Nightmare Castle / The Faceless Monster / Lovers Beyond the Tomb / Lovers from Beyond the Tomb / Night of the Doomed / Amanti d’Oltretomba (1965) **
This is another one (along with Horror Rises from the Tomb) that I’ll probably give a second chance if ever I should find myself with access to an uncut print. The version of Nightmare Castle/Amanti d’Oltretomba that I saw was extensively cut—apparently by more than fifteen minutes— and was in such bad shape otherwise that a good many of my complaints with the film might very well really be complaints with my particular copy. (As tempting as those $5.00 DVDs are, it’s not always wise to use them as a source of old European horror films— you’re liable to wind up with a cut-up, scratched-to-shit, public domain TV edit.) Certainly, there are plenty of people who have lots of very nice things to say about Nightmare Castle, and it’s a movie I wanted very much to like as I was watching it. Unfortunately, in its American guise, it is mostly ruined by a plodding, overly talky script, stunningly incompetent dubbing, some of the worst-written dialogue I’ve ever had the displeasure to hear, and black-and-white cinematography so seriously underexposed that it’s next to impossible to tell what you’re looking at half the time.
Even so, it has the makings of a terrific 60’s Italian Gothic, in the style of Mario Bava or Ricardo Freda. Scientist Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Müller, from The Devil’s Commandment and Vampyros Lesbos) is unhappily married to Lady Muriel Hampton (Barbara Steele, of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and The Ghost), who is none too pleased to be married to him these days, either. She has nothing but contempt and disgust for his research (which somehow involves using electricity to preserve blood— don’t ask me!), and she would be very happy about the fact that he’s going away to Edinburgh for the week were it not for the fact that it’s a business trip; Stephen is attending a conference of other scientists for whom Muriel has just as little respect. In any case, Muriel means to make the most of her husband’s absence. With him away in town, she’ll have the run of the castle with which to pursue her affair with David the gardener (Rik Battaglia, from Sister Emanuelle and The Mysterious Island of Captain Nemo). What neither Muriel nor David realizes is that Arrowsmith is on to them, and this whole business about a scientific conference is just a ruse to lure the two adulterers out into the open; when they take the bait, Stephen catches them together in the greenhouse and springs his trap. Evidently, this is where a fair chunk of that footage I’m missing came from. From what I’ve read, the original included a lengthy scene in which Stephen made good on his threat to torture the illicit lovers to within an inch of their lives, but all my copy shows is Arrowsmith whacking his bound wife on the forearms with a riding crop and dripping a bit of what I guess is supposed to be acid on her belly. Regardless, Muriel is defiant to the last, for she knows just how pyrrhic a victory her husband’s will be. Muriel, you see, is the one with all the money, and unbeknownst to Stephen, she recently revised her will so as to leave everything to her stepsister, Jenny, despite the fact that the latter woman has spent most of her life confined to a sanitarium. Jenny gets the cash, the land, the castle, the furniture, and Stephen won’t see a single farthing. However, Muriel has misread Arrowsmith if she thinks that’s going to stop him from killing her and David. It isn’t just money, or even revenge, that the scientist is after. Stephen’s been itching of late to take his experiments to the next level, with human blood taking the place of the frog blood he’s been using thus far, and killing Muriel and David presents him with an opportunity to do just that. Afterwards, he cuts out and preserves the adulterers’ hearts, burns the rest of them, and dumps their ashes into the pot that contains his favorite houseplant. Then he conducts his boldest experiment yet, transfusing Muriel’s electrically preserved blood into the veins of his ancient maidservant, Solange (Helga Liné, from Black Venus and Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon), and restoring her appearance to that of a woman just barely out of her twenties. Furthermore, Arrowsmith has a plan regarding his late wife’s riches.
