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One of Barbara Steele's most impressive vehicles, and one of the cornerstones of the classic Euro Horror Renaissance (1956-66), Castle of Blood is perhaps the best film by the erratic, prolific Antonio Margheriti. A very nifty ghost turn involving a perpetual cycle of sex and murder among a quintet of libidinous ghosts, the story brings in vampiric ideas as well. Edgar Allan Poe makes an appearance as a character, which is all well considering that the story attribution to him is a complete falsification.
Savant first collided with the notion of exotic European horror through the late, missed Raymond Durgnat's Films and Feelings, a terrific book for film appreciation that I often quote for its sage observations on cinematic Poetry and Pulp. In his chapters devoted to star worship, Durgnat swoons over Kim Novak, but reserves a special corner for Barbara Steele, the dark, luscious attracton of Fellini's 81/2 and Mario Bava's Black Sunday. Already a mortiferous valentine for the French magazine Midi-Minuit Fantastique, Durgnat first captured in English her screen persona's appeal - a sexy but deadly seductress, possessed of a sensuous face with huge haunting eyes that seem to say, come with me and die of pleasure.
Castle of Blood is good Steele - perhaps the best for this kind of character. Her dual role in Black Sunday is of course iconic, but splitting the two facets of her personality into Good and Bad Barbaras doesn't give her a chance to do what she does best, be both at the same time. In Pit and the Pendulum she's a villainous but minor character with little screen time, and in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock she takes a turn being the innocent female victim for a change. But here in (the better-titled) Dance Macabre we find her at her best, as a wicked female who is adulterous in life and a phantom mantrap in death. Of all her horror parts, this script has the best dialogue - an oddity for the visually centered genre - and Elisabeth Blackwood's seduction of Alan is very well done. So is her verbal sparring with Julia, a conflict unexplained in the old American cut. Even better is the brief flashback portrait of Elisabeth when alive, cheating on her husband with a stablehand, shooting vicious glances over her shoulder at anyone who might discover her crime.
Those not accustomed to classic Euro Horror corridor-wandering will become impatient with this show, in which the guileless Alan Foster endlessly tours the creepy rooms of the manor, never fully arriving at the obvious conclusion that, hey, these are ghosts, by golly. A sombre doctor (Arturo Dominici, also of Black Sunday) even spells it all out verbally, but Alan either doesn't get it or secretly wants to join the undead occupants on their endless repetition of vice and murder.
Although it was released in America as the typical kiddie matinee horror, in Europe (probably not England), Castle of Blood actually delivered on the vice angle. The severe Julia's problem with Elisabeth is revealed to be a lesbian attraction. It's fairly daringly presented, and matched in Euro Horror only by Roger Vadim's Technicolor greenhouse liason in Et mourir de plaisir. For an (easily excerpted) erotic side dish, the statuesque Silvia Sorrente is given a brief moment before becoming vampire bait, to strip down almost naked in an elaborate antique undergarment. Somewhere between the numbing restrictions of censors, and the later, boring use of nudity and sex as a substitute for entertaining content, there were a few truly erotic horror films, and Castle of Blood is definitely on the list. Of course, it's all a matter of suggestion: Barbara Steele's low-cut ball gown is the most erotic vision in the film, the kind on which star fixations are based, and it survived the censor's scissors. But you can bet that Sorrente's one-take nude scene lived on in European projectionists' personal reels.
The violence in the show is rather perfunctory, with the various ghosts replaying their crimes like dinner theater performed far too often. Stabbing, strangulations, and the odd vision of a musclebound assailant who bites the necks of his victims, provide plenty of motivation to send Alan Foster heading for the door. Castle of Blood has a good mood of erotic morbidity, but doesn't quite convince us that some uncanny force is compelling Alan to stay and share the fate of the ghosts. We're so far ahead of the curve by the time he tries to escape, that the end is a relative letdown.
But the overall impression is good, and the erotic angle much more than that. Antonio Margheriti has made quite a few dull films, often with substandard, rushed visuals. But Castle of Blood has a consistent look and a camera style that avoids meaningless zooms and sloppy blocking. Other Margheritis Savant has seen in greymarket versions that might make great DVDs, are The Long Hair of Death (with Steele again) and The Virgin of Nuremburg.
Synapse's DVD of Castle of Blood is a worthy and laudable job well done. The producers have added a disclaimer saying that they've mixed a number of source elements together, but the resulting show looks just fine. The b&w image doesn't always snap, but it's consistently good, especially enhanced for 16:9 screens. The reinstated cut scenes are only discernable by their content. The major element appears to be French, as the main titles (unexciting cards) are for Danse macabre; but they sure look better than the Woolner Brothers' sloppy American credit scene (an extra) that has a main title that looks like a 6-year old drew it, and misspells original names and fake Anglicized ones too: "Ritz Ortolani", "Montgomery Gleen". The show comes with a nice still section 1 and a very erudite set of liner notes from Tim Lucas.
The only quibble Savant has is with the subtitles. The very clear English track shows off Riz Ortolani's handsome score (which in my head, keeps threatening to turn into a popular tune) but has its share of nicely-dubbed but overly familiar voices. There's a French track provided, that quality-wise is poorer, but is much more compelling aesthetically. Unfortunately, the English subtitles only cover the sections cut from the American release, that have no English track and therefore revert to French. Subbing it all the way through would have been a generous bonus, and would have given our hearing-impaired friends a break as well. 2
Castle of Blood is classic, classy Euro Horror and a treat for those enraptured by the charms of the ghostly Barbara Steele. With its release, Synapse has added another star attraction to their growing library.
Note: Animal lovers will probably be offended by a graphic scene where a small snake is decapitated, in closeup, to prove a foggy point about life after death.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Castle of Blood rates:
1. One of the stills, with Steele squirming under Robsahm, shows Steele's
face contorted in a very familiar way - which makes sense, because it was copied for poster art on
a subsequent Babs horror vehicle. This reminds me (veering off-topic) of the still of the woman
kidnapped by the Gill Man in Revenge of the Creature, hanging onto a harbor buoy (itself a
frame blowup from the film) that was copied by Reynold Brown to be the blonde victim of a Triffid
for the poster for Day of the Triffids.
2. This remains a failing of independent DVD companies that are otherwise
releasing product every bit as good as the majors. If Anchor Bay were to make captions or subtitles
standard, their releases would be better than the average major.