Nightmare Castle AKA Amanti D'Oltretomba AKA Night Of The Doomed AKA The Faceless Monster [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Severin Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (17th August 2015).
The Film

Unhappily married to cold scientist Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller), Muriel (Barbara Steele) takes a lover in her Hampton Court gardener David (Rik Battaglia). When Stephen leaves on a trip to a medical conference as a ruse, he is assisted by elderly maid Solange (Helga Liné) to catch them in the act. He brutally tortures the lovers and plans to kill them only for Muriel to announce that she has changed her will and left her fortune and the estate to her imbecilic stepsister Jenny who has been shut up in an institution. Thinking that Jenny is completely mentally incompetent, Stephen sees no problem in ceasing control of the estate and overseeing her fortune. He murders Muriel and David and extracts their hearts and pins them together with a dagger as a trophy. He uses Muriel's blood in his successful experiment to restore Solange's youth, but she is then shocked when Stephen returns home with beautiful Jenny – who is the very image of Muriel apart from her blonde hair – as his new bride. Stephen ensures an incensed Solange that Jenny is quite fragile and that it will not be difficult to drive her over the edge with the help of a hallucinogenic drug. When Jenny dreams of a stranger making love to her in the castle's greenhouse before they are both set upon by a faceless man (a surrealist image that recalls Magritte as much as the killer of Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace), Solange is disturbed by the specificity of her visions (and Jenny calling out David's name in her sleep) while Stephen believes them to be a coincidental product of her susceptible mind. When they realize that Jenny was slipped a harmless Saccharose (a plant carbohydrate) rather than the hallucinogen, Solange starts to believe that the ghosts of Muriel and David are haunting them. As Jenny starts adapting more of Muriel's behaviors and gestures, Stephen decides to summon Jenny's doctor Dereck Joyce (Marino Masé) in hopes that he declare her mentally incompetent. Unfortunately, the good doctor believes that the ability to communicate with the spirit world has to do with the wiring of the brain. Believing Jenny to genuinely be at times possessed by Muriel, Dereck tries to help Jenny discover the causes of her visions in her waking life (and it soon seems as though Dereck too is being supernaturally drawn towards the secret of Muriel's death, reported as a horse-riding accident). When Solange starts to experience dangerous hemorrhages, she suspects that Muriel wants her blood back and that she needs new blood. When Dereck discovers that Muriel's tomb is empty, Stephen decides they must get rid of both the doctor and his bride.

Produced late in the cycle of what is known as Italy's "Golden Age" of gothic horror, Nightmare Castle – originally Amanti d'oltretomba (or Lovers Beyond the Tomb – is the ultimate Barbara Steele fetish film, with the scripting and direction of Mario Caiano informed by plotting and visual elements of Steele's earlier works from Black Sunday and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock to this disc's co-features Castle of Blood and Terror-Creatures from the Grave. The film is scripted and photographed – by future spaghetti western director Enzo Barboni – to give viewers the pleasure of seeing Steele as both innocent and sensual, fearful and frightening, ravished and tortured, good and evil, beautiful and monstrously disfigured, and even murdered (as Muriel) and then resurrected (as Jenny with a mere lifting of her veil to reveal Steele's continued presence in the film as another character). Those not so easily enthralled may find the middle section a bit draggy after the intensely passionate, violent, and sadistic first act; but the film thankfully does not give its villains the opportunity take the conventional gaslighting route too far; however, the elongation and repetitions of Steele's wanderings and torments are the film's fetish, as is the rote finale which is also more violent than its forbears and eschews the customary conflagration for a deluge of rain (not unlike Terror-Creatures from the Grave). While Steele did not dub her performance as Muriel, she did as Jenny and it lends her line readings a certain ambiguity where certain innocuous remarks could suggest the influence of Muriel before she does the more overt personality switches. Muller makes a memorably cruel villain in one of his few lead roles of the period (the Swiss actor was often found in the background of Italian and French genre films of the sixties but would find more substantive work as simultaneously perverted yet tormented leads in a number of seventies Jess Franco films) while Liné would go from eye candy to a certain degree of scream queen fame in more undraped roles in seventies and eighties Spanish horror and sexploitation). Masé – quite good in art films like Marco Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket and Les Carabiniers – is as bland and dull as the other heroes in Steele's other works (and just about any other Italian gothic). In his first horror score, Ennio Morricone uses the pipe organ as the dominant element of the near twenty-minute opening sequence while the middle of the film is mainly dominated by orchestral variations on Muriel's piano theme (which played on the piano in an early scene introduces the element of romance amidst the gothic trappings). During the climax, the organ once again takes over and lends intensity to the familiar proceedings. Seasoned Italian horror fans will recognize the villa from Burial Ground and Blood for Dracula among others.

