Castle of Blood / The Castle of Terror / Coffin of Terror / Tombs of Terror / Tombs of Horror / The Long Night of Terror / Dimensions of Death / Danse Macabre / Danza Macabra (1964) **½
Slipped somewhere into Castle of Blood’s opening credits is a notice to the effect that it was based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe entitled “Danse Macabre.” (In fact, depending on which print you see, the film itself might be called that.) I found that notice intriguing on several levels. First, there was the mere idea that an Italian horror movie would be based on one of Poe’s stories. After all, America is not the center of the universe (however much we who live there tend to think so), and in my experience, it’s rare enough for Italian fright films of the 60’s to acknowledge a literary basis at all, let alone a foreign one. Then there was the specific tale from which Castle of Blood claims derivation. Not only was I not conversant with a Poe story called “Danse Macabre,” but I’d never even heard of it! Quite a change of pace, then, from the endless cinematic recycling of “The Black Cat,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Raven,” right? Well, it turns out there’s an excellent reason for my lack of acquaintance with “Danse Macabre”— Poe never wrote any such story! “Danse Macabre” isn’t even an alternate title stemming from the French translations in which Poe’s work first caught on in Europe. It is, however, the name of a piece by the French composer Camile Saint-Saen, the accompanying poem to which contains elements that figure prominently in Castle of Blood’s plot (even if they don’t come close so synopsizing it). The claimed Poe connection may not be a complete load of bollocks, though, because the story here gets rolling when a man foolishly takes a bet implicating supernatural forces, and if you squint hard and turn your head just right, that does look just a little bit like the premise of Poe’s obscure black comedy, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Moral Tale.” Screenwriters Sergio Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi must have realized what a feeble link that was, however, because they also resorted to an old trick of silent-era Poe films, making the author himself a character in the story.
Not that he actually does much of anything. When we meet Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquili, from Black Belly of the Tarantula and The Pumaman), it’s Halloween night, and he’s hanging out in a European pub with Lord Thomas Blackwood (Umberto Raho, of The Eerie Midnight Horror Show and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage). Their conversation catches the ear of Allan Foster (Georges Riviere, from The Virgin of Nuremberg and The Black Vampire), who ends up sitting down at their table and joining in. It seems Lord Blackwood owns a castle not far from here, but does not and indeed cannot live in it. The place is haunted, you see, and at no time of the year is it more haunted than on All Hallows’ Eve. Now Blackwood is a betting man, and he makes a habit of wagering people £100 that they can’t spend Halloween night in his castle. He hasn’t had to hand over a farthing to anyone yet, but the reason for that is rather more sinister than Foster assumes at first. Those who took Blackwood up on his bet didn’t merely lose. Every single one of them died in the attempt to overnight on the baronet’s property! Allan, for his part, does not believe in ghosts, and he’d be happy to step up to Blackwood’s challenge if he weren’t so strapped for cash. He doesn’t have £100 to put up, but if His Lordship would agree to a £10 bet instead, then they’d be in business. Blackwood professes astonishment that anyone would be prepared to gamble his life so cheaply, but he eagerly accedes to Allan’s revised terms. Within minutes, Blackwood, Poe, and Foster are on their way to the castle to drop off the latter man.
Castle Blackwood is indeed pretty creepy, but Foster remains convinced upon his arrival that it is merely that. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take him too long to recognize that something strange is going on within its moldering walls, even if he sees no reason to attribute that something to supernatural agency. Allan, it turns out, is not alone, and the woman who intrudes upon his vigil identifies herself as Elisabeth Blackwood (Barbara Steele, of Nightmare Castle and The Silent Scream), Lord Thomas’s younger sister. Elisabeth explains that she always returns to the old homestead on Halloween; her brother makes his stupid bet every year without fail, and it just plain isn’t right that a man should have to spend the night here without anyone to keep him company. Allan is just beginning to catch on to what kind of company she means when a second young woman barges in to put a stop to it. This is Julia (Margarete Robsahm), and although neither she nor Elisabeth takes the time to explain how they know each other, their acquaintanceship is obviously of considerable duration and rather stormy character. Julia contends that it is inappropriate for Elisabeth to proceed any farther with her seduction, and hints darkly that her objections rest on a footing far more valid and specific than conventional 19th-century notions of correct female sexual behavior. Indeed, she threatens to tell Foster exactly what she’s hinting at if the other woman does not desist at once. (The version of Castle of Blood that played in Continental Europe demonstrates how very unconcerned for conventional sexual norms Julia and Elisabeth are by revealing them as lesbian lovers, but that’s not what Julia is driving at, either.) Elisabeth withdraws defeated, and Julia soon scampers off, too— leaving Allan none the wiser about what in the hell just happened.
