So begins the 1964 creepfest Castle of Blood (aka Danza Macabra), directed by future Eurotrash legend Antonio Margheriti (Cannibal Apocalypse , Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye [1973, reviewed on MMMMMovies here], et al.). Dripping with gloomy, Gothic atmosphere, boasting positively Bava-esque black-and-white cinematography, and featuring a mesmerizing performance by justly lauded screen legend Barbara Steele, this one of the greatest, creepiest ghost stories in Italian cinema for my money, and one of my absolute favorite fright films of the 60s.
|Poe is suddenly overtaken with horror, unable to remember whether he left the iron on.|
In the coach on the way to Blackwood Manor, Foster manages to get a few choice pull quotes from Poe for his article, including the famous one about a dead, beautiful woman being "the most poetical subject in the world." I hope he keeps his notebook handy, because he's going to want to revisit that one in view of the ghostly happenings in store!
Blackwood and Poe drop Foster off at the gates of the mansion, promising to pick him up in the morning and present him with his winnings, should he manage to earn them. With night falling quickly, Foster makes his way past the creaky, rusted gate--making special note of the dangerously protruding iron bar that serves as the latching mechanism--and steps carefully through the crowded family graveyard up to the front door. Inside he finds the apotheosis of all creepy haunted mansions in literature and film history: the place is coated in thick layers of dust, festooned with ropy cobwebs, and dotted with candelabras bearing stubs of tallow candles. Foster lights a few and explores his surroundings for the night, a bit put out by the sudden gusts of wind that extinguish his light sources and by the hypnotic, seizure-inducing portrait of a lovely but severe lady dressed in the costume of a bygone age.
This opening exploration of Blackwood Manor is a real powerhouse sequence, executed with almost no dialogue, masterful use of light and shadow, odd camera angles, creepy sound effects and a moody score that for once is perfectly matched to the visuals. It might be a bit of a slow burn for viewers weaned on kill-a-minute slashers and the "we don't need no stinking backstory" modern directorial style, but this aged viewer was in eerie movie heaven. When Foster turns a shadowy corner and (with the help of that gloomy cinematography and a slight orchestral sting) receives his first scare of the evening, I got that delicious hair-rising-on-the-back-of-my-neck feeling that told me I was in the hands of a master.
|Foster researches the truth behind the legend of Sir Reginal Blackwood's "Second Lance"|
Rather than vanishing like the others, however, this figure stays to introduce herself: she is Elisabeth Blackwood (Barbara Steele), Sir Thomas's younger (and considerably more attractive) sister. She claims that she's been a recluse at the mansion for ten years, since a mysterious traumatic event made her give up on the world and everyone in it. She explains that her brother, out of pity or spite or plain bored mischeviousness, sends her visitors every year on the anniversary of the event, but not before spooking them up with tales of the mansion's haints. Maybe Foster buys this story or maybe he doesn't, but one look in Bab's huge dark eyes is all he needs to convince him to start laying on the charm thicker than the dust on the mirrors. It's not long before Foster is making out with Elisabeth on the big four-poster in his room, his kisses insufficient to stop her blathering on about how "I need your warmth" and "Your love will give me life!"--which I'm sure is not sinister at all, just her way of saying she likes the way he puts the motion in the ocean AMIRITE?
|"Alan, you're trembling...I like that in a man."|
The good doctor soon spills the beans to Foster about what's really going on at Blackwood Manor--or rather BlackBLOOD Manor, as it was named before Sir Thomas wisely changed his family name. Seems the patriarch of the Blackbloods was Lord High Executioner some centuries back, and either because of that or because sometimes life's a bitch, everyone who dies at the house is cursed to remain there forever, reenacting their final hours on one night of the year before returning to the icy cold of their tombs. (And guess what day it is today?) This is where the slow burn of the earlier part of the movie gives way to NONSTOP HAUNTING ACTION, as Foster gets an Ebenezer Scrooge-style seat for the rest of the residents' final performances.
|"Dr. Carmus--please tell me that's a ghost's hand on my bum..."|
As it happens, Elisabeth was married to the lord of the manor once, but was carrying on an adulterous tryst with a musclebound and extremely possessive stable boy. At the same time Julia was sneaking into Liz's bedroom at night for midnight Sappho-snacks, creating a love quadrangle of the sort that never ends well. End well it doesn't, as Foster watches the stable boy rip the husband from Elisabeth's arms in flagrante de uh-oh and strangle him to death, before having his own skull bludgeoned to a meaty pulp by Julia. Never one to let two male corpses stop her from getting BIZAY, Julia puts her lesbonic moves on the shock-addled Elisabeth, who nonetheless has the presence of mind to grab a dagger and penetrate Julia with it--which is all I'm gonna say about that. Driven mad by the orgy of death in her room, Elisabeth screams and screams...and SCENE.
