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 NightCas-posCaiano 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.

NightCas-01The 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, includ­ingNightCas-02 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.