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Barbara Steele, Queen of Horror. Arguably, best known for her breakout role as the witch, “Asa”, in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, Steele’s career has spanned 6 decades, including recent turns in Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, as well as the indie chiller, The Butterfly Room. That said, it’s still a little disheartening just how many horror “fans” are unfamiliar with the actress and her long list of genre credits.
Oh, and she just looks “horror”. Known for her long black hair, dark as the shadows that fall along the castle walls and graveyards featured in all 3 films included on this set. With eyes that can switch from looks of pure innocence to raging malevolence within the same shot, she steals her scenes. There is a sharp peculiarity to her beauty that draws you in.
Now, thanks to this recently released 3-movie blu-ray set from Severin Films, longtime fans can revisit some of her more popular films in new HD upgrades, while newer fans can acquaint themselves with the works of the matriarch of Italian Gothic horror. The set features Nightmare Castle, one of Steele’s most popular films, as its main feature, while Castle of Blood & Terror Creatures From The Grave are presented as special features. Also available, for a slightly higher price, were copies signed by Steele herself. I think you can guess which version this reviewer picked up.
Nightmare Castle (1965): Steele gets double duty, starring both as Muriel, the adulterous wife of Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller – Vampyros Lesbos, Lady Frankenstein), and as Jenny, her mentally unstable step-sister. As the film begins outside the couple’s villa (I wouldn’t call it a “castle”), we find Muriel wishing her husband farewell as he prepares to head off on a business trip. As soon as he departs, she goes to her bedroom and puts on a sheer nightgown, preparing for her tryst with the gardener. They choose the doctor’s greenhouse to carry on their affair, as their love-making would be heard by the disfigured maid in her chambers next door.
His trip a ruse, Arrowsmith catches the lovers in the act. After flogging them both, he has them chained to the stone walls of his dungeon laboratory. He plans to kill Muriel and inherit her fortune. She has her last laugh, informing him that she had her will changed. Her inheritance will now go to her step-sister, Jenny, whom Muriel refers to as a “simpering idiot”. Steele bleeds spite, her lips pulled back into a snarl during as she mocks her husband’s misfortune.
Part of Stephen’s scheme to rid himself of his wife, the maid, Solange (Helga Liné – Horror Express, Black Candles) is told about the change in the will. She wants Muriel gone as well, Stephen having promised her a cut of the inheritance. Undeterred, the doctor still plans on getting the money. He’s also promised to heal Solange’s scarred appearance through transfusions taken from Muriel’s blood, furthering her affections for him. Muriel and her lover are finally killed, but not before Muriel has her face beaten into disfigurement with a searing fireplace poker. Her heart is cut out and kept “alive” and pumping to supply the blood for the transfusions.
Flash forward an undefined, but presumably short, period of time. Arrowsmith is returning home from yet another trip, this time to retrieve Jenny from the “hospital” in which she’s been staying. Somewhere on the trip home, he marries the girl. As stated earlier, Steele also plays the fragile “Jenny”. The step-sisters oddly look identical, only with Jenny being a blonde.
They are met by Solange. The Dr has kept his promise to heal her, the woman now quite stunning. She’s also quite jealous that Stephen has taken a new wife, one just as beautiful as the one they just got rid of. Stephen assures her of his devotion to their evil scheme. He married Jenny hoping to break the thin thread keeping her sanity intact. Not sure how that would kill her, but whatever.
Despite attempts from Arrowsmith and Solange to push her over the edge, the sweet & naïve Jenny starts having supernatural experiences that fray the lifeline of her mental stability. She starts having dreams of the moment when Muriel and her lover are caught, although the face of their killer (Stephen) is hidden from her. More experiences and visions finally causes Jenny to start questioning her own sanity, afraid that the husband she is desperately trying to learn to love and please will have her committed again. Solange, however, believes these occurrences to be caused by the still lingering spirit of the castle.
