullen nightmares.
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Lady Muriel Arrowsmith (Barbara Steele) eagerly awaits the departure of her husband, scientist and full-time vivisectionist Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller), who will be attending the Edinburgh Conference. Lady Muriel, smiling once she realizes her husband has departed her lavish residence, Hampton Castle, dresses down into a skimpy nightgown and awaits her lover: stablehand stud David (Rik Battaglia). Quickly making like Lady Chatterley, Muriel and David don’t realize that Stephen has doubled-back to the castle, signaled by elderly servant Solange (Helga Line), who tips off the doctor to his wife’s infidelity.
Savagely beating David with a poker, Stephen chains up Muriel and her lover down in the family crypt, and tortures them, before he orchestrates their very perverse demise. Cutting out their hearts, the doctor joins the organs and preserves them, using the solution they’re stored in to rejuvenate Solange as part of the bargain of getting rid of Muriel. You see, Dr. Arrowsmith wants his revenge for Muriel’s adultery, but he wants her money and her castle first.
There’s only one small problem: Muriel, before her death, tells Stephen that she has changed her will. He won’t be getting anything. Instead, she’s left the entire estate to Jenny (Steele, in a dual role), her mentally troubled sister. Stephen immediately hatches a plan: he’ll marry Jenny and “gaslight” her with hallucinogenics, institutionalize her, and become her legal guardian…of all that dough. But Stephen doesn’t count on the power of those still-beating hearts.
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It’s not difficult to spot director Mario Caiano’s obvious references to Frankenstein, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Tell-Tale Heart, and even a little bit of The Turn of the Screw, in Nightmare Castle. Assembling elements from these works, as well as references to other Barbara Steele Italian horror pictures from that time, Nightmare Castle couldn’t be called “distinctive” on the basis of its familiar script, although some of the lines, at least via the dubbing, are grossly amusing (Stephen, warning Muriel what is in store for her, states, “But death, my dear, must only come after I’ve torn from your bodies all the suffering and pain a human being can stand. And you don’t know yet how long it takes to die…from pain,”). However, it is notable for its head-on torture scenes, its dream-like middle section concerning Stephen’s battle with Jenny’s sanity, its high-key black-and-white cinematography, and of course, Ennio Morricone’s horror score.
Anyone looking for the intensity of say, Steele’s earlier Black Sunday, or even more unlikely, the force of the later sexually violent, gory Italian giallos, may well find Nightmare Castle‘s deliberate, dream-like pacing a bit slow-going. On the other hand, those viewers more attuned to Corman’s Poe adaptations from around the same time period might see in Nightmare Castle a similarly structured aesthetic, with plenty of visual equivalents to the AIP gothic offerings, but with a decidedly more ramped-up violence factor. In other words: tame by later giallo standards, but considerably more sadistic than Corman’s Poes.
Certainly the opening section of Nightmare Castle starts things off in a twisted manner not normally seen on American screens in 1965. After Muriel makes it clear that she actually has sex with her husband—remarkably, still an off-limits topic in many mainstream American films from that period (Muriel breathes, “I’d like to spend the night with you,” before a passionate kiss with Stephen), she begins to bed David, first in her room and then in the greenhouse (she bites his arm in an erotic fog). Unbeknownst to them, Stephen watches, and savagely splits open David’s face with a poker, before we jump cut to Muriel and her lover being viciously whipped by her husband down in the family crypt: as he places a hot poker on David’s chest, the camera comes in close and lingers as his shirt catches on fire.
Later, Stephen perversely wants to show David what it feels like to watch another man make love to his woman, so he ties David up in front of a bed, where, off camera, he begins to rape Muriel so David can see, driving David almost mad. Finally, in a demented act designed to kill them both, he first drips acid on Muriel (we actually get to see her writhing body smoke), before pushing David onto Muriel in a grotesque parody of the sex act, only to throw the electric switch connected to a metal tether around David’s ankle, electrifying both of them. Oh…and then Stephen cuts out their hearts, puts them in a glass tank, burns their bodies, and packs the ashes in a flower pot. Obviously, Nightmare Castle wasn’t going to wind up on the bottom bill of Doris Day’s and Rock Hudson’s Send Me No Flowers…nor Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeia, for that matter.
This strong start to the film, though, precedes a very long center section where Stephen and Solange (is she his lover? The film doesn’t make it clear) try to drive newly-arrived Jenny insane, and here, we have many scenes that seem repetitive, echoing standard gothic visual motifs like characters walking down darkened hallways with candles, or somnambulant dreamers lapsing into horrific nightmares. None of this part of the film is particularly inspired, although it’s extremely well done, with director Caiano’s and cinematographer Enzo Barboni’s camera gliding through the fantastic real-life Villa Parisi used as Hampton Castle, the high-key black-and-white lighting creating some nice chiaroscuro effects on that infinitely interesting, angular, architectural marvel that is Barbara Steele’s face.
Caiano stated (rather unkindly) that he chose Steele precisely because of her “creepy” face and her “scary, hallucinatory expression.” Regardless of the ultimate merits of Nightmare Castle, it does succeed just on a curiosity level whenever the hypnotic Steele is on camera. At this point in time, I would imagine the main pull for Nightmare Castle would be this extended appearance of the horror icon (I know she hates that term) in a dual role, right before her horror career arced. So from that standpoint alone, Nightmare Castle‘s center section works for fans of the actress because we just get to drink her in as Morricone’s haunting romantic theme (which sounds somewhat like Cooper and Tucker’s Sweet Genevieve) swirls around the darkened sets (this constant refrain of a memory song seems very similar to the use of the music box piece in the later U.S. soap, Dark Shadows…an interesting possible connection when you consider Steele’s later affiliation with Dan Curtis).
The last act of Nightmare Castle gets a little plotty as spoilers alert Dr. Dereck Joyce (Lawrence Clift, who in profile, looks remarkably like a young Oliver Reed) battles Stephen over Jenny, before the film slips into full Grand Guignol mode as the spirits of Muriel and David come back to kill all those at Hampton Castle. Still, the finale delivers the horror goods (the low-slung dolly shot on the advancing Muriel, with Steele’s mask-like face half- covered by her hair, is a memorable horror image), winding up this gothic horror pastiche in a most satisfying manner.