Directed by Mario Caiano (inexplicably credited as Allen Grünewald), Nightmare Castle is a middling Italian horror film from 1965. The movie is noteworthy for a couple reasons and may be worth checking out for horror buffs, but that might be pushing it. For one thing, Ennio Morricone provides the score. For another, English film actress and Italian Gothic stalwart Barbara Steele gets to play dual roles.
Nightmare Castle is a lesser Steele film, but Caiano’s work with cinematographer Enzo Barboni lends it a certain spectral charm. The castle isn’t overly terrifying, but there are some respectable scenes concerning the elaborate passageways and the unusual scientific workroom the antagonist has tucked away in the nether regions of the place.
Paul Muller stars as the sadistic Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith. He lives in a massive castle and experiments on animals, developing different sorts of potions and oddities. He is keeping his housemaid Solange (Helga Liné) alive, as she is suffering from some sort of abnormal blood disorder that requires transfusions.
The wrathful doc is wedded to Muriel (Steele) and discovers that she’s been having an affair. Locked in green frenzy, he kills her and her lover (Rik Battaglia). Regrettably for Dr. Arrowsmith, Muriel left her riches to her half-baked sister Jenny (Steele). The physician and his housemaid decide to drive the sister nuts in hopes of getting at the goods, but the ghosts have other plans.
The plot of Nightmare Castle is unnecessarily convoluted and strange, with Solange’s blood requirements turning up some superfluous snags. Jenny is required as part of an experimental treatment to help the housemaid turn back the clock, but she’s also possessed (maybe) by Muriel and being guided through the homicidal proceedings that led to her sister’s expiry.
There’s also another doctor, Dereck Joyce (Laurence Clift), who comes to check on Jenny at the request of Dr. Arrowsmith. The plan appears to be for Dr. Joyce to flag Jenny as insane so that she can be committed, but that plan seems to unravel with relative ease. The hitch in the plan is that Dr. Joyce sort of likes Jenny, so Dr. Arrowsmith sets his sights on his new rival.
Muller does a venerable job hamming it up as the resentful lover/mad scientist. He skulks around in various stages of jealous but seems to be looking for someone to take his experiments seriously, engaging Dr. Joyce with ingenuous delight over his experiments. With Muriel discarding his work with mirth and scorn, Dr. Arrowsmith’s path to madness is a lonesome road.
Steele is also worth checking out for her dual roles. She is suitably creepy as Muriel, the ghost, and suitably vulnerable as her sister Jenny. In the film’s opening scenes, Muriel’s overflowing passion comes with a price and Steele’s embodying of the sexual scenes make for tantalizing viewing. It’s particularly interesting when the ghost of Muriel begins to bubble over as she possesses Jenny.
Morricone’s score isn’t his strongest work, to say the least. The music seems frequently untimely, with slick and romantic piano chords veering over some of the film’s most frightening sequences. This diminishes the tension considerably and ultimately proves befuddling.
With inconsistent character motivations and a strange musical score, Nightmare Castle isn’t the strongest of the Italian Gothic horror genre. It probably isn’t Steele’s finest hour, either, but she provides a fair bit of visual distraction. The dense plot and subsequent squirming to get out of the many messes it creates makes for a somewhat diverting flick, but this is far from a must-see.