Plot: the night Muriel (and her lover) came out of the grave.
The crown jewel in Barbara Steele’s conquest of Mediterranean horror cinema is in all likelihood this, Nightmare Castle, Mario Caiano’s epitome of gothic horror perfection. In Nightmare Castle (released back at home as Amanti d'oltretomba or Lovers From Beyond the Grave, it’s anybody’s guess how they came up with the international market title) Steele headlines a small cast of Italian character actors alongside Swiss shlock specialist Paul Müller and German bombshell Helga Liné. Barbara Steele is the obvious focus (and rightly so), Helga Liné steals every scene she’s in (and rightly so, even in 1965 it was clear she was destined for greater things) and Paul Müller plays another unscrupulous scheming man of science. Nightmare Castle is Italo gothic horror par excellence. Helmed by seasoned professionals it’s thick on that charnel atmosphere and blessed with breathtaking monochrome photography that is among the best in this particular subgenre. Needless to say, it’s probably not only one of the best in Barbara Steele’s Italian canon but an undiluted (and undisputed) classic on its own merits.
British actress Barbara Steele had been acting since 1958, but it wouldn’t be until Mario Bava’s The Mask Of Satan (1960) that she became associated with gothic horror. In 1960 Steele was slated to appear in the Don Siegel directed Elvis Presley vehicle Flaming Star, but accounts on her dismissal from the production differ depending on who you want to believe. In the six years from 1960 to 1966 Steele appeared in nine Italian gothic horror movies, including The Mask Of Satan (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962), and The Ghost (1963). Further appearances include a pair of gothic horrors from director Antonio Margheriti with The Long Hair of Death (1964) and Castle Of Blood (1964). Her tenure in Italian horror concluded with Five Graves For A Medium (1965) and An Angel For Satan (1966). Nightmare Castle is widely considered to be among Steele’s best pictures, and with good reason. Like Castle Of Blood from the year before Nightmare Castle is thick on that Mediterranean atmosphere and the monochrome photography is absolutely stunning. Just as in Mario Bava’s The Mask Of Satan (1960) half a decade earlier and in Antonio Margheriti’s The Long Hair of Death (1964) the year prior Steele plays a double role. During the 1970s Steele appeared in Roger Corman produced, Jonathan Demme directed women-in-prison movie Caged Heat (1974). Our personal introduction to queen Steele happened in the debut feature Shivers (1975) from future body horror specialist David Cronenberg. While we realized her historical importance to horror at large we weren’t yet far and deep enough into our cinematic odyssey to have seen any of her Italian work. In 1978 Steele had roles in the Louis Malle feature Pretty Baby as well as the American killer fish flick Piranha from director Joe Dante.
Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Müller, as Paul Miller) is a man of science living in the opulent Hampton Castle with his wife Lady Muriel Hampton (Barbara Steele, as Barbara Steel) and their butler Jonathan (Giuseppe Addobbati, as John McDouglas). The Arrowsmith marital union has eroded to such a degree that both partners can’t stand the sight of each another. Stephen for the longest time has suspected his wife to be involved in an extramarital affair with gardener/stable hand David (Rik Battaglia). To confirm his suspicious Dr. Arrowsmith announces that he will be embarking on a week-long trip to Edinburgh, Scotland to attend a science conference. The business trip is a fabrication on his part and merely a ruse to lure Muriel and her lover into the open. Arrowsmith is that special kind of miscreant, the sort not burdened by trivialities such as morals or anything in the way of scruples. The doctor has been conducting experimental research using electricity to preserve blood on lab animals in his castle laboratory and his convoluted scheme will finally allow him to experiment on human subjects. Muriel’s affair with the gardener is mere pretext for Arrowsmith to obtain his desired test subjects. That these are his adulterous spouse and her lover both of him he gets to subject to a regiment of elongated torture before killing and disposing of their lifeless bodies. Such are the grim spoils of the present situation.