After some time, Jenny’s doctor, Dr. Joyce, is sent for. He hopes to find the cause of Jenny’s recent maladies, but Stephen is hoping that he’ll declare her unwell. Joyce believes that the cause lies somewhere in the castle and it’s surroundings, but Jenny is beginning to believe that she is slowly being possessed by her late step-sister. And this may indeed prove to be true, as Jenny not only continues experiencing Muriel’s final moments, but also begins to speak and act like her. Also, she can hear Muriel’s heart beating deep down in the dungeon lab, as in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”.
The film climaxes with Joyce attempting to remove Jenny from the castle, as well as from her new husband’s treacherous plans, but Arrowsmith and Solange have plans to thwart their escape. The supernatural forces present in the castle finally manifest themselves, seeking their vengeance against those that murdered them.
While not without a few significant flaws (How would driving Jenny crazy KILL her?), Nightmare Castle is one of the crowning gems of classic Italian Gothic horror. Filled with beautifully gloomy interior and exterior shots of the old castle and its walls, as well as fog rising up from the tombs and rolling across the grounds and graveyards, Nightmare Castle is dripping with atmospheric and foreboding scenery. If “mood” is a huge factor in what you seek from your horror viewing, then look no further. The film is recommended watching for those reasons alone.
Also of note is the wonderful organ-based score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. While hauntingly beautiful and spine-chillingly eerie at the same time, the music not only carries the film through a few slower moments, but also manages (at times) to feel like a physical presence, as much a part of the scene as the actors. The score fairs well with the HD upgrade, but dialog tends to come across passive and, at times, a little tinny, although that is somewhat expected with older, dubbed films such as this.
The HD transfer presented here is easily the best the film has ever looked. Presented with small borders on the sides of the screen, detail in facial features, hair, and clothing are all stellar. There are even some close-ups in which every single goosebump on Steele’s skins is clearly revealed. There is a brief scene of VERY noticeable print damage late in the film (it almost appears that the film split and was patched back together) and some expected scratches and pops, but grain levels are never oppressive. Black levels remain stable, even in darker, shadow scenes. Easily a 4.5 out of 5 in visual presentation.
Castle of Blood (1964): Journalist Alan Foster is visiting London and manages to land an interview with Edgar Allan Poe. Poe tries to convince the skeptical writer that all of his stories are, in fact, true accounts of the fantastic and supernatural. Foster laughs at author’s claims. Another man, Lord Thomas Blackwood, who has been drinking with Poe, bets Foster that he can not spend an entire night in Blackwood’s allegedly haunted castle. The one catch is that Foster must go that very night. November 1st: The Night of the Dead.
Featuring the same style of impressive Gothic settings, cobwebbed hallways, and fog-shrouded landscapes as Nightmare Castle, Castle of Blood is essentially an “old, haunted house” tale. Foster agrees to the bet and is escorted to the house by Blackwood and Poe. Foster enters the old castle and quickly starts investigating, truly doubtful that anything of supernatural origin is to be found here.
He soon finds a portrait of a exceedingly attractive woman displayed in the main dining area. He sits at a nearby table, making some notes, when a piano starts to play somewhere in the castle. A door to nearby room opens, briefly revealing a man and woman mid-waltz before shutting closed again. He enters the room, finding it now empty. He sits at the piano and begins playing the same song he heard from off of an open sheet of music. As he plays, a feminine hand grabs his shoulder. He turns to find a lovely young woman (Steele, looking much more radiant here, IMO). She introduces herself as “Elizabeth”, Blackwood’s sister.
As in the previous film, Steele’s character has been having an affair with the family gardener. Unable to accept the hired help as potential family, she says that Blackwood has had her banished to the castle, where she is to spend her remaining days alone. Her brother sets up these “wagers” so that she may have some company on this one night of the year. Lonely, Elizabeth more than welcomes his company.