Castle of Blood (Antonio Margheriti, 1964): Taking its supposed inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe, Castle of Blood has British journalist Alan Foster (Georges Rivière) hounding author Poe (Silvano Tranquili) for an interview and tracking him down to a pub where he is regaling the audience with a recital of his story "Berenice". When Foster scoffs at Poe's insistence that he too is reporter and his stories are factual, Poe's drinking companion Lord Blackwood (Umberto Raho) bets that Foster cannot survive the night in his ancestral castle; a wager Blackwood makes to foolhardy souls every first of November, the "Night of the Dead" which claimed the lives of his honeymooning cousins the year before. Upon arriving at the chilly, cobweb strewn castle, he discovers that he is pleasantly not alone when he meets Blackwood's sister Elisabeth (Steele) who explains that she is "dead" to her brother because she fell in love with his gardener Herbert (Giovanni Cianfriglia). She claims that her brother makes the wager to supply her with company once a year, and she becomes possessive of him when fellow resident Julia (Margrete Robsahm) appears and threatens to reveal a secret when Elisabeth later declares to her that she is in love with Foster. Also lurking in the castle are Elisabeth's husband William (Benito Stefanelli), who takes the news of Elisabeth's new betrayal more casually than Herbert, Blackwood's newlywed cousins who seem pretty lively and cheerful for people who have supposedly been dead a year, and metaphysician Dr. Carmus (Arturo Dominici) who plans to offer Foster definitive proof of survival after death through the senses. Once Elisabeth seduces Foster, he soon discovers that he will be the latest to take part in an annual ritual of the living dead of Castle Blackwood.

The first of two films Steele did for director Antonio Margheriti – taking over for Sergio Corbucci, who had co-scripted this and the earlier Italian/Spanish gothic thriller The Blancheville Monster with Giovanni GrimaldiCastle of Blood (or La Danza Macabre) showcases Steele not as the virginal innocent of Black Sunday or the terrorized bride of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock nor as the duplicitous wife of The Ghost, but as a woman whose beauty inspires possessiveness and whose unrestrained lust provokes multiple murders (with the exact nature of her own death unspecified but hinted at with some throwaway background detail about how the Blackwoods earned their title). Riviere – much better as the shifty aristocratic husband in Margheriti's The Virgin of Nuremberg (shot on the same Ottavio Scotti sets that seemed to originate with Bava's The Whip and the Body) – makes for a dull hero as he witnesses "Ghosts of Christmas Past"-type visions and tries repeatedly to interact with them long after he should have figured things out. The film was a bit of a letdown the first time around on Synapse's DVD after years of seeing stills of Steele from the film in reference books and horror magazines, but one comes to appreciate the film's crafting of atmosphere and the framing of horror set-pieces as vignettes of style presented to the viewer and the protagonist. The film was shot by Riccardo Pallottini – Margheriti's go-to cinematographer until his tragic death in a plane crash while shooting second unit footage for Tiger Joe in 1982 – with three cameras capturing different angles, resulting in some well-lit and framed images but little of the sensuous camera movement one expects of Italian horror (although some of Margheriti's later films would ruin their period settings and opportunities for striking composition with an overabundance of zooms). The shrieking orchestral scoring of Riz Ortolani is thoroughly bombastic to the point where one finds his sleazy jazz accompaniment to The Virgin of Nuremberg more appropriate to the gothic setting (cues from both scores would be used in Margheriti's seventies gothic Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye). Ruggero Deodato served as assistant director. Margheriti and producer Giovanni Addessi would remake the film in color as Web of the Spider with Anthony Franciosa as Foster, Michèle Mercier as Elisabeth, and Klaus Kinski as Poe.

