Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Castle of Blood (1964): or, She's Dead and Lovely Now

On a dark and fog-shrouded night, a lone traveler finds his way to The Four Devils pub in a particularly seedy section of Old London Towne. Shaking the chill night air from his greatcoat, journalist Alan Foster (Georges Rivière) hears a deep, sonorous voice relating a macabre story about love, death, obsession, and a handful of stolen teeth. The speaker is none other than visiting writer Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli, credited here as Mongomery Glenn), offering an extemporaneous recital of his famous story "Berenice" (which you can and should read online here). His companion, Lord Thomas Blackwood (Umberto Raho, here called Raul H. Newman), is the owner of one of the most haunted mansions in England, so full of horrors that he's willing to offer anyone one hundred pounds sterling to spend a single night within its walls. Foster takes Blackwood up on his wager, hoping to get an interview with the famous American author on the way out to the estate, and perhaps some juicy material about Blackwood Manor to sell to his editors once he returns.

So begins the 1964 creepfest Castle of Blood (aka Danza Macabra), directed by future Eurotrash legend Antonio Margheriti (Cannibal Apocalypse [1980], 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"
The slow build-up--which has been imperceptibly but effectively ratcheting up the creepy tension--pays off when Foster hears harpsichord music from a neighboring study, and sees (or does he?) a ghostly couple dancing past the aperture. Rushing to investigate, he finds of course an empty room, the instrument closed and covered with dust. Blaming it on his active imagination, he sits down to tickle the keys for a moment, and nearly jumps out of his skin (as do we all) when a slender pale hand drops on his shoulder!

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."
Unfortunately for our literate Lothario, Blackwood Manor is not nearly as deserted as it appears--in fact, as the night wears on, the place gets positively CRAMMED with corps--er, I mean, "residents."  Chief among them is Elisabeth's companion and confidante Julia (Margarete Robsahm), the blonde Teutonic ice queen from the portrait that gave Foster such a funny feeling earlier. Julia clearly doesn't like Foster, or any man for that matter (IYKWIMAITYD), though she does cruelly tease Elisabeth with the prospect of seducing the journalist away from her. They're later joined by Dr. Carmus (Arturo Dominici), a houseguest whose position in the household is nebulous--at least for anyone in the audience who hasn't seen a haunted house movie before, ever.

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.
But of course the steadfast anchor of this marvelous ghost ship is Barbara Steele as Elisabeth. In the early days of my VHS Seminary I had seen a few lesser Steele vehicles, which did not showcase her talents and left me wondering what the big deal was. That all changed when I watched Castle of Blood for the first time--Steele is absolutely MESMERIZING here--ethereal, tragic, otherworldly, sensuous, and uniquely lovely, she totally owns the screen and had me stretching my eyelids to take her whole performance in. Though some might think Foster falls in love with Elisabeth too quickly to sustain plausibility, for me it was never even a question. I've since seen many of Steele's more famous portrayals, and it's hard to pick a favorite, but there will always be a special place in my heart for Castle of Blood, the movie that made me fall in love with La Steele.

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


RichardP said...

Terrific Movie! I first saw it on creature features back in the early 70's as a small kid- scared the heck out of me. I havnt seen it since- until Synapse released it!

Now its one of my standard Halloween movies to watch every year! Horror Hotel is another!

"When I finally write this story, people will say it's... unbelievable. " Poe

Jose Cruz said...

Excellent review, Vicar! It was dripping with such honest-to-God adoration for the molding ghost tales of yore that I think it would be considered a sin NOT for me to seek this one out immediately. A beautiful looking film that I can't wait to feast my ocular organs on. Brava!

P.S. My word verification is binher. Is that as in "Binher, duntat?"

dfordoom said...

I totally agree. A terific movie, and terrific Barbara Steele performance.

RichardP said...

But there is one thing- Vicar- How exactly does Elizabeth die?

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks everyone for the comments!

@RichardP--This is definitely a perfect Halloween flick. Creepy, gothic, gorgeous to look at--it really has it all! And as to Horror Hotel, that was one of the earliest movies I reviewed here (link), way back in August 2007! I like it pretty well, but Castle of Blood is definitely my fave.

As to your second question, she's the one resident whose death we don't get to see replayed--I suppose b/c the filmmakers wanted to keep it ambiguous whether she was really dead (though given everything else, that seems a silly concern). I like to think that after the orgy of death in her bedroom, she committed suicide. It's the romantic in me. ;)

@Joe Monster--Knowing your love for old school horror, I think you would definitely dig this one! Get yourself a copy stat!

WRT your comment verification, I think it's the answer to the question, "What do you do with your female cat after she's been hit by a delivery van?" :P

@dfordoom--I said it in the review but I'll say it again: I fell in love with Barbara Steele because of this movie. And I don't mean "fanboy" love. I mean I wanted to whisk her away to the Carpathians and give her my babies. ;)

cinemarchaeologist said...

Wow, someone who loves DANSE MACABRE almost as much as I!

(Always liked that title a lot more than CASTLE OF BLOOD)

This is a movie that should definitely be seen by any of the misguided souls who thought Hammer was the best at this sort of movie in the '60s--totally blows away the very best those stodgy English Tories ever managed.

Tell me, Vicar, hast thee yet seen the Barbara Steele interview on the Severin NIGHTMARE CASTLE disc? She covers her entire career, and it's a good one. If you haven't--and if thy love be true--you should make it a point to get it immediately.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Vicar. I've had the uncensored Synapse release on my Amazon with list for a year, but it moves to the top now based on your enthusiastic post and gorgeous screen-grabs.
Ms. Steele had the most frustrating career. Her screen-time in her few films was either brief ("The Pit and the Pendulum"), or the films she appeared in so sub-standard as to squander her considerable presence. This one looks to be a laudable exception.
I've seen her in "Black Sunday" of course. And I recently read Mr. Arbogast's '10 "31 Screams" finale post on a Steele scream scene in "The Terrible Dr. Hitchcock" -- which looks to be another winner. Unfortunately, that one has yet to receive a legitimate DVD release, at least to my knowledge. If you're privy to a quality source, please let us know.
Best wishes, and keep up the good work -- you and your debauched, deviant, but decidedly diverting Ducal compatriot!

dfordoom said...

The Terrible Dr. Hichcock is a great movie. I think Barbara Steele probably made a higher proportion of good movies than almost any other scream queen I can think of.

bavafan@hotmail said...

If everyone recreates the moment of their death on that night, then we have to take it that Elizabeth was murdered by the ghost of her lover. Remember, he charges into the bedroom and stabs her in the heart? So that is the moment she is forced to replay year after year. I love this movie too! They used to show it on my local TV station every Halloween when I was a kid. Barbara Steele is the best!

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for dropping by, bavafan! I would have to watch it again (and will!), but I guess I got tangled up in the layers there--we've got a ghost reliving her murder BY a ghost, which ghost also relives HIS last moments BEFORE he was a ghost, which occured with the ghost whom he made a ghost some time later... Of course, now that I think of it like that, how could I have missed it? :)

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