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Plot: journalist accepts wager to stay overnight at a haunted castle

All through the 1960s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations were in vogue. The movement was started by a slew of Roger Corman productions starring Vincent Price as The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Premature Burial (1962), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). This in turn led to Poe-inspired productions as The Blancheville Monster (1963) and the German production The Castle of the Walking Dead (1967). The credits insist on that Castle Of Blood is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Danse Macabre” but instead it bears more of a resemblance to Poe’s 1827 five-part poem “Spirits Of the Dead”. Castle Of Blood bases itself on the French superstition that the dead rise from their graves on All Souls Eve, the subject of the titular poem by Henri Cazalis which was put to music by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in 1874.

Castle Of Blood was helmed by versatile workhorse director Antonio Margheriti from a screenplay by Bruno Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi (as Jean Grimaud). The project was initially slated to be directed by Sergio Corbucci but he passed it on to Margheriti due to scheduling conflicts. Second unit and assistant directing was future cannibal atrocity specialist Ruggero Deodato. The production was bankrolled to make optimal usage of the sets and locations that producer Giovanni Addessi had used earlier for the comedy The Monk Of Monza (1963). British horror queen Barbara Steele was in the midst of her conquest of Meditterranean horror cinema and Castle Of Blood is graced with breathtaking monochrome photography by Riccardo Pallottini (as Richard Kramer) and a waltzing harpsichord, piano and weeping violin score by Riz Ortolani. Castle Of Blood was shot in just 15 days and Margheriti remade it on a larget budget and in color as Web Of the Spider (1971) with Michèle Mercier in Steele’s role. Castle Of Blood is a spectacular little gothic exercise that overcomes it budgetary limitations through sheer talent, perseverance and ingenuity in using the resources that it has to its disposal.

In the gloomy Four Devils pub in Victorian era London vacationing American author of weird and macabre literature Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli, as Montgomery Glenn) is reciting his 1835 novel “Berenice” to his companion Lord Thomas Blackwood (Umberto Raho, as Raul H. Newman). Intersecting with the men is starving young journalist Alan Foster (Georges Rivière) who has been trying to secure an interview with Poe. Poe insists that all of his stories were based on events he experienced. The men discuss the nature of death and Foster explains his skepticism towards the supernatural. At this juncture Lord Blackwood proposes Foster put his skepticism to the test by staying the night at his remote castle. An easy enough wager that will score him 100 pound sterling for his trouble. Foster accepts the challenge, offering ten pound sterling as collateral and soon he is being transported to the fog-enshrouded manor by coachman Lester (Salvo Randone) in Lord Blackwood’s carriage. After passing through the huge iron gate, traversing a foggy graveyard and navigating through thick foliage and long tree limbs Foster, sufficiently spooked, makes his way into the Castle Of Blood.

After walking aimlessly through shadowy, cobweb-filled corridors with dusty candelabras and metallic suits of armor, desolate empty chambers with nothing but blowing, ghostly curtains Alan at long last makes his acquaintance with Elisabeth Blackwood (Barbara Steele). Foster is immediately smitten with Blackwood but he is spooked by a clock that chimes even though its pendulum doesn’t swing and an eerie looking portrait that acts as a centerpiece in the great hall. Julia (Margarete Robsahm) seems to materialize out of the shadows whenever he looks at her portrait. Julia warns Elisabeth not to befriend the handsome stranger, but Elisabeth insists that he will “bring her back to life”. As it turns out Elisabeth not only had a husband named William (Benito Stefanelli, as Ben Steffen) but also was in a tryst with strapping gardener Herbert (Giovanni Cianfriglia, as Phil Karson) and the unwilling recipient of Julia’s sapphic affection. Along the way Foster meets house guest Dr. Carmus (Arturo Dominici, as Henry Kruger), an expert in the supernatural. According to the good doctor every year on All Souls Eve the lost souls of Castle Blackwood re-enact their fates lest they are able to claim the warm blood of the living to sustain them until the next year.

