Thursday, October 31, 2013

Horror Castle (Atlantica Cinematografica Produzione Films, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve spent much of the morning watching a truly odd movie on TCM, Horror Castle, an oddball Italian production from 1963 directed by “Anthony Dawson” (true name: Antonio Margheriti) and co-written by him, Ernesto Gastaldi and Edmond T. Gréville from a novel by Frank Bogart (presumably no relation). It’s an odd movie not in the sense that it’s any good, but that it’s so reliant on horror clichés that it achieves a level of near-plotlessness. It opens in a decaying Gothic castle somewhere in Germany, where Mary Hunter (Rosanna Podesta, eight years after she played the title role in Robert Aldrich’s Helen of Troy) awakes in a giant bed to find her husband Max (Georges Rivière) isn’t in bed with her — and she hears screams that sound like someone being tortured in their basement. Then we get the credits — including a series of restoration credits actually superimposed over the original images (though one thing they didn’t restore is the correct spelling of actor Christopher Lee’s first name — they left out the first “h” in 1963 and it hasn’t been corrected since) — and a dull piece of exposition in which a local doctor (Luigi Severini) and FBI agent John Selby (Jim Dolen), who’s on the trail of Nazi war criminals, explain that two hundred years earlier the castle was the domain of “The Punisher,” a red-cloaked executioner who would identify women who had transgressed against the sexual mores of the time and bring them to the castle’s basement, where he would torture them to death. Just about the whole movie consists of Mary wandering around the castle while various other characters menace her — including the castle’s butler, Erich (Christopher Lee, oddly made up to look like Montgomery Clift right after his accident), and Frau Marta (Anny Degli Uberti), who looks like she went to the Judith Anderson School of Housekeeping and Charm. There are also various other servant girls around the place, who end up as a revivified Punisher’s latest victims after being introduced by director Dawson in a Cuisinart editing style that leaves one wondering a lot of times during this film, “Who the hell is she?” The castle set itself looks like it was thrown together from bric-a-brac in the Hammer prop room — including two items that look like Egyptian sarcophagi and seem to have been designed (or trapped into service) just because the Mummy franchise was a lucrative source of horror plotting. One of them is the infamous “Virgin of Nuremberg” (that was actually the film’s original Italian title), a sort of ladies’ version of the Iron Maiden to which the Punisher assigned his most sexually transgressive victims.

It’s a pretty silly movie — one wonders if the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew ever took a shot at it; they would have had a field day! — and through most of the movie we’re carefully led to expect a sort of fusion of Rebecca and Gaslight in which Max would turn out to be the revivified Punisher, until Max himself is caught in (stop me if you’ve heard this before) a room connected to a nearby creek so when a valve is turned, it slowly floods with water and drowns the poor, unfortunate soul who’s been locked into it. Instead of Max or any of the other males we’ve actually met during the course of the film, the Punisher turns out to be [surprise!] a skeleton-faced man who looks something like Peter Lorre in Mad Love and is supposed to be Max’s father, captured by the Nazis after he was involved in the 1944 assassination plot against Hitler and, instead of being executed like all the other participants were, subjected to various surgical experiments until he was turned into an ugly, mindless killer. To deliver this exposition, the film stops dead in its tracks for a montage of actual footage of Hitler and the other Nazis (he has enough screen time that lists “Adolf Hitler [archive footage] [uncredited]” in the film’s cast!) followed by some stock footage of surgery in progress that looks like outtakes from They Saved Hitler’s Brain before we get back to the nitty-gritty and see Max (who freed himself from the drowning room when he remembered where the alternate exit was and started punching it out underwater) and Mary get away from the castle just in time while the Punisher immolates himself in the flame that usually burned down the wretched old building at the end of these things. (Roger Corman said he deliberately ended his 1963 film The Terror with the old castle flooding just to get away from the fire with which virtually all his previous period-Gothic films had ended.)

Beset by the usually awful dubbing (bear in mind that some of the actors were Italian, some British and some French, and so dubbing was built into the process; it was pretty routine for Italian directors then — even major ones like Fellini — to post-record virtually all their films’ dialogue because their casts didn’t all speak the same language — though there’s still no earthly excuse for the company in charge of the English-language version to have someone else dub Christopher Lee’s lines instead of Lee doing it himself!) and a virtually nonexistent plot, Horror Castle is one of the dumbest films ever made in a genre that practically invites dumbness, though there are a few shock cuts that probably gave the 1963 theatrical audience at least a few moderate frissons — and it’s also weighed down by a score by Riz Ortolani (whose only well-known credits are for Mondo Cane and its theme song, “More”) which at the beginning of that Gothic prologue goes into a wildly inappropriate big-band ballad that gets reprised every time something normal happens. During the horror scenes (or would-be horror scenes) Ortolani throws everything including the kitchen sink into his score, sometimes sounding like the organ on the old TV version of Lights Out and sometimes ripping off Wagner (a five-note motif from Siegfried’s Funeral March that only reminds one of the use made of that magnificent score in a far better film, 1933’s The Ghoul), bits that sit uneasily next to the jazz. It’s a quirky movie but the reaction it’s most likely to engender in a modern audience is, “Why the hell am I wasting my time watching this?”