The Virgin of Nuremberg / Horror Castle / Terror Castle / The Castle of Terror / Back to the Killer / La Virgine di Noremberga (1963) *˝
From its very inception, one of the key characteristics of the gothic horror story has been that it takes place in the past, preferably the distant past. This is especially conspicuous in the medium of film, where we can see the 18th- and 19th-century costumes and note immediately the absence of such modern appurtenances as automobiles and electricity, but it is just as true of the written gothic. Even those works which were composed in what we now think of as the appropriate temporal setting for gothic horror mostly set their action deeper still in the past. Mary Shelley stuck to the convention of her day by giving the year only as “17—” in Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, but that still sets the story well before its 1818 publication date— and given that Shelley was only nineteen years old at the time, just about any date that began with a “17” would surely have seemed to her like the dimmest antiquity. J. Sheridan Le Fanu began “Carmilla” with a preface hinting at a considerable (albeit vague) interval between the events of the story and its publication in 1871. And in the granddaddy of all bogus “based on a true story” intros, Horace Walpole opened The Castle of Otranto— one of the earliest surviving gothics, dating all the way back to 1765— with a rather lengthy note asserting that the novel was translated from a text “found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the North of England,” and that the Italian original was printed in Naples in 1529. I bring all this up in order to underscore the most curious feature of Antonio Margheriti’s The Virgin of Nuremberg, which takes a horrific gothic mystery in the most antique imaginable style (Walpole himself would have recognized it immediately), and defiantly sets it in what was then the modern day. The sinister family secrets which loom up to threaten the protagonists are rooted not in the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition, but in World War II, and the noble knight who comes from outside to rescue the heroine in the end is a Nazi-hunting FBI agent! It was a courageous move by Margheriti and his mob of fellow screenwriters to inject a deliberately discordant note of modernity into this most convention-bound of genres, and beyond that, The Virgin of Nuremberg is among the most beautifully composed and atmospherically shot movies of its kind that I’ve ever seen. Such a pity, then, that it is hamstrung at every turn by a screenplay that consists of little more than one unbroken string of idiocies, and a central character so contemptibly stupid and helpless that you’re almost certain to find yourself rooting for the bad guys by the end of the first act.
That worthless heroine is not, however, the virgin of the title. Rather, “the Virgin of Nuremberg” is a rather fulsome alternate name for the medieval torture device more commonly known as the iron maiden. It makes its bid for title-worthy status when Mary Hunter (Rossana Podesta, from Seven Deadly Females and Luigi Cozzi’s Hercules) starts awake in the middle of the night and follows the sound of a woman groaning in pain down to the museum on the first floor of her husband’s ancestral castle. There, in the place of honor at the far end of the room, stands a Virgin of Nuremberg with a pool of fresh blood spreading out from its feet. When Mary pries the contraption open, she is faced with the lifeless body of her chambermaid. For what will be only the first of many occasions before this is all over with, Mary faints dead away on the museum floor.
Mary and her husband, Max Hunter (Georges Rivičre, from Castle of Blood and Siren of Atlantis), don’t normally live in the old castle. Mary is an American, and it is in the States that the Hunters generally make their home. But for a few days each year, Max must come back to the family estate in Germany to conduct some unexplained business, and on this particular occasion, Mary has decided to come with him. (Since these are supposed to be Germans we’re talking about, you might ask why the family is named “Hunter” rather than “Jaeger.” You might also ask what those giant palm trees are doing growing in the castle’s front garden.) This is not such a good idea. Even if we accept Max’s assurances that what Mary saw down in the museum last night was merely a nightmare, it doesn’t seem too encouraging that the founder of the Hunter line— to whose memory that museum downstairs is dedicated— was a bloodthirsty lunatic who called himself “the Punisher,” and who kept himself amused by abducting women of loose morals and torturing them to death in his dungeon. Equally ominous is the curator of the museum, a scar-faced giant named Erich (Christopher Lee, who might as well be Luis Barboo or Sal Baccaro for all the movie gives him to do), who served as an adjutant to Max’s father (a Wehrmacht general) during the war, and who lavishes a worrisome amount of attention upon a set of surgical instruments which are supposed to have belonged to the old man. Nor does it sound like good news when Martha, the head maid (Carole Windsor, I think) begins babbling on about how the Punisher has returned after 300 years to “save us.” Why she believes that, together with the precise identity of “us,” is more than a little vague, but something tells me that Mary is much more likely to fall under the heading of “them.” Then there’s the matter of John Selby (Jim Dolen, of The Evil Eye and Battle of the Worlds), the American vacationer who claims to be on a tour of the castles of the Rhineland, but whom Martha the Pronoun Queen identifies as an American policeman on the hunt for “him.” Finally, there’s the niggling little point that the maid whose death Mary “dreamed of” the night before really hasn’t shown up for work today. All in all, I’d say refusing to take the tranquilizers Max’s doctor (probably Patrick Walton) prescribes for her when Max leaves the castle to conduct his business is just about the one sensible thing Mary will do between now and the closing credits.
