The late Antonio Margheriti may not have made all that many films in the horror genre, but the precious handful he did bring to the screen have had such a major cult impact that the director will surely forever be associated with it. Margheriti came from a generation of Italian masters -- that included such hallowed names as Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda -- who immersed themselves totally in the craft of film making, familiarising themselves with as many aspects of it as possible before they even thought of directing their own movies! Margheriti first established himself as a talented special effects man, who's work was so well thought of during his time that he was asked to contribute to the groundbreaking effects for Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science-fiction classic "2001: A Space Odyssey". (A Project he turned down to enable him to continue to direct.) His movies ranged right across the board, with the director rarely settling on any one genre or topic for too long; but among horror fans, a trio of meticulously crafted Gothic horror chillers which Margheriti directed in close-succession during the early-sixties, have been the works primarily responsible for forging his reputation; works for which he will be remembered and championed for some time to come!
Two of these three films starred the legendary Barbara Steele, who was busy following up on the successful formula established for her in Mario Bava's classic "The Mask Of Satan" (1960) and Roger Corman's "The Pit And The Pendulum (1961). "Castle Of Blood" (1964) and "The Long Hair Of Death (1964) were suitably atmospheric, black & white, Gothic period pieces, which saw Margheriti successfully build on Steele's mysterious screen-persona while also bringing his own considered style to an already very well established prototype. But a year before "Castle Of Blood", Margheriti also directed a masterful Gothic thriller starring Christopher Lee, called "The Virgin Of Nuremberg" -- and a new region 1 DVD of the film by Shriek Show now reveals it to be a thoroughly unique entry in the Gothic sub-genre that should be seen by all fans of early European horror.
American newlywed Mary Hunter (Rossana Podesta) arrives in Germany with her German-born husband, Max (George Riviere) to stay at the family's ancestral castle, which now also harbours a museum dedicated to the medieval torture instruments of a 15th century ancestor known as "The Punisher". He was a self-appointed upholder of morals, who, during those times, tortured and murdered any wanton women he could get his hands on. On her first night in the castle, and with her husband away, Mary hears screams coming from the castle museum and, upon investigation, finds the horribly mutilated body of a woman inside a spiked torture device known as The Virgin of Nuremberg! Fainting with shock, Mary wakes to the calming face of her new husband, who reassures her that she must have imagined the whole thing! However, one of the servant girls who works in the castle has, in fact, disappeared and Max later disposes of a lock of blonde hair he finds in the museum, without telling anyone! Mary is shocked by the sudden appearance of Erich (Christopher Lee), the custodian of the museum who was horrifically scarred in the Second World War when he was valet to Max's deceased father (who had been a Nazi General). Also lurking among the castle walls is the icy mistress of the place, Marta (Anny Degli Uberti): who seems like she might know more about what is going on than she is willing to say. With suspicions brewing in her tortured mind about everyone (including her own husband) Mary continues to secretly search the castle, and soon finds herself the quarry of a hooded spectre -- dressed exactly like her husband's murderous ancestor! Has the ghost of The Punisher returned to wreak revenge? Or is there a more down-to-earth explanation for the diabolical events?
"The Virgin Of Nuremberg" (TVON) is a fabulously baroque example of Gothic horror; yet Margheriti goes against most of the established norms of the genre in both the plot motifs and visual aesthetics he employs with the film. For a start, it's filmed in colour rather than in the traditional, shadowy black and white tones usually associated with the Gothic horror film. Mario Bava, of course, has become associated with the individualistic use of colour in his Gothic films; he created a bold, unrealistic style in which an elaborate colour code is often used to rigorously represent the emotional or psychological state of the characters and to symbolise various recurring themes in the work. This use of colour also contributed to the otherworldliness of Bava's Gothic thrillers and became an essential component in their ornate stylishness.
Margheriti's use of colour in TVON is equally distinctive, though completely different from Bava's. The film looks like a moving 17th Century oil painting from the likes of Caravaggio or Rembrandt! The dreamlike colour schemes of Bava are swapped for a realistic but incredibly vivid and decorative look. The dark castle interiors are full of burnished browns lite by the flickering yellow of flames from a hearth-fire or from candles (or, in the climax of the film, an actual fire!), with the all consuming darkness punctuated by vivid shades of crimson in the form of drapes, carpets and The Punisher's uniform! Cinematographer Riccardo Pallottini and art designer Riccardo Domenici do a magnificent job of creating a beautiful, painterly aesthetic for the film that, in addition to distinguishing it's self from the style of other important Italian Gothic films, also looks nothing like the other films that were being produced abroad around this time by Hammer studios or by Roger Corman with his Poe adaptations.