As Foster comes to grips with the realization that he is doomed Lord Blackwood has invited a couple of newly-weds on the pretext of the same wager. Before they arrive Foster first has to see how Dr. Carmus met his demise as he walks through the ancestral crypt and is eventually overcome by the walking corpse of gardener Herbert as one of the coffins disgorges its decaying cadaverous contents. By this point Elsi Perkins (Sylvia Sorrente, as Sylvia Sorrent) and her husband (John Peters) have arrived and are all over each other. Elsi is frightened by the strange noises inside the castle’s bowels and urges her husband to investigate. This doesn’t stop her from taking off her bodice and changing to a see-through hoop skirt. Elsi is choked by the hulking Herbert as she takes off her clothes in front of the fireplace. Her husband befalls a similar fate when he comes to her rescue. Having witnessed the grisly ends of all residents Alan is barely holding on to his wits. Elisabeth urges him to escape the castle premises but insists that she cannot go with him. Alan forcefully takes her with him only for Elisabeth to dissolve to ghastly skeletal remains on her own gravestone. On his way out of the premises Alan is impaled by one of the spikes of the iron fence as the wind blows. In the morning Poe and Lord Blackwood arrive at the castle. “He’s waiting, so you can see he’s won the bet,” Poe intones jokingly. “The Night of the Dead has claimed another victim” retorts Blackwood sardonically. ”When I finally write this story…. I”m afraid they’ll say it’s unbelievable,” a morose Edgar Allan Poe concludes.

As a French-Italian production Castle Of Blood boasts two stellar leads and a number of prominent supporting players. Barbara Steele had established herself with her double role in Mario Bava’s excellent Black Sunday (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962) and worked with Margheriti earlier on The Long Hair of Death (1964). Steele would continue her conquest of Meditterranean horror cinema with appearances in 5 Graves For A Medium (1965), Nightmare Castle (1965), An Angel For Satan (1966) and in the following decade in Shivers (1975), the debut feature of body horror specialist David Cronenberg. Georges Rivière had been in The Black Vampire (1953), The Longest Day (1962) and The Virgin Of Nuremberg (1963) prior. Arturo Dominici was a reliable supporting actor that was in The Labors of Hercules (1958), Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959), The Trojan Horse (1961) and the Angélique series (1964-1968). Silvano Tranquilli was in, among others, The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962), the Silvio Amadio comedy So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious (1975) with Gloria Guida and Dagmar Lassander as well as Star Odyssey (1979), the concluding chapter of Alfonso Brescia’s abysmal science-fiction quadrilogy following the success of Star Wars (1977). Finally, Umberto Raho was in The Last Man on Earth (1964), the superhero fumetti Satanik (1968), The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and the Tsui Hark actioner Double Team (1997) with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman.

Like a lot of gothic horrors of the day Castle Of Blood is a slow-moving affair that takes its time setting up its characters and building atmosphere. The Four Devils pub scene does some excellent economic storystelling. It sets up the main characters, lays out the premise of the movie and sets the plot into motion. Each character is given just enough shading to be believable. Foster is a man of reason and logic, Poe initially comes across as a raving lunatic (but in the third act will turn out to be the most sympathetic character) and Lord Blackwood is a member of nobility that will stop at nothing to take advantage of the poor classes for his own personal enrichment/entertainment. Written not quite as well as the love arc between Foster and Barbara Steele’s Elisabeth. Within moments of their initial meet-cute the two are declaring each other their eternal love. Margarete Robsahm’s stern villainess contrasts beautifully with Barbara Steele’s wide-eyed and innocent Elisabeth. The colors of their gowns should clue anybody in as to what their alliances are. The brief topless scene from Sylvia Sorrente in the international version is worth the price of admission alone. The entire framing device in the Four Devils pub, having all three principal male leads detailing what the movie will be about, is surprisingly effective given the ridiculousness of the central premise.