Mary spends the next 48 hours or so vacillating between cowering in her room in accordance with Martha’s sinister suggestion that she lock herself safely away until her husband’s return, and wandering around the castle and its grounds for no evident reason, getting frightened by things that don’t strike me as being notably scary. Meanwhile, Selby snoops around the neighborhood, poking his nose into things that don’t seem at all outwardly suspicious. The policeman’s investigations finally turn up something worth investigating when the doctor who saw Mary earlier shows Selby something he found on the floor of the Hunter place— a lock of blonde hair, much like that of the missing maid. Then that night, there is a knock at Mary’s bedroom door. It’s the Punisher (or at any rate, somebody wearing the same getup that adorns the Punisher mannequin down in the museum), and when Mary refuses to let him in, he smashes a hole in the door and attempts to unlock it himself. Somehow, Mary overcomes her latest spasm of cringing long enough to pick up a knife and stab the Punisher in the hand before he can let himself in. (The locks in Castle Hunter must be awfully rusty, because he’s still wrestling with the thing when Mary gets to him with the knife, even though she crosses the room with nearly half the vigor and urgency of a two-toed sloth.) And having just seen unequivocal evidence that somebody in the castle is out to get her, what do you suppose our heroine does now? Why, she goes wandering around the castle and its grounds armed only with a candle, of course!!!! Alas, natural selection is apparently on vacation this evening, because Mary survives her nocturnal adventure, even though she— surprise, surprise— ends up fainting in what can only be the Punisher’s lair before it’s all over. That lair is a system of catacombs beneath the castle, into which Mary manages to get herself locked after witnessing all manner of skullduggery. First, she stumbles upon the subterranean torture chamber to which the Punisher has just abducted some random woman. The killer himself has unaccountably left the scene when Mary arrives, and so she is able to free the Punisher’s captive from the face-mounted rat-cage into which he had strapped her. Mary does not, however, do anything to help the woman, wandering off in her usual distracted manner while the Punisher’s victim screams and screams and screams about the damage the caged rat has done to her face. Her distracted wanderings lead her eventually to the dungeon’s outdoor entrance, from which vantage point she observes Max and Erich loading the dead body of the chambermaid into some sort of outbuilding. She hides when Erich heads over her way, and thus it is that she gets trapped in the dungeon when Erich locks the gate in the portcullis. With nowhere to go now but deeper into the catacombs, Mary turns around, finds her way into the cistern beneath the garden, and stumbles upon the dead body of Fritz the butler, which the red herring department has helpfully dressed in the Punisher’s costume for absolutely no reason that can be defended in terms of the story. This is where she finally has her expected faint.
Mary outdoes herself in the next scene. Max is there at her bedside when she wakes up the next morning (any imaginable explanation for her rescue will crumble to pieces in light of the subsequent revelation that Max doesn’t yet know about the dead butler), and she naturally has a few thousand questions for him. Incredibly, he manages to weasel out of answering even a single one of them! Furthermore, he convinces her not to tell anyone about the events of the previous night for another 24 hours! Hey, Punisher? You can come along and kill this bitch any time now, really. You’re quite welcome. Actually, the Punisher seems now to be interested in killing everybody in Castle Hunter— Mary, the remaining servants, even Max and Erich. That last part, in case you hadn’t noticed, eliminates both of the logical suspects from consideration as the Punisher’s secret identity. And since we already know it can’t be Mary, any of the servants, the doctor, or John Selby (the latter two of whom we’ve seen doing other things while the Punisher was on the prowl), that can mean only one thing— the killer can only be some guy we’ve never seen before! Specifically, he’s Max’s father, whom Selby is hunting as a Nazi war criminal, and who was surgically disfigured twenty-odd years before by a team of death-camp doctors as punishment for his participation in the military plot to assassinate Hitler, leaving him a dead ringer for the Phantom of the Opera as originally described by Gaston Leroux. With a background like that, who can blame him for being off his fucking rocker? Luckily (or unluckily, for those of us who were hoping to see Mary reap what she has so assiduously sown), Erich manages to get away from the castle and contact Selby, who summons a small army of cops to take the situation in hand.
What a waste. What an absolute fucking waste. To make a purely traditional gothic while chucking the genre’s oldest and most central conceit, to film it in full Cinemascope on sets that make their most lavish Hammer counterparts look like something Eurocine would have slapped together, to come up with the one halfway-defensible killer-out-of-nowhere reveal that I can recall having seen in a movie that comports itself as a mystery— and then to blow it all with a totally illogical script in which virtually every plot development hinges upon the heroine’s bottomless stupidity and complete lack of any sense of self-preservation! Literally none of Mary’s travails following The Virgin of Nuremberg’s opening credits would have happened had she possessed the spine to demand an explanation from Martha the first time the head maid began ranting on about the return of the Punisher. Anybody but a total imbecile would have called the police immediately after that first attack in the bedroom. And even the most total imbecile imaginable would surely tell Max where to stick it when he begs for another 24 hours in which to do whatever it is that he’s up to around the castle— which at that point looks like torturing and murdering young women, let’s not forget! Unlikeable leads are far from uncommon in horror movies, but a shit-for-brains like Mary Hunter is something rare and special, and by making her empty-headedness nearly the sole driving force of the plot, Margheriti and company do themselves— and their audience— an enormous disservice.