Terror Creatures from the Grave (Ralph Zucker and Massimo Pupillo, 1965): When he receives an urgent letter addressed to unavailable senior partner Joseph Morgan (Riccardo Garrone), attorney Albert Kovacs (Walter Brandi) travels to out of the way Villa Hauff to draw up the will of Dr. Jeronimus Hauff only to discover from his daughter Corrine (Mirella Maravidi) and her stepmother Cleo (Steele) that Hauff has been dead for almost a year. Indeed, the two women have only returned to the villa to oversee the transfer of his corpse from the ground to the family vault; Hauff's instruction that he rest in the ground for exactly one year being one of many strange beliefs held by the doctor whose studies of the occult involved the villa which was erected on the site of a medieval plague hospital where still lie buried the corpses of executed plague spreaders. While superstitious Corinne believes the letter must be a warning for her father, Cleo believes it to be a malicious prank. Making the acquaintance of the village's new local physician Dr. Nemek (Alfredo Rizzo), Kovacs is able to compare the seal on the letter with one belonging to one of the doctor's patients – the fearful Stinel (Ennio Balbo) – and discovers that it is not a forgery (even though the seal was buried with Hauff). When Kovacs, Corrine, and Nemek discover the local mayor/pharmacist dead, the county clerk tells them that he was the third victim of the spirits of the plague spreaders who are avenging Hauff against the five people present on the night of his death who betrayed him by signing a petition to run him out of town over his occult experiments. Kovacs and Nemek dismiss it as coincidence until Stinel (fourth on the list) commits suicide and Hauff's coffin is discovered to be empty, Kovacs starts to believe that Hauff is not dead. On the one year anniversary of Hauff's death, the identity of the fifth witness is revealed and the inhabitants of the villa must defend themselves against a plague-carrying supernatural menace.

The more narratively complex and suspenseful Terror-Creatures from the Grave is a wonderfully grisly affair thanks to the plague spreaders backstory, the desolate village and Castello Chigi settings (the latter also utilized in Slaughter Hotel and the climax of The Girl in Room 2A), the handsome monochrome cinematography was the work of Woody Allen's later regular cinematographer Carlo Di Palma (credited as "Charles Brown" in Italian and export prints but under his own name on the American prints), and the special effects work. Besides Steele as the duplicitous widow and vain ex-actress – who deludes herself into thinking she gave up a promising career to be the wife of a country doctor – the film is well-peopled with Italian horror regulars like Brandi (usually the dull hero but sometimes the villain of some of the lower end examples of the genre like Slaughter of the Vampires), the instantly recognizable "Italian Peter Lorre" Luciano Pigozzi as Hauff's morose faithful servant Kurt, and Rizzo who was usually the comic relief in the handful of Italian genre pics he made before stepping behind the camera in the seventies for his belated and dull stab at the gothic The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance. Direction is credited by producer Ralph Zucker, although most sources cite Massimo Pupillo. The two would collaborate a year later on Bloody Pit of Horror, but the story here is that Pupillo was dissatisfied with the final cut of the film and allowed it to be credited to Zucker (who is also believed to have been responsible for the gorier additions to the American release version).

Video

Released theatrically in 1966 by Allied Artists as Nightmare Castle in a cut running just under eighty minutes (versus the 104 minutes of the Italian and export cuts), the film was largely unavailable after apart from a Canadian VHS in the eighties and then on the American grey market in the nineties. The export version under the Night of the Doomed title appeared on VHS from Redemption in the UK. The Nightmare Castle cut would make its rounds on DVD first from various PD companies before Retromedia released the longer version as b>The Faceless Monster in 2003 with a video burn title card from a soft PAL video source (reissues followed in 2005 and 2007 in identically-titled triple features with other different co-features). Severin Films released the longer cut on DVD in 2009 under the Nightmare Castle title in a new anamorphic transfer featuring interviews with Caiano and Steele. Sinister Film in Italy released an HD-mastered DVD in 2013 and beat Severin to the punch with a Blu-ray in May of this year.

Like Severin's previous anamorphic DVD, their 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen transfer restores a beautiful gloss, depth, and overall sensuousness to the black and white cinematography of what once seemed stolid in its bleached and bleary PD incarnations of the shorter cut (in which all of the picture looked like Jenny's dream sequence). The elements are not pristine but the vertical scratches and frame tears are rare. While there is just over six hours of material on this BD50, I found those instances of print damage more distracting than the encode which highlights the sumptuous details of the authentic villa interiors (including painted-over water stains on the ceiling murals), the brush strokes of Muriel's painting, the lines in Muller's face, and the prosthetic make-ups of Liné (early on), Battaglia, and Steele as Muriel's ghost. Whereas the Retromedia and Severin DVDs used the Italian title sequence on which the titles unfolded over a series of macabre medieval drawings, Severin's new HD master uses the Night of the Doomed export sequence on which the credits unfold on black (although their spacing suggests they were meant to unfold over the same background images). It is unfortunate that this sequence is not included, especially since the Severin DVD was HD-mastered.

