When he wasn’t being kept busy as leading man on any number of the low budget British productions that proliferated in the 1960s thanks to the might of Hammer and Amicus, Christopher Lee spent most of the rest of the decade exploiting the cult status his iconic turn in “(The Horror of) Dracula” had afforded him across Europe, by taking on a host of lead roles in sundry German Krimi flicks and Italian Gothics. 1964’s “Castle of the Living Dead” (Il castello dei morti vivi) appears to be just one more of the latter to add to a lengthy list, but this curious little oddity, slotting nicely between “The Pirates of Blood River” and “The Gorgon” in Lee’s filmography, has an even stranger history than most. It’s actually a U.S. production -- shot in Italy with a cast consisting mainly of Italian and American actors, with Lee at the head. The producer, Paul Maslansky, would go on to instigate the “Police Academy” franchise, and even though the IMDb seems to think otherwise, the credited director, Warren Kiefer, was not the pseudonym for some mysterious Italian auteur called Lorenzo Sabatini, but was actually also an American filmmaker and writer -- at least according to researcher and author Jonathan Rigby in his recent book “Studies in Terror”. Adding yet more tantalising intrigue to this mysterious tale, Michael Reeves, the cult British director who shot “The Witchfinder General” with Vincent Price, was also in charge of the film’s second unit work -- leading to yet more persistent rumours that he may have also shot large chunks of the main body of the movie un-credited (although that, again, appears unlikely). It does mean, though, that Reeves got to work with no less than three screen horror legends -- Price, Lee and Karloff, during the course of his short career! Distributed in the UK by the redoubtable Tigon films, who initially paired it with Vernon Sewell’s “The Blood Beast Terror” to little acclaim, the film ended up as one half of a Christopher Lee/Barbara Steele double-bill, paired with Steele’s “Terror Creatures from the Grave” -- but has rarely been seen since, until this welcome new release in the UK by Odeon Entertainment.
Despite U.S. and British credentials in evidence behind the scenes, the film plays very much in the same vein as a great many similar low budget Italian pictures of this genre; by which I mean, it’s fairly sedately paced, bothers little with trifles such as plot development or meaningful character motivation, and suffers all the indignities of an unflattering English language dub. Thankfully, Christopher Lee does at least get to dub his own voice on this occasion, lending it a certain amount of gravitas, and so does Donald Sutherland – at least in the first of the two roles he has in the film (more on which later). The plot centres on the adventures of a travelling troupe of wandering gypsy theatricals, plying their trade sometime after the end of the Napoleonic wars, who get invited to put on their macabre show for the personal pleasure of the sinister Count Draco (Christopher Lee) at his private castle, deep in the wilds of the highwayman-haunted French countryside. Even though the aristocratic Count and his even more dubious-looking valet, Sandro (Mirko Valentin,) give every impression of being thoroughly rotten eggs (Draco’s deathly pallor and sunken eyes and Sandro’s shaggy-haired, rotten-toothed grimace seem scarcely designed to beguile visitors!), the trusting actors prepare to stage their play for this unusual private audience, unaware that they’ve really been brought here to become the actors in a special tableau dedicated to Draco’s deranged scientific pastimes.
What it lacks in pace and believable translated dubbed dialogue, the film more than makes up for with its icy, sepulchral stylisations. Beautifully shot in shadowy monochrome by cinematographer Aldo Tonti (who’d previously worked with Fellini on “Nights of Cabiria”) and making maximum use of the brooding interiors of the Castello Odescalchi in Rome, we’re given more than a hint of Count Draco’s morbid predilections from the off, thanks to the forbidding menace suggested by his frigid surroundings, shrouded as they are in a constant pall of flickering darkness. Christopher Lee, caked in white make-up here, with heavy-cast black eyes, looks like a bored, cadaverous dandy somnambulist in immaculate velvet and regency frills; but as well as being an aristocratic aesthete from the same morbid cast as the anti-heroes who inhabit the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, he’s also a Hammer-esque mad scientist, busy perfecting a fast-acting preservative in his Frankenstein-like laboratory deep behind the castle’s ill-lit interior walls. Accordingly, not only castle Draco itself but even the surrounding countryside has been subjected to Draco’s unnatural ideas of perfection -- as the troupe discover when they come upon a petrified raven, artfully placed in a tree on the forested pathway into the castle.
Beyond the castle battlements, Draco’s personalised version of home décor is even more outlandish: the great hall not only sports uncountable numbers of trophy heads of all sorts of antlered game to fill its walls, but outlandish interior ornamental tree branches have been arranged to jut from every angle of the vast room, from which positions they’ll be best placed to cast the most pronounced of sinister shadows; each protrusion adorned by a frozen bevy of preserved ravens, eagles and numerous other exotic avian species. Draco has a monomania fetish for perfection so intense that life has come for him to be associated merely with change, age and decay, while death still retains the possibility of an eternal beauty, if the subject gets to be preserved forever via his latest embalming solution, which is distilled from the ‘aqueous secretions of a rare tropical plant’. Hence, there is the foetid taint of necrophilia forever lingering around this character; he belongs among a pantheon of misfit villains somewhere between Count Zaroff from “The Most Dangerous Game” and Norman Bates from “Psycho”. As if to drum home such associations, Draco’s menagerie of specimens, frozen at their most handsome in death, includes a roomful of his previous human victims (‘the most dangerous animal of all!’) arranged in a life-sized diorama that enacts his very own posed, theatrical tableau; and even his own wife can be found here, lying in mummified state upstairs in her cobwebbed four-poster, being nibbled by rats and crawled across by spiders while still-posed, gazing into a hand-mirror, at her own deathly beauty.
