Tap Dancing to Hell and a Pot o'Gold — Part One
"More hot chocolate please," I said to Chef Machiavelli.
He put down the large and very sharp looking knife he was using to fillet the eel for his incredible eel livornese, and refilled my cup. His hot chocolate is exquisite; filled with little lumps of white vanilla, a little anisette, and lots of dark, sweet chocolate, it's the perfect warmer-upper. I was sitting in the kitchen, waiting for the plumber to find the problem with our recalcitrant boiler. He was sure taking his time.
"I'll take a cup, too," Zombos said, joining us to bask in the warmth coming from the brick oven. "I wonder what's taking the plumber so long?"
"You did give him the map?" I asked.
"Yes, of course. I don't want to lose another plumber down there. They're skittish as it is. Lucky for us this fellow is new." He sipped his hot chocolate.
It was so hard trying to get plumbers to come out to the mansion; even harder keeping them once they saw our basement. The labyrinthine passages below us would give even Erik, the poor suffering phantom of the Paris Opera, a run for his money.
While we waited, I looked at the long, gleaming knife that Chef Machiavelli was using. I found it fascinating that a sharp implement can slice through atoms and molecules, severing their tenuous connections — and the whole concept of self-sharpening knives was beyond me.
"How's the time doing?" Zombos asked. We looked at our watches.
"Merda!" cursed Chef Machiavelli. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his eel-skin wallet. He handed Zombos five dollars.
"I'm still good," I said, as Zombos tucked the fiver into his shirt pocket with a grin.
"We'll see about that," he said with that awful grin.
We had placed bets on when the plumber would be done, and Chef Machiavelli's chosen time had passed. I was still on target, though. I crossed my fingers.
"This wagering reminds me of that film, Castle of Blood, where the journalist bets he can stay in a haunted castle for the night," I said.
"I remember that film," Zombos said, sipping his hot chocolate. "The beautiful Barbara Steele is in it."
"Yes; and there's that gamboling fog-bound opening, as the journalist enters the Poor Devil Inn — how apropos," I said. "When he comes upon the table where Poe and the owner of the haunted castle are discussing the reality of the supernatural, he can't help but listen and take the wager of staying overnight in that place where no one has survived the night. Soon they're off to the castle, and the journalist's misadventure with the undead will soon begin."
Italian supernatural horror films are always atmospheric and filled with dread, from the music to the melodramatic storyline, and Antonio Margheritti directs Castle of Blood with classic Gothic imagery that becomes stronger when shown in black and white.
In this excellent Synapse DVD release cut scenes have been restored, leading to a slight issue with the English dubbing. Since these restored scenes were not dubbed, English subtitles are provided instead. It's a little disconcerting at first to suddenly switch from dubbed English to English subtitles, but the added scenes add much to the pacing and storyline, and are worth the small discontinuity they cause.
These scenes include more discussion between the journalist and Poe on matters of the unnatural, a subtle lesbian scene between two dead, but still frisky inhabitants of the castle, and a brief but purely gratuitous nudie-cutie scene. Aside from the well-written liner notes, not many extras are included on the DVD, but included are a still gallery, trailer, and alternate opening credits.
Arriving at the castle, our stalwart journalist, a man of reason and science, is about to have his wits reshuffled. Bad enough that he has to spend a night in a decaying castle on All Soul's Eve, but after pushing his way through the tall wrought iron gate, he has to walk through a wind-blown and fog-filled overgrown cemetery to make his way to the castle entrance.
And what the hell is that black cat doing jumping in between the tombstones? Playful black cats in cemeteries in the dead of night are always unsettling to me. The film hasn't kicked into gear yet and already my pants would be flying through the air and out the gate — with me in them. The journalist continues onward, however, and he pokes around in the empty horse stable for a few minutes.
As he slowly makes his way through the cemetery, the stable, and eventually into the castle, Riz Ortolani's music rises and falls with strident tones that give way to somber, foreboding strings. In this opening sequence, the Gothic images of death, bad luck, and wind-tossed barren tree branches, mix creepily together in this dark, spook show chiaroscuro.
