Barbara Steele’s career in cinema has taken her all over the world but the heart of her cult popularity arguably lies in the work she did in Italy during the ’60s. Beginning with Black Sunday, she appeared in a string of gothic horror films in this country that established her as iconic star that was alluring and imposing in equal measure. Castle Of Blood was one of these films and might be the most purely entertaining of the bunch, offering a fast-moving shuffle through gothic horror themes and imagery that makes it a crowd-pleaser for fans of this subgenre.
Castle Of Blood begins in classic style with journalist Alan Foster (Georges Riviere), a man who scoffs at the supernatural, taking on a wager to stay in a supposedly haunted castle for a night. After some skulking around, he finds a pair of ladies: the inviting Elizabeth (Steele) and the ominous Julia (Margarete Robsahm). However, those two might not be among the living – and the house soon reveals itself to have a shocking history as more maybe-ghosts emerge from the woodwork to give Alan a terrifying night that will test his stance on the unearthly.
It’s easy to view Castle Of Blood as a kind of Italian response to Roger Corman’s cycle of Poe films: it relies on the same themes of doomed romance, a castle with terrible secrets and even has a framing device that involves Poe himself interacting with the protagonist(!). However, it reveals its Italian touch once it is locked away in the mansion, delivering a series of escalating setpieces where visual storytelling takes precedence over narrative logic, all of it suffused with a comingling of murder-inducing lust and macabre thoughts about the nature of death.
This combination of Bava-esque morbid beauty and exploitation movie shocks works thanks to the efforts of its creators. The clever script, co-penned by Sergio Corbucci, pays off on all its narrative loop-de-loops, even delivering a clever twist ending that ties it all together. Director Antonio Margheriti, working under his usual pseudonym of Anthony Dawson, is as comfortable with the pure visual storytelling of the early scenes as he is with staging the mayhem (a massacre in a bedroom that ends with a pileup of corpses is a highlight of the latter). The brio he brings to his direction really pushes the film over the top.
It also helps that Castle Of Blood has a strong cast that dives headfirst into the material’s gothic horror extremes. Riviere makes an interesting protagonist, starting off as amusingly smarmy but gradually slipping into terror as the plot strips his pretensions away. There are also colorful supporting turns by Robsahm as an elegantly chilly grande dame, Arturo Dominici as a seemingly helpful doctor who reveals darker shadings as the story progresses and Silvano Tranquilli in an appropriately haunted performance as Poe. That said, the most hypnotic figure is Steele, who begins as her usual femme fatale archetype but is allowed to stretch out emotionally in the film’s second half. Whether she is playing menacing or seductive, you can’t take your eyes off her.
In short, Castle Of Blood is a deliciously baroque and energetic treat from Steele’s Italian era – and one of the most engaging movies to emerge from Italy’s gothic horror cycle of the ’60s.