By the time "The Faceless Monster" appeared in 1965, the Golden age of the Italian Gothic Horror film was drawing to a close. Barbara Steele had become, of course, the queen of the genre from appearing in many of the great classics such as "Mask of Satan" and "The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock"; and although "The Faceless Monster" doesn't begin to compare with these, it does provide Steele fans with a great showcase, as the film seems built around bringing the different facets of her screen persona to the fore. It also provides us with a rare opportunity to hear her real voice on the English soundtrack. So this new uncut, budget priced disc from Retromedia is surely a must for Steele fetishists.
Cold hearted scientific experimenter Dr Steven Arrowsmith (Paul Müller) catches his beautiful raven-haired wife Muriel (Steele) dallying with the hunky gardener who keeps the grounds of their castle. This leads him to chain them up and torture them in the castle dungeon. Realising that he intends to kill them both, Muriel reveals that she has altered her will, and that the castle and all her wealth will go to her stepsister instead of Arrowsmith when she dies. This doesn't cut much ice with the doctor though; he electrocutes them both and then surgically removes their hearts, draining their blood to use in a "youth serum" he has invented, which he uses to make his aged housekeeper Solange (Helga Line) young and beautiful again! Arrowsmith then courts and marries the stepsister Jenny (played once again by Steele but now in a blond wig) and moves her in to the old Castle with himself and Solange. He intends to drive her mad by drugging her with a hallucinogenic so that he can get his hands on Muriel's inheritance; when Jenny starts having awful nightmares and strange visions the plan seems to be working ... until he discovers that the correct drug was never administered! When Jenny's psychiatrist arrives to take a look at her, he actually starts to become suspicious of Steven and Solange, causing Dr. Arrowsmith to decide to do away with both the psychiatrist and Jenny before they discover too much. But are there other, more supernatural forces — yet to make their full force known — also at play?
"The Faceless Monster" is an entertaining, if derivative, slice of Gothic hokum that depends almost entirely on genre stalwart Paul Müller's larger than life portrayal of the evil scientist, Dr. Arrowsmith, and "Queen Of Horror" Barbara Steele's good girl/bad girl double act. The film has plenty of shadowy atmospheric imagery set around the castle, and it benefits plentifully from the extra gravitas lent to the proceedings by Ennio Morricone's excellent organ based score; but director Mario Caiano is no Mario Bava, and his direction often falls a little flat and is a long way from the dark fairy tale feel of the genre's greatest works. This can be a problem since Gothic Horror depends almost entirely on atmosphere to engender the suspension of disbelief necessary to make the whole thing work. Too many times in "The Faceless Monster" we are reminded of the dodgy script and silly story when Caiano lets the atmosphere slip long enough for our attention to be drawn to these negative elements. Thankfully, everything is saved by the bloodcurdling last twenty minutes of the film when the supernatural elements take over and Barbara Steele gives an especially compelling performance as the mad and vengeful ghost of the mutilated Muriel in this last segment.
When Steele played both the evil Princess Asa and the innocent Princess katia in Mario Bava's "Black Sunday", she set a trend in Gothic Horror for representing good and evil as different sides of the same personality. Bava's genius was to have both Steele's good and evil incarnations look exactly the same and equally as a beautiful. "The Faceless Monster" once again sees Steele playing duel roles, but the film is far less subtle — with Jenny's sweetness and innocence sign-posted by having the actress sport a blond wig, while the mad and evil spirit of Muriel sees Steele give her usual dark and sultry performance. The film's concentration on torture and sadism is fairly explicit (although tame by today's standards) and this certainly helps Caiano pull the whole enterprise off -- but only by the skin of his teeth! No classic then, but definitely still worth a look.
The film was previously known as "Nightmare Castle" and ran for 80 minutes. Retromedia have given us the full uncut 100 minute version on this budget priced disc - and although it's no special edition, the quality of the print is quite decent. It's non-anamorphic and letterboxed at the correct 1:66.1 aspect ratio. The only extra is a rather pointless Barbara Steele gallery but at the price it's available for, the absence of bells and whistles is no great cause for complaint. This disc must be worth a punt if you have an extra dollars/pounds to spare.