Schlock Value: Nightmare Castle (1965)
During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, after years of lying dormant, gothic horror was coming back in a big bad way, thanks to the efforts of Hammer Films. While they were busy reviving the classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein, the Italians (most notably Mario Bava) were busy cultivating their own brand of gothic horror, complete with castles, ghosts, witches, and blood. Lots and lots of blood. And just as Hammer Films had Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the Italians had their own stars whose names became synonymous with the genre. Enter Barbara Steele.
After appearing in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), the Queen of Horror reigned supreme throughout the 1960s, starring in a number of Italian horror flicks including Castle of Blood, Terror Creatures from the Grave, and the focus of this week’s Schlock Value, 1965’s Nightmare Castle, a classic tale of betrayal, deception, murder and greed with Steele working overtime as a pair of ill-fated sisters who fall victim to a mad scientist whose thirst for money and power know no bounds.
Steele begins the film as the swanky raven-haired booze hound Muriel, wife of scientist Steven Arrowsmith. As Steven heads out on a trip to do science or whatever, we learn that Muriel is having a secret affair with the groundskeeper, David. As they sneak their way into the greenhouse to get down and dirty, Steven bursts in, announcing his trip was a total fabrication in order to catch them in the act. After subjecting his wife and lover to a number of horrific tortures in his medieval-esque dungeon, he decides to kill them and inherit his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s wealth. Except Muriel reveals that she had adjusted her will, leaving everything to her mentally ill step-sister.
Not to worry, though. After killing Muriel and Jonathan, saving their hearts, and using their blood to restore his old maid/mistress Solange to her radiant, youthful self, Steven springs Muriel’s blonde sister Jenny (also Barbara Steele) from the loony bin and marries her with the intention of driving her even more mad and thus, gaining access to the family fortune. Aided by Solange, Steven begins dosing her with a steady supply of hallucinogens and that’s when the nightmares begin.
As Jenny begins hallucinating bleeding plants and the sounds of hearts beating, and having terrible dreams (including one where she is murdered by a faceless man in the greenhouse), she becomes more and more unhinged, much to the delight of Steven. That is, until he realizes Solange has been dosing her with the wrong formula: a placebo, rather than the hallucinogen. Regardless, his plan is working. In order to put his distressed bride at ease, Steven calls in her doctor from the mental institution, Dr. Dereck Joyce. At this point, Jenny begins to experience distinct memories that belong to Muriel. Dr. Dereck, the medical professional that he is, buys into the idea that Jenny’s nightmares are paranormal in nature. As he gets closer to discovering Muriel’s awful fate, Steven and Solange continue to work to keep their secret buried. But it’s only a matter of time before they all realize the truth: death could not contain Muriel and her lover, and they're back to get their revenge.
Nightmare Castle is a terrific little ghost story that relies mostly on it’s old school spooky atmosphere, allowing Enzo Barboni’s beautiful black-and-white photography and Ennio Morricone’s pitch perfect score to do the heavy lifting. The narrative does a fine job checking off the appropriate boxes for this sort of thriller; featuring a mad scientist, deep shadows, candelabras, and dank crypts, and the characters, stock as they are, are elevated by an outstanding cast. Paul Muller, a Jess Franco regular, is absolutely terrifying as the sadistic scientist and Barbara Steele absolutely slays in her dual roles as the devious Muriel and doe-eyed Jenny. If there's one reason to check out this movie (there are several), it's Barbara Steele.
At 105 minutes, though, Nightmare Castle does overstay its welcome as it drags a bit in the second act, treading water until it’s shocking climax. All things considered, fans of the genre should find a lot to love about it. It’s a great primer for those who may be new to gothic Italian horror (especially those who enjoyed Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak), and it’s an absolute must-see for Barbara Steele fans.
The film is available in Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Horror Classics collection, but Severin Films put out a fantastic Blu-ray restoration, complete with new HD transfers of Castle of Blood and Terror Creatures from the Grave, a Barbara Steele commentary track, a never-before-seen Barbara Steele interview, and much more. Sure, the 50 movie collection is cheaper, but between you and me, it’s worth springing for the Severin Blu-ray. It's that good.