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Castle of the Walking Dead
German producers originated their home-grown Edgar Wallace crime thrillers, but when it came to Euro-horror and spaghetti Westerns, they were often 2nd-tier co-partners on Italian films. For Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel, some top German names contribute to give the Italians a run for their money in the terror stakes. The result is a better than average thriller with an okay script and direction enlivened by high production values. And topping it off with horror icon Christopher Lee guarantees international interest.
The Aikman Archive's DVD of Castle of the Walking Dead (one of its many titles) is a good compression of a fairly poor print with an English dub track. Although the pan-scanned framing is frustrating, this may be the best version available on DVD, and it does look better than the old graymarket VHS tapes I saw. A little better.
Cleverly adapted from The Pit and the Pendulum, Castle decorates the spare tale with borrowed story elements, attractive acting leads, a fast pace and excellent settings. Exteriors appear to be shot in the same town where The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm was filmed - I recognize the photogenic switchback turn in the middle of some quaint old buildings.
Handsome Lex Barker and exotic Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice) meet cute, horror-movie style, during a grotesque exorcismic parade through town. In a nice touch, Barker stops the lead parader, who happens to be dragging a gigantic cross. ('Pardon me, I know you're busy, but ...')
Things stay eventful as a kidnapping is thwarted and a fellow traveler turns out to be other than what he seems. Then the coach travels through a hellish fogbound wood where the trees are draped with dead white bodies. Arms and legs stick out from tree trunks as if representing imprisoned souls. Then comes a patch of forest with dozens of hanged corpses. All this is too much for the coachman. His passengers don't react very strongly, but since the dramatics throughout stay at a rather basic level of fantastic unbelievability, it plays not as a detriment but as an invitation to accept the film's dream logic. Later events suggest that the whole corpse forest may be a magical hallucination. 1
Count Regula's castle is comprised of impressive, well designed interior sets dressed with creepy paintings reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch. Odd statuary and occasional props, like Count Regula's throne-like chair, add nice touches. One trucking shot takes us down a narrow passage lined with human skulls and is genuinely disturbing. Some of the corridors are a bit stagebound, but this is no disc to use for final judgments on the movie: it's not possible to tell what the film's original color scheme and density was. Some shots on this DVD look better than others, and have a rich sub-Mario Bava feel.
The story is straight adventure with horror trimmings. Dor's servant Babette (Christiane Rücker) is saved from a gruesome death in the nick of time. Father Fabian blunders and blusters broadly, discovering along the way that servant Anathol (Carl Lange) is a resuscitated corpse. When shot, Anathol's wounds heal instantaneously. Nice inserts of stop-motion animation provide the gory details. Elsewhere, reverse filming is used as a simple way of making Count Regula's quartered body leap back into one piece.
Harald Reinl's direction is artless but lively, unpretentious and to the point; it compares favorably to the dreary contemporary work of Jess Franco. The camera moves frequently, and Reinl likes to do rapid push-ins on frightened faces.
Although the picture isn't frightening, it pushes the limits for what could be shown to a kiddie audience. I don't know whether this English-language version is cut from something spicier. Nude female bodies are strapped to torture devices, all strategically covered here and there, but disturbing just the same. At one point Karin Dor has a lizard crawling across her bosom and spiders on her shoulders. Various gruesome deaths are plotted through torture devices; true to the title, there is a snake pit and a pendulum. Dor is terrorized so as to chill her blood to the right state for Count Regula's immortality treatment; Barker's experience with Poe's swinging blade is well-filmed but nowhere near as impressive as Roger Corman's version, mainly because the handsome ex-Tarzan never seems concerned that he's about to be bisected.
Christopher Lee's role isn't exactly minimized - let's call it concentrated. He appears for a brief flashback scene narrated by an interesting one-legged mountebank whose later function in the story is garbled. A golden mask is affixed to his face, a clear reference to Black Sunday: Regula is yet another specter returning to curse the families that did him wrong. Lee is then revived for a few minutes near the end of the tale. He looks appropriately creepy, with punctures still in his face; too bad that Barker so easily turns the tables on the Count, as it looks like the mad alchemist invested a lot of hard work only to end up dissolved on the floor of his mad lab.
For all its expressive trappings, the film doesn't create a mood to match the better Italian product from Bava, Margheriti and Freda - the atmosphere is out for thrills more than dread or revulsion. It's more efficient than memorable, but even with its pat ending (everyone who goes into the castle lives!) Reinl's film is a good entertainment.
Unless there's some pristine Region 2 release out there of Castle of the Walking Dead, this disc will have to do. Unforgivably trashy art is on the cover and the source element is a ragged print with bad color for most of its running time. The soundtrack is good - in much of the dubbing, some of the actors seem to be speaking English, so it's possible that the movie was filmed in a real English version. Otherwise, the show has cheap export written all over it: a crude opening that just pops into a scene, and a main title raggedly cut in, perhaps on video. The original film was probably not anamorphic (Phil Hardy makes many errors of this nature in his reference Encyclopedia) but even the cropping from widescreen to the narrow 1:33 looks tight, especially on the sides, and hampers the appreciation of individual compositions.
One thing even the worst of Italian pictures beats this film on is the music score. The series of ill-fitting cues here are so bad, they might be replacements so as to not pay royalties. One traveling theme sounds like it belongs in a bad Bavarian travelogue for ice skating or something. Darken this picture down and put a composer like Roman Vlad behind the creepy interiors and haunted forest, and it would be twice as powerful.
The final verdict is that this DVD of Castle of the Walking Dead is a good 'reference-quality' option - good enough to watch until a real restored version appears. Hopefully a Fantoma, Anchor Bay or Blue Underground will eventually be able to get quality materials for DVDs of titles such as this one, and others like Mill of the Stone Women, The Long Hair of Death and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Castle of the Walking Dead rates:
Supplements: brief Chris Lee bio (ends in 1996)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 1, 2003
1. I'm looking forward to the upcoming restored DVD of The Legendary Curse of Lemora, which has a very successful and even creepier terror-forest, surrounding an evil destination.