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Nightmare Castle (1966)

by on 2010/10/31

Beautiful, feckless lady of the manor and the virile gardener – very Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But instead of the wheelchair-bound cuckold, substitute a vengeful, torture-happy scientist as the husband and you’ve got the general idea of how Nightmare Castle begins.

The rest is pure gothic horror, full of flickering candles, pale beautiful women in long gowns, dark murder plots and vengeful ghosts in black and white. Horror great Barbara Steele plays two fascinating roles in this 60s Italian film directed by Mario Caiano. Steele is both Muriel Arrowsmith and Jenny Arrowsmith, sisters and the unfortunate wives of the sadistic Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller).

Dr. Arrowsmith tortures and kills both his wife Muriel and her weed-pulling lover, then sets his sights on Muriel’s troubled stepsister Jenny, the sole heir of Muriel’s fortune. Like any good melodramatic villain, Dr. Arrowsmith plans to drive the fragile Jenny into complete madness, giving him full control of the fortune.

Solange (Helga Liné), the grizzled housekeeper, assists the mad doctor in exchange for injections of the murdered Muriel’s blood, an elixir that restores this scabby domestic’s youth.

Dr. Arrowsmith weaves a deadly web around Jenny, first marrying her and then hiring on Dr. Dereck Joyce (Lawrence Clift), as an in-house psychiatric resource for his rattled wife. While Dr. Arrowsmith hopes that Dr. Joyce will declare Jenny insane giving him unfettered access to her cash, the inquisitive Dr. Joyce instead begins to uncover some disquieting facts about both his fellow doctor and Solange.

Jenny isn’t so much insane as psychically sensitive, becoming a conduit to the screaming ghost of Muriel. As these possessions escalate, both Dr. Joyce and Jenny work to piece together the events of the night Muriel died. It culminates with an all-screaming, all-dancing gothic climax, completes with the undead, blood transfusions and kerosene-fuelled hellfire.

After a long, painful day of work, I struggled through an incredibly damaged print of the film, complete with poppy audio, bad dubbing, occasional moments of cringe-worthy dialogue, hitchy transitions. Yet Nightmare Castle still managed to encircle its scabby, acid-burned fingers around me for 90 minutes.

The hold it had on me is due in large part to the lovely Barbara Steele’s performance as the mentally unhinged Jenny, the creepy-beautiful (Solange) Helga Liné and the reptilian charm of Paul Muller as Dr. Arrowsmith. I read that the director Mario Caiano wanted to colour the bloody moments of this black and white classic in red but abandoned the idea due to budget,  making this a great candidate film for both restoration and colourization.

It would be worth it.

* * *

Full movie (public domain) available here:

90 minutes


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