Barbara’s Castles… THREE BARBARA STEELE FILMS on one Severin BD

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Blu-ray. Severin. Regions A/B/C. Unrated.

Also known as Night Of The Doomed, Faceless Monster, Orgasmo and Lovers from Beyond The Tomb (translating the Italian release title, Amanti D’Olretomba) and made in 1965, just before the Italian Gothique cycle abruptly gave way to spaghetti westerns and gialli, this is Mario Caiano’s self declared attempt (albeit under the pseudonym Allen Grunewald) to pay hommage to the creepy monochrome classics of Freda, Bava, Margheriti, et al. Severin’s appropriately gaudy sleeve quotes Monsters At Play (who they?) to the effect that Caiano actually surpasses the achievements of Mario Bava in this endeavour and while that claim is palpably far fetched, Caiano has undoubtedly authored a strong entry in the genre here.

As is traditional, Barbara Steele (her surname misspelled in the film’s poverty row titles) essays a double role, appearing first as Muriel Arrowsmith, whose life at Hampton Castle (supposedly somewhere in England but easily recognisable from a million other Italian fright flicks… its very name suggestive of former Freda glories) is intolerably dreary due to scientist husband Stephen (Paul Muller) spending most of his time in the lab, experimenting on frogs. Muriel spices things up by meeting gardener / stud David (Rik Battaglia) for Lady Chatterley-type trysts in the greenhouse. Betrayed by leper-faced servant Solange (Helga Line), these lovers are chained up in the castle’s dungeon, tortured with pokers and acid and eventually electrocuted. Needless to say, before she pops her delectable clogs, Muriel vows vengeance from beyond the grave and also lets slip that she has willed the castle to her mentally infirm step-sister Jenny.

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Time passes and when we return to Castle Hampton, Stephen has restored Solange’s beauty with his experiments and a pint or eight of Muriel’s blood (further shades of Dr Hichcock) and is now hitched to Jenny (Steele again), whom of course he’s planning to bump off. For a mere step-sister, Jenny bears a remarkable resemblance to Muriel, excepting only her blonde locks (don’t you hate it when dark-haired beauties go blonde? Angelina Jolie, Beatrice Dalle, Penelope Cruz… just don’t do it, girls!) As Jenny’s obsession with a portrait of Muriel propels her to learn the truth about what happened to her sibling, Stephen and Solange’s plans to do do away with her are given added urgency. Jenny’s conundrum (Is she just mad? Are they really out to get her? And is there some kind of supernatural higher power operating?) drive her to the brink of (yet another) breakdown and hunky shrink Dereck Joyce (Lawrence Clift) is called in to restore her rationality, though his self-proclaimed belief in paranormal phenomena hardly qualify him as the ideal candidate for the job.  When Doctor Dereck gets a bit too close to the truth for comfort, Stephen arranges to electrocute him in his bath, though it’s butler Jonathan (Giuseppe Addobbati) who ends up taking the fatal shock. This is just about Jonathan’s only appearance in the picture and his character seems to have been conceived (by Caiano and co-writer Fabio De Agostini) purely to save Joyce’s bacon and supply sinister Stephen with the pretext for one of his best one-liners in the picture: “Ten minutes ago that man was a picture of health… now he’s ready for the worms!”

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Impatient with all this pussy footing around, the vengeful shades of Muriel and David finally put in an appearance… Jenny is rescued from the fatal transfusion that would have topped up the rejuvenation regime of Solange (who consequently crumbles into a skeletal state) and Stephen is trussed up in his burning castle, from which Jenny and Doctor D escape, no doubt to live happily ever after. Defying the meanest of resources, DP Enzo Barboni (who would shoot Sergio Corbucci’s Django the following year and went on to become a spagwest director in his own right) performs chiaroscuro wonders with the contours of Steele’s wonderful face throughout and he and Caiano’s efforts are well rendered in a crisp 1.66:1 / 16×9 HD restoration from the negative that keeps an inevitable degree of frame damage to the barest minimum. The film’s OST is provided by Ennio Morricone but his first horror outing is surprisingly forgettable, given that he had already scored A Fistful Of Dollars.

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In terms of Nightmare Castle-related extras, in addition to UK and UK trailers you get an interview with director Caiano (and assorted pets) which is reasonably engaging but only serves as the appetiser for an audience with Barbaric Steele herself, Baroness Barbara of Birkenhead (complete with snarling eyebrows)… exactly the kind of coup that we’ve come to expect from the Severin boys. Steele has reportedly been reluctant, in the past, to acknowledge her Italian horror credits but shows no such qualms here, reminiscing freely about her reign as the Queen of Italian Gothique, though predictably she has a lot more to say about her relatively brief working relationship with Fellini. Most tantalisingly, she mentions the unrealised horror project in which Antonioni planned to star La Steele alongside his muse, Monica Vitti. Currently clocking in (by my reckoning) at 71 years of age, she still looks beautiful and still comes across in this indispensable featurette as more than a little bonkers… Steele crazy after all these years…

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… and that’s really not the half of it as far as bonus materials go on this disc! As supporting attractions you get no less than two additional gothique Steele vehicles, Massimo Pupillo’s Terror Creatures From The Grave (1965) and Antonio Margheriti’s Danse Macabre (1963), each with their own associated supplementary stuff. Pupillo’s Ibsenesque saga of leprous undead vengeance is at least as good as Nightmare Castle. Margheriti’s effort is even better (generally regarded as the cream of the Bava wannabes… bogus Edgar Allan Poe attribution notwithstanding) and probably would have taken lead billing here if not for the damaged and compromised nature of the only print available, retitled Castle Of Blood for the U.S. market… a tantalising glimpse of the lost original.

You’re probably thinking that those two deserve reviews in their own right and you’d be correct… but I’ve stalled reviewing this essential BD release for too long already. Keep checking here, it’s my intention to revisit and expand this posting. But don’t hold your breath and in the meantime… buy this disc!

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