Castle Of Blood was prescient of where gothic horror was headed in the ensuing decade and pushes the envelope in terms of violence and eroticism. Barbara Steele looks absolutely dashing with her pulled back ravenblack hair, huge eyes, lowcut dresses and heaving bosom. Norwegian actress Margarete Robsahm has that stern, icy Scandinavian look and Sylvia Sorrente is by far the most curvaceous of the assembled cast. Several of Steele’s love scenes are a lot more explicit than others from the period and Sorrente’s brief topless moment in the French print considerably raises the temperature. The sapphic liaison between Julia and Elisabeth was quite risqué for the decade for the same reason. It are not mere allusions that Robsahm’s character makes towards Steele’s Elisabeth but overt advances. The explanation for the castle’s curse is something straight out of H.P. Lovecraft or Nathaniel Hawthorn instead of the supposed repertoire of Edgar Allan Poe and Algernon Blackwood. In the following decade gothic horror would remain a staple in continental European cinema and experience an infusion of bloodshed and erotica to make it more appealing for the new decade. Castle Of Blood, as these old gothic chillers tend to go, delivers exactly what it promises.

Plot: paranoid delusional drives aimlessly around the Nevada desert.

If it weren’t for eloquent film vlogger Georg Rockall-Schmidt we probably would never have been exposed to the deranged world of independent Las Vegas filmmaker Neil Breen. Breen was an architect, and one-time real estate agent, who like entrepreneurs-turned-filmmakers Hal Warren and H.B. Halicki before him took to writing, producing, and directing his own films as a bizarre part-time hobby. Since debuting with the opaque Double Down in 2005 Breen has directed an additional four features. Double Down has all known Breen-isms that would make their return, in one form or another, in I Am Here… Now (2009), Fateful Findings (2013), Pass Thru (2016), and Twisted Pair (2018). Once you see a Neil Breen film you can never unsee it again. It has the power to ensnare, or to annoy.

While other directors dabble in easily exploitable genres (action/science fiction or fantasy/horror) Neil Breen is, like Gabriella Cilmi, on a mission. Almost every one of his productions has been thinly-veiled Christian propaganda, filled with heavy-handed, overt symbolism; a gratuitous helping of stock footage and PG-13 nudity (something which has faded out in his post-2013 offerings). Double Down was the first of Breen’s nigh-on inpenetrable metaphorical religious-patriotic-jingoistic supernatural thrillers. Next to Neil Breen, a hack as Tommy Wiseau comes across as soberingly, shockingly lucid in comparison. Truly, Neil Breen is the Christian wingnut reincarnation of Coleman Francis and Double Down is his The Beast Of Yucca Flats (1961) for the millennial and Instagram generation. It will make you pine for the competence of Coleman Francis.

Double Down takes the concept of outsider art to whole new, previously unseen levels. This is fringe cinema taken to the utmost extreme. Neil Breen’s debut is so outré that it has to be seen to be even believed that such a thing exist. It makes for compelling viewing to see every written (and unwritten) rule of cinema broken and trampled upon. The Asylum, TomCat Films, and Kings Of Horror have better directors on average. Helming a feature film is a daunting task under any circumstance and it’s probably down to simple economics that Breen has taken to manning every department possible. As the old saying goes, just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should.

There’s something endearing about the idealism of the Neil Breen canon. Every one of his productions handles some important socio-political-economical problem and casts himself as a messianic Christ-like figure that prepares mankind for salvation. The Judeo-Christian rhetoric is a constant in every Breen production, as are trashy braless, blonde and brunette women, ostensibly many years Breen’s junior, who will shed clothes in one or more scenes, but never expose themselves. Double Down is the only truly original Neil Breen feature as I Am Here… Now (2009), Pass Thru (2016), and Twisted Pair (2018) all are loose remakes of existing older properties. Fateful Findings (2013) is a loose reimagining of Double Down even though it’s not acknowledged as such. If you’ve seen Double Down you’ve seen Fateful Findings (2013).