Castle of Blood: Distributed theatrically by Woolner Brothers, Castle of Blood's American cut was toned down of its more adult elements compared to the 89 minute Italian cut including a tame love scene in the coach house and details of Julia's lesbian attraction to Elisabeth. The film was unavailable on home video in the United States until Sinister Cinema and other PD companies released it on VHS (some utilizing 16mm-sourced TV prints under the title Castle of Terror). The first official release was the much-delayed Synapse Films release which utilized a French 35mm theatrical print (sadly without the sepia toning of the French exhibition) that ran slightly longer during the love scenes (and Julia's caresses) and also featured a nude insert of Sylvia Sorrente that appeared only in the French cut. The Italian cut appeared in an improved anamorphic transfer from France in 2008 (lacking the nude scene) and then in Italy in 2010.

Severin Films' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen transfer is derived from a 2K scan of an American 35mm print that is not immaculate but sharper than the Synapse version and lacking the warbling on that disc's English track present in the previous version's source. The 82:27 timing of the Severin transfer runs a bit shorter than the reported 84 minute timing because of print damage including the loss of the fade-in after the Woolner logo and the splice that loses the credit for Steele and Riviere (which was present on the Synapse' DVD's extra feature of the US title sequence). Whereas the softer Synapse transfer almost had the look of a worn print of a film from the thirties, the new transfer reveals that the antiquated look of the film (for the sixties) is more than just an effect of the period setting while also being clear enough to catch the camera crew reflected in the glass of the pub door in the opening sequence. Different types of damage from scratches to lost frames here and there pop up, but it is the best English-friendly presentation of the film and highly watchable (it is too bad Italian elements could not be accessed for this film since the overseas DVDs suggest better quality is possible).

Terror-Creatures from the Grave: Released theatrically by Pacemaker Pictures, Terror-Creatures from the Grave was the 84 minute American cut of the film which lost a few short dialogue scenes but featured a violent pre-credits sequence depicting the gory death of the first witness (the French and Italian versions begun with Morgan leaving the office and Kovacs receiving Hauff's letter which is not seen in the American version), a bloodier version of Stinel's death than seen in the French and Italian versions (the European versions featured an entirely different method of suicide) including a close-up of spilling guts, and some additional shots of the victims' plague-ravaged faces. The American opening sequence and the gorier Stinel death both anticipate similar sequences in Mario Bava's Kill, Baby... Kill! (which was scripted by the same writers Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale). When Vampix released the film on tape in the UK, it was revealed to be the English export version Cemetery of the Living Dead which had no precredits sequence but the gorier version of Stinel's death and some additional bits of dialogue and voice overs from Kovacs here and there although it also ran 86 minutes in PAL (Tigon released the Terror-Creatures version theatrically with BBFC cuts).* The American cut became accessible again via Sinister Cinema and Something Weird Video in the nineties in letterboxed transfers that were great at the time but softish now. The Sinister transfer made it to DVD via Alpha Video while the European version made it to DVD in a new transfer first in France via Artus Films and then in Italy from Sinister Film.

While Severin's 2K scan of 35mm print is just as battered, if sometimes more, than the Sinister transfer, it blows it out of the water in terms of the sharpness and detail beneath the scratches. The damage is only really distracting at roughly thirty-five minutes into the film when heavy recurring scarring (as though the damage happened to the film while it was on the reel so it reappears as the reel unspools) affects both the picture and the audio until the end of the real. While the French and Italian discs prove that superior materials are available for the body of the film, it is uncertain as to whether the trims for the gory American-specific footage still exist in negative or internegative form (although some unspecified 35mm American outtakes and trims from the film sold on eBay a few years ago); as such, this version is invaluable and probably the best we will see unless a better-preserved print or intermediate source can be found (and some company ponies up to do their own Blu-ray of it).

*More details about the differences between the three versions can be found in Video Watchdog #7.

Audio

The English-dubbed audio of Nightmare Castle is rendered as a relatively clean LPCM 2.0 mono track with a degree of persistent underlying hiss, but the dialogue, music, and effects are fine overall apart from brief moments where damage to the frame is reflected in a pop in the track.

Castle of Blood: The English-dubbed Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is fairly clean apart from consistent hiss and a few drop-outs at points where there is damage to the picture.

Terror-Creatures from the Grave: The English-dubbed Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is also fairly clean although more subject to print damage than the other films, although the dialogue is still listenable during the passage mentioned in the above comments on picture quality.

