Background: The history of Gothic Horror begins with an Englishman, Horace Walpole, and his 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto. This book is of very little interest to the casual reader of today, but when it was first introduced it made a huge impact -- say, like a vast ghostly helmet dropping from heaven and embedding itself in a courtyard
Ahem. Well, when Walpole first drafted Otranto, he had no way of knowing what the public response would be. In fact, he was very doubtful about the book's success. He worried about the gruesomeness of the plot, and sensed that the heavy-handed intrusions of the supernatural would not go over well with the readers of the "Age of Reason". So to cushion himself from the possible failure of the book, Walpole pretended that it was a translation from an original Italian manuscript by "Onuphrio Muralto".
Walpole's successors, including M.G. "Monk" Lewis and Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, followed his lead by setting their stories in some remote section of Italy or Spain, and doing their best to maintain that the chilling events they related were part of some long-hidden, authentic manuscript. Their "Italy " and "Spain" bore as little resemblance to the actual countries as their characters and situations bore to the real people and attitudes of the Gothic era. But since travel was expensive and difficult in these times, the writers could improvise their history and geography without much fear of the average reader knowing the difference.
Ironically, at the turn of the 20th century, the master of English ghost stories, M.R. James, proved that the "hidden manuscript" technique worked best when it was done as correctly as possible. James' work could not possibly be further removed from Walpole's esthetic -- he was so well acquainted with actual ancient documents, and the remote places in which they might be found, that he was able to create a realistic backdrop for his supernatural tales. This solid grounding makes James' modest little stories more satisfying (and scarier) to the modern reader than the clearly make-believe phantoms of Walpole and the early Gothics.
Ah. I was getting to that. Fast-forward to our own century, and the rise of a new Gothic in the cinema. Where once the English had invented a fantastic, ghost-ridden Italy, this time the Italians decided to return the gesture: they looked to England for inspiration in their stories of the macabre. Italian directors, crew and actors took on Anglicized names: Riccardo Freda became "Robert Hampton", Antonio Margheriti called himself "Anthony Dawson", and Mario Bava was billed as "John M. Old" -- a pseudonym almost as unconvincing as "Onuphrio Muralto"
Some maintain that by doing this, the Italians were only trying to imitate England's Hammer Studios, as that company's Dracula and Frankenstein cycles brought new blood to a fading genre. However, this view does the Italian filmmakers a grave disservice. It suggests that distinguished craftsmen like Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda were unaware of the history of Gothic literature -- a view which is disproved by the numerous literary and artistic references in those directors' works
OK, OK! The point I'm trying to make is that Nightmare Castle does a credible job of bringing together different elements of Gothic horror. Just as Barbara Steele plays two roles in the film, the film itself balances two traditions: Walpole's melodramatic, passionate fantasy and James' "Small, shuddering horror." And just as Nightmare Castle's plot revolves around the possession of one character by the spirit of her late sister, so too does the spirit of the early English Gothic seem to reach out from the grave to inspire its distant relative.
The plot of Nightmare Castle bears a strong resemblance to a classic story by James, Lost Hearts. In James' story, the central figure is a young orphan named Stephen, who comes to live with his antiquarian uncle in the early nineteenth century. Shortly after his arrival, Stephen begins to experience some uncanny events. He wakes in the mornings with the left breast of his nightclothes shredded, as though by an animal's claws. Similar scratch marks appear on the door to his room when it has been shut for the night. He even has a terrible dream, in which he sees a girl's corpse sit up and beckon to him. Awakening from this terribly realistic dream, he finds he has sleep-walked to the room in which his dream took place.
He also learns that two other children, a little girl and a gypsy boy, had also come to live at the house years ago; however, each had run away suddenly in the night, and nothing had been heard of them afterwards.
It turns out that Stephen's uncle is one of the nastiest villains in all literature. He seems an amiable sort -- but in reality he has come across an ancient formula for eternal life, which requires him to murder three children and eat their hearts on certain auspicious days. In his scholarly detachment, he never stops to consider the vileness of the act.
One night, Stephen's uncle tells him he has something very important to show him, and that he must come to his uncle's room at a particular time. Stephen is unsuspicious and excited -- but before the appointed rendezvous, Stephen sees something ghastly approaching the house. Two small, pale figures, a boy and a girl with long nails and hungry eyes, appear in the night and head for the uncle's window. The uncle is discovered dead -- torn to pieces -- in his room, though no one could have entered or departed unseen...
Nightmare Castle borrows many of the elements of this story, including the missing hearts, the formula for eternal life, the revealing dreams and the pale figures that come for revenge. It adds these elements to a familiar framework, obviously derived from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: the story of the mad scientist who wants to restore the life/youth/beauty of his wife/daughter/lover by taking the blood/faces/organs of innocent victims. But while a host of other films on this subject (Franju's Eyes Without a Face, for example, or Georgio Ferroni's Mill of the Stone Women) are equally atmospheric and macabre, few of them actually involve the supernatural
1. This is actually the first thing that happens in the book! The son of the villainous Count Manfred is squashed beneath a huge helmet on the eve of his wedding.
2. Later, Bava took an even phonier sounding pseudonym: "Mickey Lion". The "Lion" part, at least, refers to his producer, Alfredo Leone.
3. Even if the films themselves sometimes strayed drastically from their sources, those sources are often still recognizeable. Bava based his films of stories by Gogol, Chekhov, Maupassant, Tolstoy and others. Only genre specialists will realize that Francesco Barilli's 1973 chiller Il Profumo della Signora in Nero has its origin in a story by Gaston Leroux. Lucio Fulci's House by the Cemetery closes with a quote from Henry James; but few people recognize the similarity between the film's title and that of a rare novel by J. Sheridan LeFanu -- The House by the Church-Yard. LeFanu's book is virtually unread today, but it was highly esteemed by genre critics including M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft.
4. ...Unless you count the clearly magical "science" that makes these experiments work!