All of Margheriti's trio of Gothic horror films from this period are often criticised for their lack of pace. They are, indeed, incredibly slow -- and TVON in particular contains a plot fragile enough to be easily condensed into about half an hour! Much of the rest of the film is spent watching actress Rossana Podesta in her night-gown, wafting through her shadowy Gothic surroundings. But there is a lot more to be taken from the film than is at first apparent if the viewer allows herself to be enveloped in the intense, painterly mis-en-scene of the movie. As Podesta continues to discover ever deeper, darker depths to the castle, we begin to feel we are being drawn ever more deeply into a mysterious past, and to excavate its hidden secrets. All this is achieved simply by allowing the eye to leisurely roam across the lush image-scape of the movie.
Most Gothic horror films are period pieces, but TVON is actually set in the present day (or the mid-sixties)! It's not immediately clear that this is the case, since the film's opening scene of Rossana Podesta investigating screams in the night in her night-gown, while a lightning storm periodically lights the gloom, looks like a scene from any typical period film; especially since the castle is full of medieval torture instruments! But the first hint that all is not as it seems comes when the theme music kicks in: a rousing piece of orchestral jazz. Not the kind of thing you usually associate with Gothic! The music is actually by Riz Ortolani -- a master of Italian film soundtracks who's most memorable work is, arguably, his lush score for "Cannibal Holocaust". Here, he creates a score deliberately at odds with the period feel of the mis-en-scene, reminding the viewer of the contemporary setting even when the characters themselves seem stranded in a Gothic time-warp because of the overwhelming impression created by their surroundings. Once the time frame has been firmly established though, Ortolani allows himself the occasional theremin flourish (an instrument that is nearly always used to suggest a supernatural presence in a lost age) and this ties in with the plot's ambiguity over whether the Punisher is really back from the grave, or if a modern-day maniac hiding behind his image, is really to blame.
Another possibility, almost subliminally suggested by Margheriti merging period and modern details within the film's many, intricately composed, tableaux -- is that Podesta's character, Mary Hunter, is possibly the murderer and is dissociating herself from the events by projecting them onto the myth of the Punisher. The hysterical female is a predominant theme in the Gothic horror film with Mario Bava's "The Whip And The Body" (released in the same year as TVON and also written by the same man, Ernesto Gastaldie) being a classic example. Margheriti plays with this notion in a subtle way. When we see Mary discovering dead bodies that no one else ever sees, or witnessing the masked Punisher torturing innocent victims deep within the Castle's hidden dungeons, she is always dressed in an appropriately flowing night-gown which makes her look perfectly natural in the antiquated surroundings of the castle interior; she could have come straight out of any period horror film. When we learn that events are actually taking place in the present day, it creates a slight suspicion in the mind of the viewer that they might be seeing Mary's fantastical representation of events rather than the untainted reality. Margheriti doesn't have to set-up any obvious red-herrings plot-wise in order to raise this possibility: it's already inherent in the composition of the images on screen. Only at the climax of the film is Mary seen in modern dress and by then a certain amount of ambiguity has been removed since she has learned the true identity of the killer, and the secret past of the Hunter family has been revealed.
Christopher Lee's distinctive presence is intelligently woven into Margheriti's rich tapestry. The director cleverly exploits Lee's screen persona -- derived from the actor's two most famous roles for Hammer -- as Lee's appearance combines the widows peak hairline of Dracula with the scarred features of his Frankenstein's monster. Naturally, his impassive, twisted features and imposing figure mark him out as chief suspect, and although his is really only a supporting role, he brings an extra sense of gravitas to the film which Margheriti takes full advantage of. His stiff, germanic manner gives him the air of a traditional Gothic villain, but an unexpected subplot involving Nazi experimenters in WW2 ends up revealing him as a rather sympathetic character.
Another very noticeable thing about the film is just how gory and sadistic it is for a film made in the early sixties! The Punisher's female victims are put through the mill with one woman having her eyes punctured inside the titular torture device, and another poor girl having some of her nose nibbled away by a hungry rat! Compared to the almost breezy style of the early Amicus films or even Hammer's films from this period, it is unusually nasty. Although it may not seem particularly horrific today, it must have been terribly gruesome for audiences at the time!
Shriek Show have pulled a gorgeous transfer out of the hat for this excellent film! Although the disc contains only a poster & image gallery and some trailers as extras -- the star of the show is undoubtedly the wonderful image quality of the film: with no blemishes on the print, and the film's ultra-vivid colours reproduced to perfection. This is a beautiful presentation of an essential purchase for lovers of atmospheric Gothic horrors.