Ignoring all these dire portents, the journalist finds a taper, lights it, and boldly proceeds up the front steps and into the dark recesses of the castle. Doffing his cape and lighting some candles, he begins exploring it. The absence of music as he walks through the rooms allows his footsteps to be heard, accentuating his aloneness.
Suddenly the grandmother clock — yes, the one whose pendulum isn't swinging — chimes the half-hour before midnight. He goes to investigate and is puzzled to find no movement or sound. The party going on in the other room draws his attention next. Party? Music? He goes to investigate that also, but finds only the empty room, and the dust-covered, out-of-tune clavichord. Yeah, I'd light more candles, too, at this point.
He sits down to practice his clavichord lessons — why does everyone in a haunted house or castle movie always insist on tinkling ghostly keys after some phantom melody plays? — and is startled by the touch of Elizabeth's (Barbara Steele) hand on his shoulder.
Here is where the true art of the Italian ghost story kicks in; the soap opera relationships and entanglements that lead to the tragic events leading up to the haunting.
She tells him about her brother, the man he wagered with, and why her brother does it — to make sure she has a companion for one night out of the year. She, apparently, is "looking for happiness with the man I love." The journalist falls for her seductive charms hook, line, and sinker until Julia shows up. You know, the other woman who also appears to have the hots for Elizabeth. They start fighting about the journalist, so he retires to a bedroom, thinking of his newfound luck with dead women.
Of course, he doesn't know they're dead until Elizabeth sneaks into his room and they start kissing passionately while Julia steams outside, listening to their ardor. When the journalist can't find a heartbeat, Elizabeth let's him in on the secret: she's dead and has been for ten years. Before it all registers, Herbert, the strapping beefcake stable boy barges in and stabs Elizabeth to death — again. The journalist whips out a pistol and shoots Herbert. Knives and guns, the staples of horror!
The stiff upper lip of the journalist, Alan Foster (played by Georges Riviere), finally starts to tremble as he blinks and finds himself alone again, with no dead bodies sprawled on the bedroom floor. Frantically he searches for Elizabeth, and runs into the doctor.
"Who?" Zombos asked.
I ignored Zombos. Doctor Carmus, played by the naturally creepy Arturo Dominici, begins to tell Alan Foster all about death and dying, and the restless spirits of castle; Elizabeth, Julia and Herbert, the beefcake stable boy. In sordid flashbacks, Foster watches as events replay themselves, revealing the macabre dance of death that has doomed the castle's over-heated ghosts to walk its empty hallways for one night every year.
Now take a deep breath before you read on… okay, let's begin. Herbert and Elizabeth have a love affair going on while Elizabeth's husband is away. When he returns, she tells Herbert that they can't see each other anymore. Right. So he gets mad and barges in to murder Elizabeth's husband while they're making love. As he tries to strangle Elizabeth, too, Julia barges in and murders him. With two bodies on the floor, Julia puts the moves on Elizabeth, prompting Elizabeth, who doesn't want to continue that affair, to stab Julia to death. Three bodies piled up, one more to go.
Okay, you can breathe again. As Foster watches all this, Doctor Carmus reveals a disturbing fact about his presence in the castle. Foster, understandably losing his wits about this point, must escape before the sun rises, otherwise all the living dead in the castle will feast on his "fountain" of blood so they can spend another night living la dead loco. Except for Elizabeth, who apparently started this whole mess; she wants to help him escape.
She rushes to Foster's side as the others try to trap him in Herbert's crypt. The scene is pure Gothic horror, with the ghosts assembling from mist entering beneath the locked crypt door. Will Foster escape? Will Elizabeth ever find the love of her death? Who will win the wager of the Castle of Blood? And, at this point, is Foster even thinking about that wager?
"I say," Zombos said. "it's getting rather late. We better go find that plumber and make sure he hasn't gotten himself lost."
Zombos and I grabbed flashlights from the cupboard. Chef Machiavelli grabbed his biggest, sharpest knife.
"What's that for?" I asked.
"Molti ratti," he replied, swinging the knife up and down.
Zombos looked at me. We looked at Chef Machiavelli.
"You go first," we said together.
To be continued…