We get another couple of macabre danses, including the horrific end of Dr. Carmus himself. A paranormal researcher in the age before reality shows, Carmus was lured to Blackwood Manor the same way Foster was--by a wager with Sir Thomas, whose motives are growing ever more suspect. For some goddamned reason, Carmus goes into the crypt to uncover the body of the musclebound stable boy--who still has excellent pecs, despite his face having rotted away to a grim skull! In an exceptionally creepy and clearly Bava-influenced scene, the dust settles from the opened coffin lid and the corpse slowly starts to breathe, his papery skin flaking dust and damnation! Soon Dr. Carmus is a goner, doomed to assuage the ghosts' unnatural hunger.
|A Flexing Pec Gathers No Dust|
Because hey, get this! (spoiler) Turns out the ghosts need HUMAN BLOOD in order to be resurrected again the following year and enjoy one more evening of damnable life. Sir Thomas is the human agency that sends the undead their unholy sustenance, in the form of wayward souls looking to prove their bravery and earn a quick buck. And this year's menu includes Bananas Foster...or, you know, something.
In case it isn't clear: I LOVE THIS MOVIE. For creepy Gothic atmosphere and chilling, eerie set pieces, Castle of Blood is really tough to beat. Margheriti does a great job framing the gloriously spooky images, and the camera is seldom stationary, using slow zooms, Dutch angles, and even a surprising hand-held shot or two to keep things visually kinetic and interesting. The sets are picture perfect, the music actually FITS and sets a ghastly mood, and the plot is a ripping old-school ghost story that wouldn't be out of place in a collection of stories by Poe himself, or Sheridan Le Fanu, or even Algernon Blackwood, come to that...hey, waitaminnit!
|That's Some Party|
So the story has its roots in macabre tales of a past century, and the sets and visuals hearken back to the best of the Universal horrors of the 40s--but because this is the 60s, the story is able to go in some surprising (to me) directions. The love affair between Julia and Elisabeth is explicit--textually, anyway--and there's even a lesbian love scene complete with moans and gasps, though the camera pans away before the bodices are oped. And a later scene featuring some ill-fated honeymooners who take Sir Thomas up on his bet features a see-through hoop skirt and some very impressive toplessness that made me wanna sit up and beg for buttermilk.
In addition to gorgeous cinematography and masterful atmosphere, Castle of Blood sports some great performances from stars and supporting players alike. Georges Rivière as Alan Foster strikes the right note as the skeptical-but-not-stupidly-so hero, and his shock reaction to the scenes of ghostly carnage is affecting, as is the surprising downbeat end to his character arc. Margarete Rosbahm as Julia is a dominant screen presence, and would have been right at home in a Hammer lesbian vampire romp or an Italian Nazisploitation sleaze-fest. But my favorite supporting actor hands down is Arturo Dominici--his Dr. Carmus is a subtly unsettling figure whose stoic stare and deadpan line deliveries make him seem truly otherworldly and sinister. When he says, "It is the hour; words have no meaning...I have a rendezvous with Death. Come."--well, I don't mind telling you it gave me the honest-to-god willies.
|I may need a moment...and some wire cutters.|
In short, Castle of Blood is one of my top ten Gothic horrors--scratch that, one of my top ten PERIOD. If you haven't seen it, seek it out and thank me later. It's available in many public domain versions, but the Synapse DVD released in 2002 is my definitive release. This one contains the "uncensored international version," with scenes (including the lesbian tryst and honeymoon nudity) that were never included in stateside prints and thus never dubbed to English; as a result the audio for these scenes is take from a French print, with new English subtitles. (Gotta love the vagaries of Italian audio production!) Plus, it looks great.
3+ Thumbs for this classic MMMMMasterpiece. If you want a great Gothic time, this is the house to visit. And remember: Halloween may be over, but Barbara Steele is forever.
A few more scenes from Castle of Blood (1964):
|Discouraged by all the attention Elisabeth received, Julia opted for toplessness.|
|"Seriously, dude: grab my ass one more time and you're getting decked, I don't care how fucking dead you are."|
|Necropiphany (n.): the moment you realize you just banged a dead girl.|
|Not What It Looks Like--Well, OK, Kinda|
|The Vicar, every moment La Steele was on screen|
|Harsh, but Fair|