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Six years ago Savant reviewed the Barbara Steele gem Nightmare Castle as The Faceless Monster, in a decidedly inferior transfer. As was shown with last February's The Long Hair of Death and An Angel for Satan, vintage Eurohorror is in a peculiar bind, distribution-wise. Instead of paying proper licensing fees to get access to original film materials, smaller companies often just recycle whatever copies can be found. The February release made a legitimate DVD of either of those films financially unrealistic.
Committed to quality product, the independent DVD outfit Severin has licensed Nightmare Castle from its European rights holders and given it a new quality transfer. The result is a collector-worthy disc of one of Barbara Steele's more obsessive horror mini-epics. Even better, the disc comes with an excellent Barbara Steele career interview, something I've never seen before anywhere.
Nightmare Castle's original title is the more accurate L'Amanti d'oltretomba (Lovers from Beyond the Grave). The greedy Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Miller, aka Paul Müller) surprises his unfaithful wife Muriel (Barbara Steele) as she pursues an illicit affair with gardener David (Rik Battaglia) in the greenhouse. Stephen tortures both of them to death, removes their hearts and cremates what's left. But his plan stumbles when Muriel's will leaves her estate to her identical half-sister Jenny (Steele again). Stephen must start from scratch, wooing and marrying a blonde, virtuous version of his first wife. Jenny has already been diagnosed with mental illness, so it should be no problem for Arrowsmith and his housemaid Solange (Helga Liné) to send her over the edge with drugs. In their very first attempt, Jenny dreams of a strange murder in the greenhouse. The plan works fine until the schemers discover that Jenny is tripping out without having taken her hallucinogens.
Barbara Steele had already been a solid horror icon for four years, with top English critics adding their praise to that of the continental worshippers in the French magazine Midi-Minuit Fantastique. But it's no wonder that Steele clung to her one Federico Fellini outing to define herself, as her horror films for Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti and Riccardo Freda failed to develop her career. Amanti d'oltretomba's script proves Steele to be a horror sub-genre unto herself, being a bald borrowing of ideas from Black Sunday (the good and evil Barbaras), Castle of Blood (a haunted house that replays murders from the past), and especially The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (a new bride tormented by her husband and housemaid). The Arrowsmith estate is the same Roman villa seen in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.
Nightmare Castle has been singled out as the Barbara Steele movie almost completely focused on its leading lady's star appeal. The story is weighed down with dialogue and the visuals don't approach the crepuscular delirium of Hichcock or Black Sunday, yet the show is a key film for Steele fanatics. Director Caiano keeps Barbara Steele on camera for almost every scene. Everything is staged for the privilege of filming Steele's face in various states of distress. Muriel's torture in the castle's dungeon is as close as 1965 Eurohorror could get to bondage fantasy, and Jenny's hallucinations provide ample opportunities to film Steele in erotic-murderous situations. Steele fans that never saw Nightmare Castle know it well from a selection of salacious stills given full-page spreads in old issues of Midi-Minuit.
Barbara Steele is really less of an actress in this films than she is a fetish object. 1 It is said that she uses her own voice in the dubbed track. Helga Liné begins the show in old-age makeup and then reappears, rejuvenated by Stephen's experimental serums. Frequent Eurohorror star Paul Müller does reasonably well with an evil husband character who can't decide if his motivation is jealousy or ordinary greed. If Stephen is so brilliant that he can restore his housemaid's youthful appearance, what need has he for his wife's money? I doubt that any of the film's creators worried about such things.
Severin's DVD of Nightmare Castle is a definitive version of Mario Caiano's horror valentine to Barbara Steele. The flawless, enhanced B&W picture is well-defined, with rich blacks; it's the original Italian negative bearing the Amanti d'oltretomba title (It also misspells Ms. Steele's name!). The dubbed English track is an appropriate choice, as the actors are definitely speaking English on the set. The moody music score, played on piano and a massive church organ, is an early effort by Ennio Morricone.
The extras place Severin's disc in a category of its own. Producer David Gregory has an excellent interview from the film's star, Barbara Steele in Conversation. The actress tells the entire story of her career from her school days onward, explaining her brief unhappy period as a Rank / Fox starlet and her abandonment of Hollywood in the middle of an Elvis Presley movie. The interview piece is illustrated with dozens of unfamiliar, beautiful photographs.
Ms. Steele is relaxed and engaged in the interview, explaining that she was too much of a young hedonist to really apply herself to the full demands of a career aimed at stardom -- she never auditioned for parts and simply took the offers as they came. In that sense she has a lot in common with Louise Brooks, the legendary star who turned her back on the Hollywood studios. Barbara states that she wishes she'd never left her beloved Italy ... even though she might weigh 3,000 pounds by now, from eating all the rich food!
Director Mario Caiano appears in an Italian interview, talking about his films while various household pets wander in and out of the frame. He emphasizes that Amanti d'oltretomba was filmed very quickly and that he didn't get to know Barbara Steele very well.
An English trailer is included. In perfect shape, it bears the title Night of the Doomed, the title probably chosen for export. A video remnant of the American Nightmare Castle trailer uses the same footage, adding text and a different voiceover.
Nightmare Castle may not be the very best of Eurohorror films but in Severin's superb presentation it's a highly desirable title. Barbara Steele's career interview is the clincher -- it's not to be missed.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Nightmare Castle rates:
1. English critic Raymond Dugnat frequently mentioned fellow film critics who "worshipped" at the altars of stars like Kim Novak. Several reserved special mention for the dangerous, hungry-eyed Barbara Steele, fixating on her as a perverse sex object: "She's a corpse -- but is she any less desirable?"
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.