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Castle of Blood (DVD)

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Genre: Horror / Theatrical Release: 1964 / Director: Antonio Margheriti, Sergio Corbucci / Actors: Barbara Steele, Georges Rivière, Margarete Robsahm, Arturo Dominici, Silvano Tranquilli ... / DVD released 2002-10-22 at Synapse Films / Features of the DVD: Black & White, DVD-Video, NTSC, Subtitled

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      10.03.2011 09:40
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      A reasonable gothic horror from Italy

      A film only review - an American DVD from Synapse Films is available from amazon for about £8 - it contains the uncensored European version and is greatly preferable to other releases which tend to use shoddy public domain prints. The film has also been released as Danse Macabre.

      From about 1960 there was an amazing boom in Italian horror, which started with Mario Bava's Black Sunday. This horror bonanza went through many, many changes and trends before it finally petered out in the mid 80s (it lasted slightly longer than the British horror boom of the same era). But the first few years saw a lot of films that essentially tried to repeat the gothic stylings of Bava's film, with varying degrees of success.

      The key performer in these movies was British actress Barbara Steele, who had trouble getting parts in England because of her odd looks (she looked like a sexy skull, with her huge domed forehead, massive eyes and thin-lipped, toothy smile). Beginning with Black Sunday, she became the go-to girl for various sexy, doomed or malevolent horror anti-heroines. She's really the only serious female horror icon to rival the likes of Vincent Price or Christopher Lee, although she made far fewer films (she effectively quit the horror business in the mid-60s). She's not too well known in the UK, as most of her films are Italian, but - like Price, or Lee, or Karloff, or Cushing - her very presence can make a horror film worth checking out. Castle of Blood is a film which seems to have been built around her odd star presence.

      In 19th Century London, Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Thomas Blackwood are drinking together when they're interrupted by a young journalist, Alan Foster. After a bit of idle chitchat, Foster accepts a wager from Blackwood that he won't be able to spend a night in the latter's castle. Readily accepting, Foster finds more than he bargained for. For this is the night of the dead, and everyone who has died in the castle is returned to life to re-enact their final moments. But what part is Foster to play in this?

      This is a good, creepy idea. The dead forced to endlessly go through the motions of their own murders is a fine, imaginative idea for a horror story. The ghosts - or whatever they are - are very much aware of Foster, and interact with him. He even falls in love with one of them...

      Top-billing goes to Barbara Steele as Elisabeth, Blackwood's dead sister. Her death was complicated and involved an angry bodybuilder and a jealous lesbian, but she presents a very fetching and tragic ghostly figure. Her performance is a little like Vincent Price's in the Poe films he made, with the same edge of hysteria and excess, although she's not at all camp. By playing everything deadly seriously she gives weight to what is ultimately a very unlikely character, and allows us to sympathise with her even while we suspect that her designs on Foster might not be completely pure.

      The others are all good enough, although unsympathetic dubbing has slightly spoiled a couple of parts. Foster is excellent, moving from amiable scepticism to despair and fear quite convincingly. There's an undead scientist around to supply convenient exposition, played by the male vampire from Black Sunday. Other ghosts tend to stay more on the sinister than pitiable side.

      This is very much a mood piece, relying on atmosphere rather than shocks. It uses shadows and cobweb-coated decor for much of its effect. If it had been directed by Mario Bava, it would have been a masterpiece - his sharp, precise visual style could have made this into a black and white classic to rival any of the best. Unfortunately, it's instead directed by Antonio Margheriti. Although not a bad director, Margheriti is far more at home with cheerfully exploitative potboilers than moody gothic tone poems (his best films are The Virgin of Nuremberg, Cannibal Apocalypse, and the crazy Apocalypse Now rip-off The Last Hunter).

      Castle of Blood begins in unpromising fashion, as the very first shot reveals members of the camera crew reflected in some windows. And it kind of plods along for the first half an hour - very little happens for a lengthy stretch as Foster explores the castle, and the direction fails to build suspense or even make us particularly eager to learn more. We're just left wishing he'd get on with it. Happily things do perk up when the bad stuff starts. The music is by Riz Ortolani, an Italian exploitation soundtrack superstar (he specialised in Mondo movies and cannibal films). It's mostly atmospheric strings, but has a few nice jaunty piano digressions and some theremin action for the spookier bits.

      It feels like it should be a lot scarier than it is - this, after all, is the era of The Innocents and The Haunting, ghost movies which still pack a punch. Apart from a first, brief glimpse of dancers in a previously empty room, there aren't a lot of decent spooky moments, which is a shame. It's also not terribly violent, as this is a little early for gory excess. There is a terrific, macabre sequence involving hanging cadavers towards the end, but it's not made enough of to make the kind of impact it could. The one exception to the gore rule is an unforgiveable scene in which a live snake is decapitated for real. This is not only needlessly vile, but completely irrelevant to the plot.

      Likewise it isn't very sexy. If you see the uncut version you'll get a brief glimpse of some naked boobs and a brief bit of lesbian kissing. Italian exploitation would get its groove on big time in the 70s, but I guess in 1964 they were all still quite shy.

      Some prints claim the film is based on the Poe story 'Danse Macabre' - there is no such story. Poe was presumably included as a character to cash in on the popularity of Roger Corman's Poe movies (The Pit and the Pendulum had also starred Barbara Steele). The plot strand of having Foster fall for a dead woman has the authentic feel of Poe about it, though, even if old Edgar Allan was curiously silent on the subject of murderous bodybuilders.

      The DVD is perhaps a bit overpriced for what this is. If you're a fan of the horror films of the era, this is well worth a look. If that's not you're thing, you can probably live without it. It does what it does well enough, but it always feels like a much better film trapped inside a slightly mediocre one.

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