B&W, 1964, 89 mins.
Directed by Antonio Margheriti
Starring Barabra Steele, Georges Rivière, Henry Kruger
Synapse (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

 

Made at the peak of the Italian gothic horror boom, Castle of Blood remains the most highly regarded film by the erratic but often fascinating director Antonio Margheriti, usually credited as "Anthony M. Dawson." Passed off as an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, presumably to cash in on the Roger Corman/Vincent Price hits from AIP, Margheriti's film (titled Danse Macabre in Europe) packs in all of the elements one might expect from the period: ghostly apparitions, a dunderheaded hero, a few tasteful dashes of bloodshed, cobweb-laden castle corridors, and a little sexual titillation for the continental crowd. The result is a classic of the genre that bears admirable comparison to the similar works of Mario Bava.

While staying at an inn, traveling bachelor Alan Foster (Georges Rivière) listens to bloodcurdling tales of horror told in a tavern by Poe himself. The men there begin to discuss the nearby Blackwood Castle, which is reputed to be haunted by ghosts on this very night, All Soul's Eve. Alan accepts a wager that he'll be willing to spend the entire remainder of the evening inside the castle, after which the men will come to collect him in the morning. Once inside Alan explores the desolate halls and encounters a variety of peculiar characters, including the beautiful and mysterious Elisabeth (Barbara Steele), who seems to be murdered by a psychopathic muscleman. Further apparent murders pile up as a mysterious blonde also drifts through the castle, and meanwhile Elisabeth reappears and kindles a romance with Alan - though she refuses to leave the castle grounds. Will Alan unravel the castle's deadly mysteries and survive until dawn?

A film comprised of 90% atmosphere and 10% plot, Castle of Blood utilizes its moody black and white photography to the hilt as the camera morbidly caresses each dusty corner of the haunted castle and fixates on the always fascinating Steele, whose ability to simultaneously convey romantic attraction and sinister lust pays off during the memorable finale (and the startling twist ending, which can still draw gasps from theatrical audiences). Fresh off the success of Mondo Cane, composer Riz Ortolani pulls out all the stops with a rapturous score based upon a particularly haunting love theme. Amazingly, one of the film's writers was spaghetti western maestro Sergio Corbucci (Django), a reputable genre stalwart in his own right. Oddly enough, Margheriti remade this film a mere six years later (in color, alas) as the inferior Web of the Spider, featuring Tony Franciosa and Klaus Kinski, with Ortolani returning for musical chores. Margheriti and Steele also returned the same year as Castle of Blood with the equally effective companion piece, The Long Hair of Death, though this remains their most famous collaboration.

A familiar staple of public domain horror dealers, Castle of Blood has usually been seen via dupey, splicey 16mm transfers which obscure much of the sensitive camerawork. To make matters worse, the notoriously scissor-happy U.S. distributors, Woolner Brothers, made the film more family-friendly by trimming out most of a homoerotic murder scene between two women and a brief topless scene. Also scissored was a great deal of Poe's dialogue (including the bulk of his opening story) and a few other random lines here and there. Synapse's DVD originates from the longest possible variant, the French Danse Macabre print, with the English soundtrack married to the image wherever possible. The effect is fairly similar to Anchor Bay's bilingual Deep Red disc, though the shifts in dialogue occur here less frequently. The French passages are accompanied by optional English subtitles, or the entire French soundtrack can be accessed (with no subtitles except for the restored footage). The mono soundtrack is extremely good for a film of this vintage, certainly preferable to the scratchy, muddy audio most horror fans have grown to, well, tolerate. The anamorphic transfer from 35mm looks quite good overall, with nicely rendered black levels and detail. Some blooming in overly white areas (usually when an actor passes under a light source) is sometimes evident, but this appears to be a flaw in the original elements. The print contains the original French opening titles, which contain a completely alternate set of names for most of the crew! Obviously the chance to finally see the full, uncut version of Castle in English is the big draw here, and Synapse has pulled it off with great panache. Extras accessible from the elegantly designed menus include the alternate U.S. opening credit sequence (over a silhouette of the London cityscape), a gallery of rare photos and stills from the collection of the late Alan Upchurch, and the highly emphatic American trailer ("A night of horror!"), with Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas providing liner notes for the illustrated booklet. An HD transfer of the shorter American cut can also be found on Severin's Blu-ray of Nightmare Castle.


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