Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Overlook: Nightmare Castle

by JB
Riddle: What’s better than one Barbara Steele?

One would expect that the answer to my riddle would be TWO Barbara Steeles, but I have great news today, horror fans—in the new Severin Blu-ray disc of Nightmare Castle, the answer is FOUR Barbara Steeles. Allow me to explain.

I consider this new disc the “Blu-ray Bargain of the Year,” and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. First, we get the main feature in a gorgeous new 4K transfer, looking as if it were filmed yesterday. This film has been a perennial public domain eyesore, but no more. Not content with simply wowing us all with the transfer, the fine folks at Severin go above and beyond… and then go above and beyond their initial “above and beyond” to reach new heights of aboveness and beyonditude.
The pièce de résistance here is that, as a bonus, Severin throws in TWO more Italian horror movies starring Barbara Steele. The inclusion of Castle of Blood and Terror-Creatures from the Grave (plus trailers and featurettes about them) propels this release into the “must purchase” category. Just think—buy this single disc and you’ve got THREE days covered for Scary Movie Month!

Three movies should add up to three Barbara Steeles, right? One would expect a single Barbara Steele in each of the three films on the disc. A-ha! In Nightmare Castle, the main feature, Steele plays two different roles; that’s more Barbara Steele to love. That makes a grand total of the FOUR Barbara Steeles I promised. Never doubt me again, babies.

The Plot In Brief: Aware that his lovely wife Muriel (Barbara Steele) and his gardener are having a torrid affair, crazy scientist Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller) catches them in the act. He chains them in a dungeon, he whips them repeatedly, he drips acid on them, and then he electrocutes them. Clearly, he is angry.
Later, Arrowsmith uses his victims’ blood to restore the youth to elderly servant Solange (Helga Liné). Together, they plot to steal the estate from its rightful heir: Muriel’s sister, Jenny (also Barbara Steele). Muller marries her, and he and Solange begin a half-hearted attempt to gaslight her, which isn’t too difficult because Jenny seems to have been a little mentally unstable to begin with. After more standard gothic tedium, the ghosts of Muriel and the gardener return to seek revenge. Boo!

SOMETHING I HAVE NOTICED ABOUT 1960s ITALIAN HORROR: Maybe you have noticed this as well, babies. Italian horror films from the 1960s have terrific openings (Think the “mask and fire” sequence from Black Sunday) and impressive endings, but their second acts often try the patience and quickly wear out their “dream-like state” welcomes. Is this just me? It is as if the true maestros of Italian horror only care about the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes and leave the problematic “middles” to less-skilled underlings. Truthfully, I think that, when viewing these movie terror-trains, the majesty of the “engines and cabooses” more than make up for their patience-trying “boxcars”—but still, wouldn’t it be great if the whole train lived up to the promise of its beginning and ending? Maybe the middles lag for me because I am so anxious to get to the good parts (and by “good parts” I mean creepy ghosts and more Barbara Steele.)
Fact: Barbara Steele is one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. I do not want to sound skeevy, but I could watch hours and hours of her films just to stare at her face. It’s a purely aesthetic pursuit—like visiting the Grand Canyon or a fine art museum. Apparently, I am not alone. Horror historian David Del Valle mentions on the commentary track that the producer of Nightmare Castle, Carlo Caiano, was infatuated with Steele and bankrolled the film as a demonstration of his affection. The film was written and directed by Caiano’s son Mario, who offers up a kind of “greatest hits” of the images and scenes that Steele was famous for in her earlier Italian horror offerings.

AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: How do I know this film qualifies as “overlooked”? I read a LOT about movies, but I first became aware of this film through, of all things, its poster. I purchased a big 30” X 60” Nightmare Castle poster just because I liked the artwork. I hung it in my garage, which I now call “my little nightmare castle.” I am a believer in hanging posters where their titles will have some meaning or import. Patrick has a poster for Phantom of the Paradise in his home theater. Besides being one of his favorite films, Patrick IS the phantom of the paradise because he likes to invite us down to his movie-watching paradise then lurk in the crawl space, banging on a haunted church organ. Behind the desk in my office, I display a framed half-sheet for the film Soul of a Monster. This is because I am a monster… and I have no soul.

It’s ironic.
Nightmare Castle’s musical score was one of the first by Italian wunderkind Ennio Morricone, who is here just a few short years away from his groundbreaking and career-defining collaborations with Sergio Leone. The score for Nightmare Castle consists mainly of an extended pipe organ piece, but it’s acceptably creepy and more than gets the job done.

The disc also features a career-spanning interview with Steele, in which the segment producers frame her nicely, turn on the camera, and ask her to talk about her career. She tells amusing movie stories for almost a half hour; she is a marvelous raconteur. David Del Valle also leads Steele through a scene-specific commentary track that is not to be missed. At the end of the film, Steele notices that her name is misspelled in the credits and asks if anything can be done about it.
So to recap: that’s FOUR Barbara Steeles, an awesome 4K transfer, TWO bonus movies, interviews, a commentary, trailers, featurettes, an early Morricone score, and have I mentioned that Barbara Steele is all over this gosh-darned thing? For a little extra coin, Severin will sell you the Blu-ray autographed by the lovely Miss Steele herself. You’re welcome, babies!


  1. This release has been on my radar. I can't wait to check this out.

  2. I do agree that many Italian Horror films start plodding along during the second act (and I would argue that Giallos are even worse at doing this; although I would consider Giallos to be more 70's) but the true masters make up for it with style including interesting sets and camera angles (and beautiful women, of course). Blood and Black Lace is one of my favorite examples of this. The colors and use of the camera really make up for the "down" time in that film.

    Looking forward to seeing this one!

  3. I didn't recognise the name of the film but after reading your plot description I remembered, I have seen this! Wow haha. Thourghly convinced me to try more Steele movies now!

  4. I ordered the blu ray on Amazon. You did your job good sir. Thanks for the recommendation and column :-)

  5. BTW, did you see that Kino is releasing "The Mask" in 3-D?

  6. YES-- very exciting. "Put on the mask!"

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  8. Tim Lucas just posted on Facebook that Mario Caiano, director of Nightmare Castle, passed away yesterday at the age of 82.

    1. This is sad. He seemed like a really interesting guy. During his interview on the Nightmare Castle disc, his dog and cat keep roaming into frame. It's sweet.

  9. Nice poster! I have the standard one-sheet version of this one. The movie used to play on late night TV back in the 70's, which is where I first saw it.