She questions Alan about events in the outside world. He informs her that she isn’t missing much in the world, but that the world is missing out on her beauty. This, naturally, piques her interest in the man. She asks him about his own life, Foster revealing to her that he is also very much alone. As they talk, the woman from the picture appears at the door. She’s quite brusque, and it appears that she and Elizabeth do not get along all that well. Elizabeth explains that Alan has come to visit her, but Alan stops her, stating that is not true. Julia chides Elizabeth for her “childish” behavior. Elizabeth apologies and leaves the room, looking dejected. Julia excuses herself also, but not before Foster asks if he will see her in the morning. She replies that she will not be around come daylight.
Elizabeth and Julia confront each other in the hallway. Elizabeth confesses her newly found love for Alan, saying that she either wants to leave with him or have him stay here with her. Julia reminds her that Foster is not “part of their world” and that she will never be able to leave, a prisoner in the castle.
Alan, soon after, confesses his love for Elizabeth. (Damn, that was quick!) In the bed in his guest room, he lays his head upon her chest, but is shocked when he can not hear a heartbeat. She tells Alan that her heart is NOT beating, that she has been dead for the past 10 years. Alan doesn’t quite believe it, but is still confused by it all. Suddenly, a shirtless man barges into the room and stabs Elizabeth in the stomach. Alan gives chase, never once actually stopping to check on Elizabeth’s well-being. Love, ain’t it grand?
Making his way downstairs, Alan loses the assailant. Instead, he finds a Dr. Carmus waiting expectedly for him. Alan has heard of the doctor. He’s also heard that the doctor has been missing for some time now. Carmus tells Alan that he will not find the man. Carmus says that the man, as well as both Julia AND Elizabeth are spirits of those that have refused to accept their fates after meeting with violent deaths. He also says that Blackwood is an evil man, setting up these wagers as a way of sacrificing the living to appease these spirits. Seems as though these spirits are allowed to “live again” on this one night, needing human blood in order to return again the following year.
Elizabeth, fueled by her desire to be with him, rejects her need for blood in order to help Alan attempt to escape the castle before becoming the next in the ghosts’ annual series of victims. The film ultimately ends with a major turn for the unexpected.
This was a first-time viewing for me, and quite honestly, I enjoyed this film more than Nightmare Castle. The film moves at a methodical pace, slowing building upon the “mood” set by the emptiness of the aging castle. The ambience is top-notch, smothering the viewer with more of the darkened corridors and mist shrouded tombstones as the other films, but to much greater effect here. There are long stretches of Alan walking around the castle, clearly startled. The lack of dialog make this more believable as the viewer would be force to question the validity of the character alone, but dictating his every thought and emotion.
The print presented here does feature a significant amount of scratches and pop, and is clearly nowhere near as sharp as the transfer for Nightmare Castle, but is quite forgivable considering the age of the film. That said, despite the print damage, detail is moderately impressive. PQ 3.5/5
Terror Creatures from the Grave (1965)- After receiving a telegraph requesting the services of his (currently out-of-town) employer, lawyer Albert Kovac travels to a remote villa to help a client draw up his will. Upon arrival, he is greeted by the man’s sexy, young daughter, as well as his equally attractive (and only marginally older) wife, played by Steele.
This comes as a surprise to all parties for the man has been dead for just a few days short of a year. The revelation would appear to also have meteorological consequences, setting off wind and lightning. The family is here to mark the anniversary by moving the deceased’s body from his earthen grave to the family tomb, fulfilling the man’s final requests.
The client, Jeronimus Hauff, was a practicing occultist. Hauff purchased the villa because it was built on what was once the site of a 15th century hospital used to treat plague victims, the purchase made in the hopes of contacting the lingering spirits . The villa also houses a display featuring a collection of preserved, severed hands taken from those thought to have been spreading the plague. Because, really, all houses should come with a collection of contaminated body parts.
