By the time Mario Caiano made Nightmare Castle in 1965, the Italian gothic horror film had developed a comfortable set of rules. All you needed were some period costumes, a nice castle, a plot with appropriate echoes of gothic horror writers and a group of actors who could do period material, including an appropriately bewitching female (preferably Barbara Steele). For the director, it was like working with a simple recipe that left room for invention in how you combine the ingredients — and Nightmare Castle indicates the Caiano could bring flair to this familiar bill of fare.
The plot of Nightmare Castle starts with a lot going on and just keeps stacking the deck higher. Muriel Arrowsmith (Barbara Steele) is carrying on with the castle’s caretaker (Rik Battaglia) while her doctor husband Stephen (Paul Muller) obsesses over arcane experiments. Stephen gets wise with the help of crafty maid Solange (Helga Line) and takes the adulterers out, giving her a youth-reviving serum for her silence. Unfortunately, Muriel had a will that passes on her estate to her institutionalized twin sister Jenny (Steele again, with a blonde wig). Stephen marries Jenny and plots to drive her insane with Solange’s help. Her only hope seems to be a helpful doctor (Marino Mase) but the supernatural is also about to come into play.
The result plays like a romp through the history of gothic horror, made by true fans for the true fans. The script, co-written by Caiano with Fabio DeAgostini, weaves together a ton of familiar elements — the mad scientist, ghosts of restless souls, a Gaslight-inspired “drive someone mad” scheme, Poe-inspired torture chamber revenge, etc. — but shuffles them around in ways that keep viewer guessing what bit of vintage macabre fun is going to be trotted out next.
Caiano also takes great delight in building spooky atmosphere, setting a decadently creepy mood via lush black-and-white cinematography from future director Enzo Barboni and a shivery score from Ennio Morricone that mixes creepy organ fanfares with a delirious, piano-led romantic theme. He uses these tools to lace the film with setpieces from start to finish, including an intense finale that rivals the endings of Roger Corman’s Poe films.
The cast is a big part of any gothic horror’s success and Nightmare Castle boasts a sterling set of Euro-cult regulars who dig into their roles. Steele leads the pack with her dual role, taking delight in playing both temptress and victim, devil and saint. Muller was a regular in Jesus Franco films during the ‘70s and brings the kind of perverse intensity that he brought to those films as the obsessive doctor. Elsewhere, Mase is likeable in a heroic role and Line is both alluring and menacing as the doctor’s deadly maid/accomplice.
In short, Nightmare Castle is one of the treasures of Italian gothic horror and also doubles as an excellent primer to this subgenre’s macabre, antiquarian delights. No tour of this style of filmmaking is complete without it.