Having tortured and killed both adulterers Arrowsmith cuts out and preserves their hearts, disposing of the rest of them in the incinerator and dumping their ashes into the pot of his favorite houseplant. In a daring experiment he transfuses Muriel’s electrically preserved blood into his cadaverous maid (and assistant) Solange (Helga Liné, as Helga Line) instantly restoring her appearance to that of a twenty-year-old. What Arrowsmith soon comes to realize is that Muriel has left her wealth not to him, but to her blonde sister Jenny (Barbara Steele, as Barbara Steel), who has a long history of mental instability and spent most of her adolescent life locked away in an unspecified insane asylum. Being the reptilian creep that he is, Arrowsmith promptly invites Jenny to Castle Hampton for an extended stay, and immediately starts courting her. Jenny eventually falls for his advances and the courtship ends in marriage.
Now having access again to the Hampton’s considerable wealth Arrowsmith – a man of low moral fiber, to say the least – then initiates the second part of his unscrupulous scheme, one that will conveniently dispose him of Jenny but will leave him with the castle, the Hampton wealth and his mistress Solange to his name. The doctor concocts a hallucinogen and instructs Solange to spike Jenny’s bedtime brandy that very night. Stephen thinks his devious scheme is working when Jenny hallucinates/dreams very strange that night and almost ends up strangling him. The next day he finds out that Solange accidentally mixed up the vials in his laboratory and administered Jenny a harmless sugar solution instead. The doctor’s plan is panning out even smoother than he had anticipated despite Solange’s minor mix-up. With Jenny’s tenuous grasp on her sanity a writ summoning her old psychiatrist to Hampton Castle is hastily dispatched.
The arrival of Dr. Derek Joyce (Marino Masé, as Lawrence Clift) lifts Jenny’s spirits, but Stephen and Solange come to understand that there’s something strange afoot in Castle Hampton when not only the mentally unstable Jenny, but also Dr. Joyce is witness to blood dripping from the pot of Arrowsmith’s favorite houseplant, the dual heartbeats resounding in the walls, sudden chill drafts where there logically couldn’t be any and a woman’s laughter echoing down the corridors. Arrowsmith seriously begin to contemplate the possibility that Castle Hampton might actually be haunted. The very story he planted in Jenny’s mind to sunder what little remnants of her sanity she still had left. However, Jenny it is not the target of the hauntings, rather than their conduit, their vessel of convenience and their chosen instrument of evil. The hauntings continue in Hampton Castle until one fateful evening the malign spirits of the deceased return from beyond in the form of the mutilated corpses of Muriel and David. Physical manifestations of Muriel and David that will not be able to rest until they have meted out punishment commensurate to the fate they underwent. They assure Stephen and Solange that they will inflict the same suffering upon them as revenge.
The plot is a combination of some of Steele’s earlier Italian productions from around this time. The plot is nearly identical to that of The Ghost (1963) from Ricardo Freda. In The Ghost (1963) Steele and her lover murder her doctor husband and his vengeful ghost comes to haunt them. Here Steele and her lover are murdered by her doctor husband and their ghosts come to haunt him. Like in Castle Of Blood (1965) Steele once again plays a jilted, duplicitous lover that comes to haunt her former paramour as a ghost. Five Graves for a Medium (1965) was more or less the same as Castle Of Blood (1965). Once again Steele plays a double role as both the wronged lover and her blonde, mentally unstable sister like she did in The Mask of Satan (1960). The new bride being terrorized by her husband and maid was lifted straight out of The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962). Mario Caiano and writer Fabio De Agostini pull out all the stops and fully commit to the madness on display. The duo is fully aware of how completely silly the story and entertain the viewer at every turn with beautiful shots of either Steele or Liné to distract from how the story is a pastiche of well-worn gothic horror clichés. Even by 1965 standards these were just that.
