The Bad News: First of all, the script is a total write-off. Now, I'm not complaining about the plot, though that also has its problems: for instance, I think the finale would have packed more of a wallop if there had been a discernable love-hate relationship between Stephen and Muriel, instead of the House on Haunted Hill-type hate-hate relationship the two principals display. And don't get me started on the disposable butler
Rather, it's the English language dialog that pushes me over the edge. Clearly, it was written by someone who had no ear for natural conversation. There are moments, particularly when Stephen is pontificating, when you just want to throw up your hands and tell them all to SHUT UP. Here are some samples:
STEPHEN: This always happens when you permit yourself to over-indulge in your brandy. You are trying to provoke me, but this is not the moment, dear.This last one in particular shows the writer's tin ear at work. Probably, he meant to write something like, "I've got your soul, if there is any such thing in your body..." or words to that effect; but he'd just used the word "body" in the sentence already, so he came up with that peculiarly stilted turn of phrase, "... if there's any such thing in your damned being." Maybe it doesn't look so bad when you read it, but listen to it as Barbara Steele speaks it, and you'll feel the full weight of its clumsiness.
The dialog doesn't have the surrealistic quality of a really bad script, something on the lines of an Ed Wood or a Jerry Warren effort. Consequently, it's much less interesting (most of all, it resembles a G. Schirmer translation of an Italian opera libretto -- notoriously cheesy). The only thing the dialog has in common with the anti-classics of Wood or Warren is that there's too much of it. When things actually happen in Nightmare Castle, they happen fast and furious; but all too much of the time is eaten up listening to the characters blather.
(Of course... as far as blather is concerned, I am no one to talk.)
Another problem I have with the film is that it has a poor finale -- more about that later, though, because Ennio Morricone's music fills in where the script and the actors fall short.
Where Morricone himself falls short, however, is in Muriel's Mazurka.
The Mazurka is a very pretty tune, and because it is so memorable, it helps establish Muriel's ghostly presence as her spirit reaches out to Jenny. The trouble is that the tune is too simple and innocuous to really represent Muriel. For example, after Jenny has sleepwalked into the family crypt, as Stephen and Solange search for her, the Mazurka plays in the background -- obviously this is to suggest that Muriel is trying to possess her half-sister. Unfortunately, the Mazurka is too cheerful to create the proper mood. Even worse, it's played faster than usual, to go along with the frantic search... but rather than sound equally frantic, it just seems even more good-natured, even comical.
The Good News: Nightmare Castle is shot in black and white -- always the best choice for a ghost story. While Caiano doesn't have Mario Bava's eye for light and shadow, he nonetheless manages to create a real feeling of decay. Hampton Castle itself is not the crumbling ruin we might expect -- it's a richly appointed mansion, with tapestries and ornate woodwork. It doesn't look like a set on a soundstage. It looks like a real castle, and very likely a haunted one.
The cast is very good, with Paul Müller chillingly evil in the role of Stephen. Müller was featured in many other horror films over his career,including several for Jess Franco (he was the Hanging Father in A Virgin Among the Living Dead, and Dr. Seward in Count Dracula); recently he had a cameo as the leader of the risen Black Monks in Umberto Lenzi's Hell's Gate. Still, this early role remains one of his most effective.
Barbara Steele is Barbara Steele, for better or worse... she is probably better remembered for the inspiration she provided to Italian filmmakers than for her actual talents as an actress. At least in this movie we get to hear her dubbing her own voice.
This was not the first dual role for Steele -- after all, her first starring role was as Asa/Katja in Bava's Maschera del Demonio/Black Sunday, and in many of her other films she played ambiguous characters, characters with dual natures, if not actually two separate roles
Helga Line's coldly beautiful presence is ideal for Solange. When she speaks of the stolen blood running cold and heavy through her body, it's a chilling moment. Solange's old-woman makeup is grotesque, but it's grotesque in an Eraserhead kind of way rather than an Incredibly Strange Creatures... kind of way. Whether or not this was an appropriate effect for a film like Nightmare Castle is debatable, but Helga Line carries it off very well. Beneath the unbelieveable layers of crust on her face, Line's active, suspicious eyes dart back and forth...
"Lawrence Clift", if that's his real name, is bland and uninteresting as the nominal hero Dr. Derek Joyce, a role that practically requires him to be bland and uninteresting. The only disappointment in the cast is Rik Battaglia as David, if only because he fails to be truly menacing when he comes back from the dead. Perhaps it's because his costume has been shredded a little too neatly -- it has more of the Wardrobe Department than the grave about it. Or perhaps it's because his pants are pulled a little too high over his waist, making him look like a portly, middle aged zombie instead of a lean, hungry one.
Best of all is Ennio Morricone's monumental Fugue in E-flat Minor for Organ, which dominates the score.
For those who aren't musicians, I should explain that a fugue is a particularly complex kind of composition. Fugues are based on a central theme, called the subject, which is played on its own at the very beginning of the piece. After the subject is heard, a second voice or instrument enters playing the theme in a different key. This is called the answer, and because it's in a different key, it's often a variation on the theme rather than a literal restatement. While the answer is playing, the original voice or instrument plays a second, contrasting theme in counterpoint with it. Gradually more voices enter in a similar fashion, until as many as four or five or six different contrapuntal lines are playing with the themes at the same time. And that's just the beginning, which is called the "exposition"... As you might have gathered, it takes a great deal of skill for a composer to write a successful fugue.
Morricone's fugue has four voices (and by voices, I don't mean singing voices; I mean separate musical lines). The subject uses all twelve notes of the scale (though not serially), leading to some intensely chromatic counterpoint. As movie music, it's surprisingly complex stuff, and its tortuous chromaticism is a perfect accompaniment to the twisted goings-on at Hampton Castle.
In fact, at the very end of the movie, Morricone's splendid fugue makes up for some serious shortcomings in the script. The fugue begins playing as Dr. Joyce recovers from the blow to the head. The exposition continues as Joyce rescues Jenny from the re-animated David. When Joyce and Jenny are trapped between the two spectres, ingenious stretti help build the tension of the scene.
But if you watch the very end with the sound off, you'll see how comparatively weak it is. Muriel steps forward menacingly -- Joyce throws the hearts in the fire -- the ghosts disappear -- the end. It's much too sudden, considering all that's lead up to this point. And it's here that we can appreciate Morricone's genius, even in such an early and uncharacteristic score. Even though the script has failed to give us a satisfying climax, the music gives us one. As Joyce throws the hearts into the fire, massed trumpets and trombones intone the fugue subject in whole notes, like a chorale melody, as the organ continues its stretti. It's an unbelieveably thrilling moment, and it makes the audience forget that absolutely nothing is happening on screen.
5. I understand the butler has a much bigger role in the uncut version. The complete film is available on PAL video from an English company called Redemption, under the title Night of the Doomed; and some American grey market dealers carry NTSC dubs of varying quality. Oh well. It's on my Christmas list.
5. And then there's Il Lago del Diavolo/The She-Beast, a delightfully awful horror comedy directed in part by Michael Reeves. Steele has a brief role in the beginning and the end as a newlywed bride on honeymoon in Transylvania, who is possessed by the spirit of the witch Vardella. After her possession, Barbara is replaced by a stunt actor in gruesome and unconvincing makeup. I suppose this counts as a dual role, in a lame sort of way...