A few days later, Lady Jenny Hampton (also Barbara Steele, but with a blonde wig and a different dubbed voice— her own, from what I hear) arrives at the castle to move in. Or perhaps I should say “Lady Jenny Arrowsmith.” Stephen, you see, has gone and married his former stepsister-in-law! Solange is not happy about this— evidently she thought she’d have the doctor to herself— but Arrowsmith knows what he’s doing. After all, by marrying Jenny, Stephen gives himself legal access to the Hampton fortune once again. And given that Jenny has a long history of mental illness, it should be no trouble at all for Arrowsmith to drive her nuts again, have her committed, and thereby free himself to do whatever he wants with the castle, the money, and Solange. With that end in mind, Stephen whips up a hallucinogen with which he instructs Solange to spike Jenny’s bedtime brandy, beginning that very night. The drugs certainly seem to have the desired effect, because Jenny dreams/hallucinates that she awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of two hearts beating within the castle walls. Then she finds herself inside a stone sarcophagus, from which she is released by a man she’s never seen before, but whom we recognize as David. The gardener then leads her to the greenhouse to romance her, but they are interrupted by a faceless man with a riding crop, who begins beating David. Jenny rises up to attack the man with no face, and then wakes up for real to find her hands clamped around her new husband’s throat. In spite of that close call, and though he takes pains not to show it, Arrowsmith is quite pleased with Jenny’s reaction.
But you know what? Stephen discovers the next day that Jenny never even took the drugs. Solange got the vials on the shelf in Arrowsmith’s laboratory mixed up, and gave Jenny a totally harmless sugar solution by mistake. Stephen takes this to mean that his plan is going to work even faster and more smoothly than anticipated, and he immediately sends a letter summoning Dr. Derek Joyce (Lawrence Clift), Jenny’s old psychiatrist, to the castle. What Stephen and Solange don’t grasp about the situation is that there’s more going on than just the malfunctioning of Jenny’s mind, however. First of all, when Joyce goes with his patient on a tour of the places that figured in her dream, Jenny finds one of the earrings she was wearing in it— earrings that don’t even belong to her— on the greenhouse floor exactly where it would have been if it had come off while she was making out with David. No one seems too troubled to discover that the earring in question was one of Muriel’s, but they should be. Before long, even Dr. Joyce is witnessing strange phenomena in the castle— blood dripping from the pot where (unbeknownst to anyone but Arrowsmith) Stephen hid his first wife’s ashes, the dual heartbeats sounding from somewhere inside the walls, sudden chill drafts in places where no such thing should be possible, a woman’s cruel laughter echoing down the corridors— and he begins taking seriously the idea that Castle Hampton is haunted by spirits who have designs on Jenny. He’s right, of course, but Jenny is only to be the instrument through which those spirits attack their real target.
On the face of it, there’s every reason why Nightmare Castle ought to be a top-notch Italian Gothic. It has a suitably top-heavy story laden with wrathful ghosts, mad science, a forbidding old castle, and a plot to drive the heroine insane and separate her from her inheritance. Paul Müller puts in a terrific performance as Dr. Arrowsmith, Barbara Steele gets another one of those dualistic double roles she always played so well, and Helga Liné just about steals the show as the conniving beneficiary of Stephen’s villainous plans. Hampton Castle’s atmospheric interiors even look like the real thing most of the time, and who knows— maybe they are. (Cool old castles aren’t exactly a rarity in Europe, after all.) Plus, the movie’s in black and white, which is almost always the best choice for an old-fashioned ghost story.
They say the devil’s in the details, though, and Nightmare Castle makes for a fine illustration of that old adage. For one thing, whoever translated the dialogue into English should be ashamed of themselves. In all the millennia since the invention of language, nobody has ever talked the way the characters in this movie do! When Muriel coos to David, “I’m going to rid you of your vulgar ways and replace them with others much more subtle and refined,” prompting her below-the-board boyfriend to respond, “I don’t understand you,” most viewers are sure to sympathize with the gardener’s confusion. Then, at the other end of the movie, when her ghost gloats to Stephen, “Now I’ve got your body and your monstrous soul, if there’s any such thing in your damned being!” it’s one of those moments that just drop you right out of the film. And considering the sheer quantity of talk in Nightmare Castle, the abysmal quality of it all is a serious drag on the movie even before you factor in the remarkably haphazard dubbing. (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such abject failure to match dubbing to mouth-movement outside of a film hailing originally from Asia.) What really tips the balance against Nightmare Castle, though (at least in the print I saw), is the simple fact that most of it is just plain invisible. Maybe director Mario Caiano didn’t use enough lighting on the set. Maybe the cinematographer or the film lab did a lousy job picking the exposure settings. Or maybe Madacy Entertainment just picked up a really shitty print to use as their source material for the DVD. Wherever the fault lies, the picture in my copy is so dark that I often had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to be looking at; indeed, there are several points in the above synopsis at which I am indebted to other reviewers for making sense of the action. Call me crazy, but when I watch a movie, I want to be able to see it, and it puts me in a bad mood toward a film when I can’t.