The other implacable Eurocult pillar here is Swiss actor Paul Müller. He made uncredited appearances in respectable productions as El Cid (1961), and the Biblical epic Barabbas (1961) before becoming a pillar in continental European exploitation cinema - primarily in Italy and Spain - through turns in Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1956), Amando de Ossorio’s Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) (with Rosanna Yanni and Diana Lorys), and he was a fixture in Jesús Franco productions in the late 1960s and 1970s with the spy-action romp The Devil Came From Akasava (1971), the psychedelic Vampyros Lesbos (1971), She Killed In Ecstasy (1971), the feverish Nightmares Come at Night (1972) and Eugénie (1973). as well as Tinto Brass’ ode to ass Paprika (1991) (with the ineffable Debora Caprioglio). Marino Masé debuted in the peplum spoof The Rape Of the Sabines (1961) (alongside Roger Moore as well as Giorgia Moll, Rosanna Schiaffino, and Mariangela Giordano), and acted in, among many others, Lady Frankenstein (1971), the giallo The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972), Emanuelle Around the World (1977), Luigi Cozzi's Contamination (1980), the Dario Argento giallo Tenebre (1982), Ruggero Deodato's An Uncommon Crime (1987) and (believe it or not) Francis Ford Coppola’s crime epic The Godfather: Part III (1990).
While it was in the rather and forgettable The Blancheville Monster (1963) that Helga Liné scored her first lead role, it was Nightmare Castle that solidified her position in the Mediterranean horror pantheon. Liné was a contortionist and dancer of German descent that debuted in cinema in 1941, but her career wouldn’t take off until moving to Madrid in 1960. In the permissive seventies Liné appeared in rustic gothic horror pieces as Horror Express (1972) and Amando de Ossorio’s The Loreley's Grasp (1974). Liné collaborated with Paul Naschy on Horror Rises From The Tomb (1973) and The Mummy's Revenge (1975) as well with León Klimovsky on The Dracula Saga (1973) and The Vampires Night Orgy (1973). Liné also was among the ensemble cast in Terence Young’s peplum sendup The Amazons (1973). Late in her career Liné had maternal roles in mainstream movies from Pedro Almodóvar as Labyrinth of Passion (1982) and Law of Desire (1987) where she played the mother of Antonio Banderas’ character. Even though she was fifty at the time Liné appeared in nudity-heavy exploitation titles from José Ramón Larraz such as Madame Olga’s Pupils (1981) and the Rosemary's Baby (1968) rip-off Black Candles (1982), as well as the Claude Mulot directed Harry Alan Towers and Playboy Channel co-production Black Venus (1983) (with Nubian nymph Josephine Jacqueline Jones and French sexbomb Florence Guérin).
Mario Caiano was an exploitation workhorse who got his start in peplum and spaghetti western and who occassionally dabbled in poliziotteschi and other genres. He was behind the minor giallo Eye In the Labyrinth (1972) and the il sadiconazista (or Nazisploitation) Nazi Love Camp 27 (1977) (with Sirpa Lane). For Nightmare Castle had the good fortune to shoot on location in one of Italy’s more famous horror castles, the Villa Parisi estate in Frascati, Rome. As such Nightmare Castle and director of photography Enzo Barboni take full advantage of the castle and its ornate interiors. Special effects and make-up artist Duilio Giustini was a veteran of spaghetti western and Eurospy by the time he arrived here. Along these parts he’s known for his work on the Belgian gothic horror The Devil’s Nightmare (1971) and the Gloria Guida evergreen Blue Jeans (1975). By the time he came to compose the score Ennio Morricone had written music for a number of comedies and worked with Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (G.I.N.C.). The same year he would explode to international fame through his association with Sergio Leone and the first of his Dollars Trilogy, For a Few Dollars More (1965). Just like his contemporary Riz Ortolani, Morricone was one of the busiest composers around. Befitting of the kind of gothic that it is the organ score for Nightmare Castle portentous, melodramatic and pompous where and when it matters.
Nightmare Castle is a loving valentine to Barbara Steele at her most desirable. Indeed, Enzo Barboni and his camera follows her every movement, every expression and hangs on to her every word. Steele had become such a respected figurehead of the Italian gothic that by the following decade many a starlet – Italian, British and otherwise - vied for her throne. Once she vacated her gothic horror throne in the early 1970s many tried to usurp her position as queen of the Italian gothic. Among the many heirs presumptive British beauty Candace Glendenning and German icon Helga Liné count definitely among our personal favorites. For director Caiano it always served as a tribute to miss Steele and the work she did exporting the atmospheric Italian gothic horror to audiences around the world. There isn’t enough to recommend about Nightmare Castle other than seeing with virgin eyes for the first time.