Extras

While the other Nightmare Castle-related extras have been carried over from Severin's DVD, the audio commentary by Barbara Steele, moderated by David Del Valle is brand new. Del Valle, who was an agent for Steele in the eighties, discusses the film as "a catalog of Barbara Steele moments" (and later "a catalog of Italian gothic conventions") and the ways in which director Caiano was inspired by Steele's earlier pictures in constructing this film including writing the torture scenes specifically for her French Midi Minuit Fantastique crowd. While Steele had seemed reluctant to discuss her Italian horror films in the past – preferring to talk about working with Fellini on 8 ½ (she had missed shooting additional scenes on the Fellini film when she took the lead in Castle of Blood) and her near-misses with filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni who had at one time proposed doing a horror film – but has more recently come to appreciate them (contributing print interviews in the nineties, featurettes to various releases of Bava's Black Sunday and her first commentary in 2009 on The She-Beast), appreciating the visual elegance achieved on such short schedules and low budgets. As the conversation moves on, the discussion turns from her memories of the film – and Del Valle's interpretations to her career in general (as well as some of the other thirty-odd little-seen films she made in Italy that go undiscussed by horror fans), her regret in leaving Italy and her subsequent horror work from the 1991 reboot of Dark Shadows (in which she proposed to Dan Curtis her onscreen introduction with two mastiffs à la Black Sunday to her more recent horror turn in The Butterfly Room and Ryan Gosling's arthouse horror-tinged Lost River).

"Black, White, and Red" (14:06) is an interview with director Caiano in which he discusses his admiration for Poe and ambition to direct a gothic horror move. He discusses the film's literary influences from "Lady Chatterley's Lover" to "The Tell-Tale Heart" as well as the source of his pseudonym "Allen Grunewald" (from Poe and German painter Matthias Grünewald). The title of the featurette comes from his desire to show the film's horrific sequences with a red tint but the budget did not allow for such an expensive process (as well as other compromises for effects he had hoped to achieve). He discusses how the cinematographic effects of photographer Barboni were often fortuitous because of their limited shooting time and equipment. Amusingly, his cat and dog both pop up in the foreground and the background while he is talking. Also included are the film's UK theatrical trailer (3:24) under the Night of the Doomed title and probably actually the export trailer since the included US theatrical trailer (1:20) is cut down from it.

Castle of Blood: "A Dance of Ghosts" (16:50) features the last interview with director Margheriti (conducted by writer Fabio Melelli, who also appears onscreen). Margheriti discusses the film and its remake, his relationships with the cast and his regular cameraman Pallotini, as well as his TV-style shooting with multiple cameras. He also touches upon The Virgin of Nuremberg (shot the same way on the same sets but in color and also featuring Rivière) and his other films which he stated sold everywhere because they were "safe" with no risk for the producer or investors. He also discusses the invention of his "Anthony Dawson" pseudonym as producers felt the English translation of his surname as Daisies "sounded gay." Melelli touches upon the eclectic casting (and how some of the roles were written for other actors), similarities to the plot of Adolfo Bioy Casares' "The Invention of Morel" (which has also been cited as a possible influence on Last Year In Marienbad), and rightly contends that most of the film's atmosphere comes from its black and white cinematography and that the color remake cannot compare in that respect. The hyperbolic American theatrical trailer (1:37) is sourced from video but is free of the damage and jump cuts that made it incoherent the first time I saw it on a Sinister Cinema videocassette.

Terror-Creatures from the Grave: Ported from the Italian DVD release is the featurette "Vengeance from Beyond" (26:19) featuring actor Garrone, director Pupillo, and Melelli again. A rather off-putting Garrone states he did the film for the money and remembers little of it, and recalls Pupillo as a "dark, repulsive figure", although he does discuss his friendship with co-star Brandi who asked him if he would do the film (and with whom he had fun while on set). He does have humorous recollections of Pupillo's awkward direction of the love scene which was already an embarrassing experience. Pupillo is heard in a 1993 audio interview in which he clarifies the contributions of himself and producer Zucker, claiming the producer's name as an alias as a favor (he is not asked about the footage not included in his cut of the film). Melleli gives context to the career of the director who was mistakenly reported dead in 1982 when Zucker actually died. He tracked him down and conducted the aforementioned interview in which he discusses the initial problems getting along with Steele, the influence of German Expressionism, devising the film's effects from scratch (he would work with a young Carlo Rambaldi on Bloody Pit of Horror).

The deleted scenes (14:17) – letterboxed at 1.85:1- include the scenes specific to the Italian and French cuts of the film including the alternate, more expository opening, the scene in which Kovacs discovers an owl mangled in his car's engine (only referenced in the American cut), some moodier indications of weird goings-on, and the alternate version of Stinel's death (oddly, these scenes are in French with English subtitles while the DVD they likely came from also included the Italian audio). The theatrical trailer (1:37) is also included from a video source.

Overall

Severin has turned a BD upgrade of Nightmare Castle into a tribute to its star. Some may have issues with the compression of three features (just over four ours) and extras on one BD-50, but I found it to be an enjoyable and economic presentation of three of Barbara Steele's memorable works in good (although not pristine) condition.

 


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