The next person to show up out of nowhere in the supposedly deserted castle is a man, one Professor Carmus (Arturo Dominici, from Black Sunday and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster). Carmus, while not nearly as much fun to be around as Elisabeth, is by any standard the most helpful and informative interloper that Foster will meet all night. That’s because he not only knows what’s going on at the castle, but also doesn’t mind letting Allan in on the secret. Castle Blackwood really is haunted, and All Hallows’ Eve really is the haunting’s annual climax. Everyone Foster will meet during his stay there— Carmus himself included— is long dead, and is furthermore very dangerous. Even ghosts need nourishment, or so Carmus says, and the form of nourishment they require is the blood of a living person, to be extracted once each year on Halloween night. Only thus may a ghost preserve its twilight existence between the worlds of the living and the dead for another year. What’s more, Lord Blackwood is well aware of all that, and his annual wager is his way of helping all the friends and family-members who died under his roof one chaotic and blood-soaked night many years ago. It’s a long and confusing story, but Allan will see pieces of it for himself if he sticks around, as the spirits are compelled to reenact the events of their deaths every October 31st. Naturally, Allan doesn’t believe a word of the professor’s spiel, but he has a much harder time denying the truth of it after he witnesses a burly, masked man (Giovanni Cianfriglia, from Revenge of the Gladiators and Eyes Behind the Stars) murdering Elisabeth in the midst of raping her, only to encounter the victim again unharmed a short while later. Now a sensible person would decide at this point to part with the £10, but Elisabeth is offering Allan an even bigger incentive to self-destructive folly than she would simply by being both insistently amorous and Barbara Steele. Although the other ghosts unanimously swear that she’s full of shit, Elisabeth thinks there’s a way to beak the cycle of annual depredation. All Allan has to do is to stay alive through the night, and to carry her off of the castle’s grounds in the moments just before dawn. Then Elisabeth can be a real, live girl again, and she and Allan can get their happily-ever-after on. What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?
Castle of Blood has the makings of a minor classic, but it doesn’t quite get there. It has a great set, a sound premise, some very solid acting by contemporary Italian standards, oodles of morbid atmosphere, and a resolution that defies happy-ending/sad-ending categorization in a manner years ahead of its time. Antonio Margheriti is a director whom I usually associate with various species of garishness: the pop-art flamboyance of The Wild, Wild Planet, the florid Hammer-squared gothic feel of The Virgin of Nuremberg, the exuberantly overblown carnage of Cannibal Apocalypse. Castle of Blood’s stark, monochrome moodiness therefore took me completely and pleasantly by surprise. It’s an unexpectedly well-written movie, too, with far less than the usual quota of Italianate nonsense story logic. The bond that forms between Allan and Elisabeth doesn’t make as much sense as it should considering its centrality to the developments of the final act, but this is a pretty tight script for a Euro-gothic otherwise. And like The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Castle of Blood frequently uses what holes do exist in the plot to its advantage. A large part of the point is that Foster has no idea what’s happening to him— or what happened a generation ago in Castle Blackwood— under circumstances in which incomprehension could easily get him killed. Keeping us in the same position is thus a pretty smart thing to do. Especially confusing in just the right way is the attitude that the ghosts take toward Allan. Only the nameless specter who was apparently responsible for the extermination of the castle’s tenants way back when is obvious from the get-go as a threat; indeed, most of the others are actually friendly toward Foster in one way or another. Elisabeth falls in love with him. Julia tries to hustle him out of the castle before the killer ghost can have at him. Carmus clues him in to the situation at the Blackwood place, and carefully explains the implications for Foster’s safety. And yet those implications are that any of the ghosts can be counted upon to turn on Allan as dawn approaches, whatever they may think of him personally. A ghost’s gotta eat, and if Allan’s is the only blood to be had come sunrise, then Allan’s it shall be.
What keeps Castle of Blood from realizing its full potential is primarily a matter of pervasive structural awkwardness. This is a most erratically paced movie. It jumps very quickly from the initial meeting between Foster and Lord Blackwood to the installation of the former in the latter’s castle, and almost as swiftly from there to the introduction of Elisabeth and Julia. After that, though, the narrative stumbles to a virtual halt until very near to the end, when Elisabeth unveils her plan for escaping her ghostly half-life. In between, Castle of Blood proceeds in fits and starts through the spectral reenactments that fill in edited highlights of the Blackwood family’s back-story, and because those are presented both non-linearly and in fragmentary form, it’s hard to keep hold of any real through-line. At times, it feels almost like the reels are being shown out of order. The clearest single example of how Castle of Blood undermines its own effectiveness is the scene in which Carmus recapitulates his death at the hands of the killer ghost. He had been working in Lord Blackwood’s study when something inspired him to have a look at the family crypt; it was there that he ran afoul of the killer, who intriguingly turns out to have been already dead himself even then. (That may mean that Carmus was not present for the initial massacre, but was rather one of Lord Thomas’s earlier victims.) The trouble is, the crypt and the study are about as far apart as it is possible to be within the confines of the castle, and if Carmus’s candlelit mosey from one end of the enormous building to the other isn’t shown in real time, it’s damned close to it. By the time the digression was over, I needed the professor’s summing-up “And that’s how I got into the haunting business…” remark to Foster to remind me what the point of the last seven or eight minutes had been. It’s practically a miracle that Castle of Blood works as well as it does, given its consistent willingness to pull crap like that!