The languorous pacing gives us plenty more time to ponder on the perversity of Draco and his sinister, leering assistant (who seems to be in it purely for the sheer joy of killing random strangers) -- but they’re not the only oddities in a film that teems with macabre characters: the travelling troupe itself is made up of an interesting cross-selection of freaks, headed up as it is by the obligatory Columbine beauty, who becomes the main focus of Count Draco’s obsessions when he soon makes plain his intention of adding her to his collection. Laura (Gaia Germani) and army captain, Eric (Philippe Leroy), who, while returning home from the wars, falls in with the travelling players after their previous ‘Harlequin’ (the Italian Peter Lorre, Luciano Pigozzi) falls out with troupe leader Bruno (Jacques Stany) -- are the film’s romantic interest, and the only photogenic members of the clan, although Eric is not exactly the brightest of the bunch: refusing to countenance the idea that the charming Draco could possibly have any adverse motives through his being overly blinded by the Count’s scientific credentials.
Cast as the mischievous Pierrot of the troupe is sympathetic dwarf Gianni (Ennio Antonelli,) who gets plenty of action here, quickly sees events for what they are and attempts to outwit the murderous Sandro with the help of a hunchbacked hag who lives in the castle grounds among gigantic stone sculptures of monstrous dragons! The aforementioned character is indicative of the point at which the film really comes into its own as grotesque, comedy-horror pantomime, though always executed with a straight face: Donald Sutherland turns up in the early part of the movie as a bawdy French soldier but is also bizarrely cast as this malformed old crone, who foretells the fates of all whom she meets on the road using rhymed couplets (‘some will live and some will die, before tomorrow’s sun is high!’), proffering a touch of her humped back for good luck if travellers will be so good as to prove their goodness of heart by furnishing her with a morsel of bread.
Warren Kiefer manages to bring the ambience of a black fairy tale nightmare to the proceedings as Sutherland delivers a riveting performance in perhaps the most unusual role of his entire career, all the while looking like a bizarre creature from a Brothers Grimm story or a hubble-bubble witch from a Shakespearean tragedy, as heavily disguised in hag makeup, he huddles over a smoking cauldron or gazes at his reflection in a large ornamental mirror in the old crone’s candle-lit lair. Sutherland even gets to appear in a scene, at one point, playing both of his two characters, after his French soldier incarnation re-enters the fray. If nothing else “Castle of the Living Dead” reminds us that Sutherland’s association on film with strange-looking dwarfs goes back much farther than “Don’t Look Now”! He was also to name his son after the director of this movie.
The fact that the crone’s nursery rhyme predictions appear to seal all of these characters’ fates in stone from the very start just adds to the overall feel of frozen fatalistic ennui which shrouds the whole movie. Garden designer Pirro Ligorio’s striking, 16th century park statuary makes a perfect gargoyle-themed backdrop for the increasingly dreamlike atmosphere created by Tonti’s black and white cinematography, and during such scenes slanting camera angles accompany Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s peculiarly diverse score (which includes histrionic strings over the title credits, plucked electric guitar motifs and music cues in the genre of folky, sixties style beat balladry) to engender a tone that inhabits the sweet spot where the low budget, midnite movie surrealism of “Carnival of Souls” meets the elegant poise of Bava’s “Lisa and the Devil”. Sutherland and Lee would also come together again the following year in the Amicus film, “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” -- but “Castle” easily eclipses it and most other efforts from the period for sheer offbeat strangeness; it’s slightly awkwardly staged at times, and the screenplay is hardly a harbinger of great poetry for the ears, yet the memorable visuals and the cast of grotesques, and the shadowy nightmare atmosphere so redolent of a twisted dream, certainly brings more than enough to the table to make this a very worthwhile addition to the collections of Lee enthusiasts and euro-gothic horror buffs alike.
The new disc from Odeon Entertainment features a digitally remastered transfer taken from a print that isn’t exactly flawless or even the most detailed ever seen, but it is more than adequate for the job and features pleasing black levels throughout. The mono audio is good enough to understand, but there is background noise audible throughout most of it, and even a couple of instances where the audio drops out completely, lasting for about a second each. The only extra is a theatrical trailer but the cover art is pleasingly lurid and the finished discs apparently come with a booklet featuring notes by Michael Reeves' biographer Benjamin Halligan (although this was not available with my review screener). All in all, this is a fine release of a pleasingly odd and enjoyable little cult ‘60s item.
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