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DVD Review: Nightmare Castle (2009 Severin Films Release)

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Well, it only took what seemed like an eternity, but at long frigging last, Nightmare Castle has finally received the home video treatment it deserves. Who do we have to thank for this miracle? Why, Severin Films, of course — and John Severin and company are well on their way to becoming the greatest indie label of all time with this one!

Nightmare Castle is, without a doubt, the most atmospheric Italian gothic horror film ever. The lighting, the cinematography, the mood… there is no comparison. The haunting score from Ennio Morricone (his first work in the horror field) easily sweeps you away into a period piece full of sex, torture, murder, and ghosts. Nightmare Castle is, and forever shall be, the quintessential formula for perfection in a horror film.

And to think Mario Bava had nothing to do with it.

British actress Barbara Steele delivers two completely bewitching performances as Muriel and Jenny. Muriel, the raven-haired wife of Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Swiss actor Paul Muller, a familiar face to fans of retro Euro horror) is the dark beauty of the story — a woman who finds solace in the arms of the beefy stableman, David (peplum regular Rik Battaglia), during her husband’s lengthy trips. When Dr. Stephen leaves once more for Edinburgh to attend a medical conference, Muriel and David head down to the greenhouse for a little late night nookie. However, this night is destined to be their last rendezvous together, as the Arrowsmith’s elderly maid Solange (Helga Liné) has informed the doctor of his wife’s doings and the trip out of town is nothing more than a ruse.

Surprising the lovers, the insanely mad Dr. Arrowsmith captures them both, chaining them in the crypt beneath their castle and torturing them incessantly before finally electrocuting them to death in bed — removing the hearts from their corpses. Enter Jenny, the blonde-haired naïve heroine of the story. Since the wealthy Muriel had bequeathed all of her entire estate to her loony stepsister, Jenny, the good Dr. Arrowsmith sees fit to marry the young girl (come on, men, how many times have you wanted to get it on with your wife’s sister?) so that he can drive her back to the asylum and inherit the castle and funds. Aiding him once again is Solange, who is now young and beautiful thanks to the doctor’s twisted scientific experiments.

It doesn’t take long for Jenny to wonder if she’s going mad: bleeding plants (potted in the very ashes of her dead step-sibling and her lover), hallucinations and dreams of unfamiliar stablemen being murdered, disembodied heartbeats and maniacal laughter tend to not make one comfortable. Meanwhile, Stephen has called for Jenny’s former physician Dr. Joyce (Laurence Clift) so that he can attest to her dwindling mental health. But Jenny’s plight into madness is not brought upon by her own unbalanced mind this time — because Muriel and David are on their way back from the land of the dead for some sweet revenge, Italian style.

Director/co-writer Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle is a gem to behold. The movie relies on its heavy gothic atmosphere to tell a rather simplistic story that is very much inspired by Edgar Allan Poe (the first name of Caiano’s directing pseudonym, Allen Grünewald, is an homage to Poe). Despite some pretty bad English dubbing (which many of us feel only adds to the fun), it all works extremely well considering the film’s low budget (there are only six actors in the whole of the movie).

Over the years, Nightmare Castle has been released on VHS and DVD a near-infinite amount of times by every distributor under the sun under an assortment of different titles (the original title is Amanti D’Oltretomba, or Lovers From Beyond The Tomb, and the title has also been released as The Faceless Monster, The Night Of The Doomed, and even Orgasmo in some parts of the world). Every previously released copy has been either washed out, cropped, scratchy, and, worst of all, edited.

But all of that has changed now, and the folks at Severin Films have given us a restored, remastered and completely uncut (104 minutes) presentation of Nightmare Castle made directly from the original Italian negative, recently discovered in Rome. The transfer here is unbelievable and (regardless of a few very minor scratches and specks) is nothing short of perfect. The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Sound-wise, the mono stereo English dub has never sounded better, and all of the screaming comes through more than sufficiently.

Rounding up Nightmare Castle’s spectacular image and audio transfer are two wonderful interviews recorded just for this release. First off is “Barbara Steele In Conversation”(29:34), wherein the multi-talented actress sizes down her entire history in film in thirty minutes. Next, director Mario Caiano is interviewed in “Black, White, And Red” (14:07). The kindly-looking gentleman discusses the origins of the movie as well as reflecting on his own career. He’s also attacked by his very feisty orange kitty but just keeps on a-talking. The last two special features are a widescreen trailer for the U.K. release under the Night Of The Doomed title (3:19) and a fuzzy full framed U.S. release trailer (1:21), which was obviously culled from a substandard video source. Oddly enough, both trailers feature the same (American) narration.

On the backside of the DVD’s cover, there is a portion reading: “Throw away all those inferior transfers from censored TV prints…” I heartily concur. This is the best Nightmare Castle has ever looked and every fan of Barbara Steele, Mario Caiano, Ennio Morricone, and/or Italian gothic horror in general should have it in their collection.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
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