In what could possibly be later inspiration for Evil Dead, Kovac plays a wax cylinder recording of Hauff’s attempts to contact the long dead plague-spreaders. This starts fog rolling through the cemetery, and an unseen entity rushes in on the daughter as she undresses in front of a mirror.
One by one, the men present with Hauff on the night of his death also start meeting gruesome deaths. This includes an acid facial, Hara-Kari with intestinal drippage, and even an opening scene of a man having his eye dislodged after being kicked in the face by a horse.
Terror Creatures plays more like a whodunit, with Kovac and a local doctor investigating the suspicious deaths, as well as whether or not Hauff may have faked his death. It isn’t until very late in the film, after a few plot twists, that the true “horror” elements finally manifest themselves.
Oh, and this happens too….
I personally found Terror Creatures to be the weakest film in the set. While featuring similarities in setting and tone to the other films, this one just takes too long to pick up steam. By the time the “horror”aspects started rolling in, my attention was rolling out.
The print featured here is not as impressive as that used for Nightmare Castle, but seems to be marginally stronger than Castle of Blood. There is some brief, but serious print damage around the 35 minute mark. Also of note was significant damage to the audio track. The was always a bit of a crackle, but the sound sputters tremendously during the second half of the film. PQ 3.5
NOTE: As both Castle of Blood and Terror Creatures from the Grave are presented as “special features”, there is no skip or scene selection feature. This proved to be a massive frustration during the writing of this review.
Audio Commentary with Barbara Steele & Horror Historian David del Valle
Barbara Steele In Conversation: 29:30 – Steele talks about her career and, briefly, her beginnings as a painter. She also discusses the unhappiness of her first contract with 20th Century Fox, and how her distaste for the Hollywood system led to her career in Italian cinema.
She also shares stories of working with Elvis Presley, Roger Corman, and Fellini, among others. Steele opens up about her marriage to screenwriter James Poe leading to her leaving Italy, returning to Hollywood for him to pursue his own career. This was a move that Steele adamantly claims was the biggest mistake she ever made.
Black, White, And Red: Featurette with director Mario Caiano 14:06 – In what appears to be an older feature, the Nightmare Castle director discusses his childhood, as well his life long fascination with horror, in particular the works of Poe. He states that he has, sadly, since lost that fascination. Caiano says that he knew from the start that he wanted to create an Poe-inspired gothic horror tale, but also notes “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” as inspiration. He also states that he cast Steele based solely on the opinion that she “looked creepy”.
Of some comedic value, the interview begins with Caiano’s cat attacking his hand, and ends with the interview being “photobombed” by his dog.
Nightmare Castle US & UK trailers
Vengeance From Beyond Featurette for Terror Creatures From the Grave – 26:19 – An interview with the actor that played “Joseph Morgan” in the movie. He’s quite old and rambles a bit. Not a particularly entertaining or comfortable interview as the man did not enjoy making the film, nor is he proud of it. He sees the entire horror genre as “lesser” art and of no real artistic value. Not what the target audience of this set would want to hear.
Terror Creatures from the Grave Deleted Scenes
A Dance of Ghosts Featurette for Castle of Blood – 16:53- Audio interview with director, Antonio Margheriti.
Castle of Blood Trailer
Terror Creatures From the Grave Trailer
Conclusion: For fans of Steele, or fans of classic Italian Gothic horror, this set is a MUST HAVE. Both Nightmare Castle and Castle of Blood are classics of the sub-genre, and while Terror Creatures certainly fits the mold, I just didn’t find it as compelling.
Picture quality, while never spotless, is light years superior to anything you’ll find on those cheap SD, public-domain movie collections, which is where a lot of newer fans first discover these films. When you consider that the set includes 3 films for near the price of what some labels charge for just a single film, this becomes an easier pill to swallow. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Good post -Can not go wrong with any of the old classics featuring Barbara Steele – I think my favorite is probably Black Sunday but all these films are worth watching!