In the Nevada deserts a man sporting a black wifebeater, denims, and snakeskin boots clacks away at various laptops and cellphones. He is Aaron Brand (Neil Breen), a much sought-after covert operative and mercenary for the highest bidder, and he’s caught in an inter-dimensional time loop. He’s a decorated military veteran, a genius computer scientist, and a devoted husband to a loving wife (Laura Hale). One day his wife was assassinated by agents of the very government Brand had pledged his loyalty to. Brand transfers his dead wife’s consciousness into his laptops as an AI construct. In the trunk of his car he keeps her lifeless body in hopes of one day reviving her. Vowing to expose the widespread corruption of his government and bringing those responsible to justice, Brand has planned a relatively minor act of bio-terrorism in Las Vegas. That attack will function as a distraction to a much-larger coordinated act of terrorism that will bring the corrupt government to its knees. Under the threat of detonating explosives in seven strategically important cities and massive civilian casualties Brand will coerce the government into doing his bidding. While he’s preparing and putting his masterplan in motion Aaron is constantly haunted by memories of his dead wife, their shared childhood, all while he’s susceptible to periodic blackouts and sudden fits of clinical depression. Every time he blacks out he’s forced to relive a random timeline from his days as a high-ranking government agent and face his various victims.

One day he finds God (George Kerr) in a cave and is given a rock which he believes to have magical properties. A friend invites him to dinner and Brands lays hands on his friend’s daughter Megan (Alexis Fitting) to cure her of brain cancer. She dies anyway. In another hallucination, or alternate timeline, he meets the ghosts of his parents (Maynard and Rose Mahler). Endowed with near god-like powers Aaron allows the hotels on the Strip to be evacuated before he razes the den of sin and secularism to the ground. He does this in audience of the Director of the FBI (Alan Rogers), the Director of Homeland Security (Huel Washington), the Director of the CIA (Bill Frid) and a senator (Marry Taylor). It dawns upon him that all his various lived (and re-lived) timelines share a common element: Nevada. Having exorcised his demons Aaron at long last finds peace within himself. As a result the time loop is closed and Brand is returned to his own time. Now that he’s been imbued with godly powers Aaron resurrects his wife and destroys his laptops and equipment now that her construct is no longer needed. Happily reunited with the love of his life the two walk off hand in hand into the horizon. Corruption has been ended, the guilty have been punished, and Brand has been reunited with his lost Lenore. Everything is right with the world again…

Either that, or it’s about a paranoid delusional hallucinating from mercury poisoning and driving aimlessly around the Nevada desert. At this point it could be both.

Double Down spends around two-minutes on a stock footage credit montage in which exactly three credits appear: the title card, and two production lines. It then launches into a six-minute monologue that heralds a wave of near-constant stream of consciousness narration that lays out all the backstory and exposition. Not even Coleman Francis had the cojones to do that in The Beast Of Yucca Flats (1961). After the credits and opening monologue it takes well over an additional ten minutes before Breen can be seen interacting with another character. Better brace yourself to hear and see Breen constantly narrating himself. Three-quarters of Double Down consists almost exclusively Breen walking and driving around the Las Vegas strip and Nevada desert accompanied by near-constant monotone narration. In a more charitable mood the randomly shoehorned in scenes of with the blackouts and clinical depression could be called subtext, except that there’s no main text. Breen obviously cares about mental health and psychological well-being. He’s concerned about the way American society sees/treats the mentally ill. It’s also entirely within the realm of possibility that Neil Breen has had a relationship with one particular woman turn sour, and that he continues to long and pine for said woman. The way Breen agonizingly screams “where are you?!” is probably too melodramatic and maybe a tad too earnest in its sincerity.

It’s fascinating to see one man fumble his way through his own movie so gloriously. The Room (2003) had the good fortune of looking like a particularly deranged Friends (1994-2004) episode, Double Down for most of the time barely qualifies as a movie. That it features but two locations (the desert and the Strip) doesn’t help either. Instead of the Las Vegas of glamour and excess that the late Andy Sidaris captured so well (on similar non-existent budgets) the Las Vegas scenes with Breen are rather flat and sort of mundane in an everyday sense. Laura Hale was the first to be cast as a love interest and despite being a linchpin in the main plot her character is abstract, to say the least. Hale has a scant few lines before disappearing and hasn’t been seen again in the Breeniverse since. It’s a question where Neil keeps finding all these young actresses to appear in his productions. As with anything from Breen it ranges from mildly strange to utterly bizarre and Double Down lives up to its name that it indeed doubles down on the insanity that it promises. Fateful Findings (2013) had better production values, but this is madness unchecked. Perhaps Neil Breen imagines himself as some kind of visionary director who makes important movies. The world may never know.