In the last few years we have finally seen decent DVD releases of some of Barbara Steele’s best horror films (although sadly so far no sign of the wonderful Riccardo Freda flick The Terrible Dr Hichcock). Severin’s 2009 release of Nightmare Castle (Amanti d'oltretomba) is particularly notable.
Barbara Steele is Muriel Arrowsmith and she’s married to a 19th century mad scientist, Dr Stephen Arrowsmith. An evil mad scientist. And she knows he’s mad and evil. Sadly she doesn’t know just how evil.
She has taken a lover, the hunky David. When Stephen catches them in flagrante delicto his reaction is perhaps just a trifle excessive. He tortures them both to death.
Unfortunately for Stephen he doesn’t actually own Hampton Castle. Muriel owned it, and now it has passed to her insane sister Jenny (also played by Barbara Steele). This doesn’t suit Stephen or his girlfriend Solange (Helga Liné) but Stephen has a plan. Jenny’s madness should make it easy to gain control of Muriel’s estate. In fact an even better solution presents itself once he meets the blonde bombshell Jenny (yes, Barbara Steele is a blonde for most of this movie) and sees that she’s rather a dish. This solution does not met with Solange’s approval.
Solange is in fact a old woman but being a mad scientist Stephen has restored her youth and beauty, by means of the blood of his ex-wife. This might not turn out to be a permanent restoration of her youth however, which makes her even more hostile to the exotic beauty Jenny.
Stephen and Solange still plan on making use of Jenny’s madness to make sure of their control of the estate, and they call in her old psychiatrist, Dr Dereck Joyce. Dr Joyce is charming and good-looking and seems to take a lightly greater interest in Jenny than is strictly necessary on medical grounds.
Stephen does face one unexpected problem. Jenny had certainly had a breakdown a few years earlier but she is now perfectly sane.
He still believes he can drive her insane and get what he wants but there’s been a worrying development. Muriel’s tomb is empty. He knows she’s dead, but will that stop her revenge?
One of the many good things about this movie is that the English version (the only one on the DVD) features Barbara Steele’s own voice, offering us a rare opportunity to give a true judgment on her acting abilities. This is one of her best roles. Paul Muller, as always, makes a delightfully sinister villain.
As director Mario Caiano explains in the accompanying interview much of the distinctive look of the movie was entirely fortuitous. With a very short shooting schedule and very little money there was no chance for cinematographer Enzo Barboni to do complex lighting setups. So mostly he just put a single 5000 watt light up high in a corner. The result is stark shadow that really enhance the atmosphere. A great example of the ability of good low-budget film-makers to make a virtue out of a necessity.
The extras include two interviews. The first is with Barbara Steele. In her early seventies she is still feisty, fiery, intelligent, amusing and rather charming. What’s especially pleasing is that she feels no need to apologise for her horror films and actually seems quite proud of them. She has some generous things to say about the various horror directors she worked with, including Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti, Riccardo Freda and Roger Corman. And she has some amusing anecdotes about the unpredictable and wildly eccentric Freda (whom she obviously admired) and of course about Fellini (for whom she worked on 8½). She’s also very generous in her comments about her fans and is delighted that she still receives 40 fan letters a week.
The second interview is with director Mario Caiano, a rather genial character who remembers the movie fondly.
The major highlight of this DVD though is the transfer - widescreen, uncut and looking splendid. A vast improvement on previous DVD releases of this film.
Nightmare Castle might not be a masterpiece but it’s a fine gothic chiller with psychological overtones and a very enjoyable horror movie.