Saturday, January 28, 2012

Nightmare Castle: There's A Candleabra In My Cannoli!

It’s no secret that I like Italian horror films, in fact, I may just talk about it too much. But perhaps even more than Italian horror, I am a fan of gothic horror. From the time I was a young girl sneaking off with my mom’s old gothic romance novels – you know, the ones with the long-haired, flowing-gowned heroines running away from a mansion or castle on a dark hillside? (Or wait – were they running to the mansion?) So if you combine the two, I’m in movie heaven.

And so it should come as no surprise that I am a big fan of Nightmare Castle.  In fact, short of some Bava, Argento, and Fulci standards, this film is on a short list of my favorite Italian horror flicks.
Oh, and warning: spoilers ahead!

Directed by Mario Caiano, Nightmare Castle (“Amanti d’oltretomba“, 1965) stars the ever-so-alluring Barbara Steele in a dual role – the raven haired cheating wife Muriel, and her mentally off-kilter blonde sister Jennie. Also starring Paul Muller as Doctor Stephen Arrowsmith and Helga Line as the lovely Solange – housemistress, lover, and co-conspirator with the doc.

Muriel and her secret lover die brutally at the hands of her husband, who discovers them doing the nasty in the garden . The evil doctor chains them up and tortures them to death. Right before her death, Muriel vengefully tells Stephen that she’s left her entire fortune to her institutionalized sister.

Determined to keep a tight hold on his dead wife’s money, Stephen quickly removes Jennie from the asylum and marries her to guarantee his wealth continues. Though I definitely think Steele is much more stunning in her natural dark hair, it doesn’t effect her acting prowess, always dramatically over the top in such an impressive fashion.

To ensure Jennie’s fragile mind dissolves quicker than not, Stephen and Solange whip up a ‘potion’ in his laboratory to help Jennie hallucinate and have horrific nightmares. They conspire together to drive Jennie bat-shit crazy using the morbid, bad-memory inducing castle surroundings. (It is only then that we discover Solange’s youth has been restored by using the blood of a dead woman…Stephen is obsessed with his wacky experiments)

Jennie continues to experience unnerving visions of ghostly apparitions – are they real?  She teeters between dreams and reality.  Her frightening dreams soon cause her to realize that it is her sister and her sister’s lover that she is having visions of. And that they apparently died an awful death and are trying to reach out to her to warn her and solve the mystery of their untimely demise.

When a psychiatrist Dr. Joyce (Laurence Clift) takes Jennie’s case and visits her at the castle, only to discover that things are not quite right – it is not Jennie’s mind that is decomposing, but perhaps something in the crypt in the basement lab. He discovers Muriel’s tomb – empty – and begins to do a little detective work. At this point he feels it pertinent to take Jennie back to the city for treatment, sure that the house is causing not only her nightmares, but her mental instability.
Stephen in turn, puts ideas in Jennie’s head that Doctor Joyce just wants a bit of nookie and is not interested in helping her but wants to take her away from the castle and him. He convinces Jennie it is in her own best interest to stay with him and ignore the head-shrinker’s crazy ideas.

That night though, Dr. Joyce tends to Jennie while she has another awful dream. Hearing someone approaching her room, he hides in a corner and watches as Stephen comes into the room -thinking Jennie has finally succumbed to their dastardly poisonous plot. But she doesn’t die.

Meanwhile, Solange is getting weaker and weaker, her “transfusions” not holding up. Desperate, she and Stephen decide that the time has come. They cold-cock Jennie and drag her to the basement, placing her on an adjoining table right next to Solange, where they set up an intended  transfusion.

Supposedly already gone, Dr. Joyce creeps back into the house (candle in hand like a good little gothic hero) and sneaks around the mansion looking for clues. It’s no doubt he realizes something is amiss. Anyone could tell that by how damn suspicious everyone is acting! Of course, in a truly predictable move, he is then also knocked out.
But in the basement lab, things quickly go south when a ghostly Muriel and her dead lover show up, back from the grave, to take their revenge on the count and his mistress.  Much ghastly cackling ensues.

Full of creepy gothic standards like a spooky castle, huge candelabras, those long flowing gowns, a compelling scream queen, and the beautiful strands of the main theme by composer Ennio Morricone wafting memorably through nearly every frame – this film has it all.

Some may argue that this is Barbara Steele’s best work – I still feel Black Sunday holds that honor – and indeed she is the classic gothic heroine/villain.  But she is in fabulous form here, and I for one, consider this a first-rate performance of captivating distinction.

The movie isn’t perfect of course. The editing is horrible, the dubbing (if that’s the version you’re stuck with) is just awful, and some of the secondary acting leaves a lot to be desired.
But this is Italian gothic horror at its best, and is the perfect accompaniment to a dark stormy night – one where you sit home alone, hoping the lights don’t go out. Not because you’re afraid – but because you don’t want to miss the movie!

*This post was previously published elsewhere but has been regurgitated for your enjoyment. 


Ashley Ketterling- Miller said...

I seen this and thought of you because I know your a Psycho fan..

Christine Hadden said...

Thanks for the info, I had heard rumblings about this possibility but this confirms it. I'd be quite interested and definitely watch, but it would be difficult to unseat Perkins as the one and only Norman :)

Giovanni Susina said...

My second favorite Gothic horror with Steele; my favorite is An Angel for Satan. I can never get tired of the ambiance film’s like Nightmare Castle provides.

Christine Hadden said...

Giovanni: Agreed on the ambiance, it's a rare thing these days in film. And gothic horror seems all but gone...
Thanks for reading!