Wednesday, August 09, 2006

BLOOD CASTLE: Gold from the Silver Age

Erna Schürer in the obligatory candelabra scene of BLOOD CASTLE.

Last night I happened to pull down from the attic Wizard Video's BLOOD CASTLE, their surprisingly full-length 1986 release of the Spanish-Italian co-production originally released here in America as SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER. The film's original running time of 98 minutes (97m 23s, to be exact) was cut down to a reported 75 minutes by its US distributor, New World Pictures, to facilitate its double-billing with Stephanie Rothman's THE VELVET VAMPIRE in 1971. Given this history, the film's uncut arrival on video was a surprise -- not least of all because it had been retitled, making it impossible to guess what picture it might really be (some buyers/renters were doubtless hoping it was the uncut version of Jorge Grau's LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE), and also because the box listed an incorrect running time of only 87 minutes.

Known in Italy as IL CASTELLO DALLE PORTE DI FUOCO ("The Castle with the Door of Fire"), this José Luís Merino film was released in Spain as IVANNA, the name of its heroine, played by the attractive Erna Schürer. In this 19th century tale, Schürer plays Ivanna Rakowsky, a medical school graduate who is contracted to assist the experiments of Baron Janos Dalmar at his castle in the Balkans. When she arrives, she learns that the Baron is hated by the villagers, who hold him responsible for the sex-murders of various local virgins, though they have no proof. The Baron (Carlos Quiney, flanked by menacing hounds that give him a Zaroffian aspect and pay a nod to BLACK SUNDAY) takes one look at Ivanna and orders his housekeeper Christiana (Christiana Galloni) to dismiss her with three months' pay -- women are too curious by nature, and he doesn't want her snooping into his personal secrets. But Ivanna holds the Baron to his contract and soon impresses him with her intellect, her disregard of local gossip, and the way she warms to his monstrous dogs. Ivanna learns that the Baron is preserving the body of his late brother, Igor, who was burned to death in a terrible fire, and looking for a means by which to return him to life. She begins to suffer vivid nightmares of being stretched nude on a rack in a torture chamber by the Baron, which he explains as a side-effect of the fumes in the laboratory... but it turns out there is another explanation. At first, Ivanna suspects that the Baron may be a lycanthrope, a man who assumes bestial form in the light of the full moon to give violent vent to his desires, but the truth has more to do with the wing of the castle no one is permitted to visit. There, in a dungeon chamber presumed to be inescapable, the Baron's disfigured brother still lives -- escaping at the height of each maddening full moon to ravage the women denied him by his disfigurement. Noticeable among the cast members is Antonio Jiménez Escribano, "Dr. Zimmer" in Jess Franco's THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (1965), as the Baron's butler.

Baron Dalmar (Carlos Quiney, left) confronts his disfigured brother.

The so-called "Golden Age of Italian fantasy" is generally bookended with the years 1957-66, beginning with I VAMPIRI and ending with the never-exported and rarely-seen LA VENDETTA DI LADY MORGAN. BLOOD CASTLE is clearly a film of mixed parentage; though it looks more Spanish than Italian, it was filmed in Italy and tells a period story so closely related to the Gothic romances upon which this "Golden Age" was founded that one may be tempted to extend its date of closure to 1970. Though it technically dates from the beginning of Italian horror's "Silver Age," which probably commenced with Mario Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON in 1969, BLOOD CASTLE -- with its period setting, hidden subhuman family members, obligatory candelabra scene, and discoveries behind red pleated curtains -- is a throwback to the earlier era, despite instances of female nudity provided by Schürer and co-star Agostina Belli. Its only serious shortcoming is the lack of a full-blooded score; it's the last score the IMDb lists for Luigi Malatesta, and it's extremely spare -- basically violin, keyboard, and percussion.

The film has never been regarded as particularly worthy of note, but it was a great favorite of my late friend Alan Upchurch, and it was his large box Wizard pre-record that I watched last night. It's been years since I've seen the shorter version, but despite its near 100-minute length, I enjoyed BLOOD CASTLE and never felt it was overstaying its welcome. I had completely forgotten the werewolf angle of the story; however misleading it may ultimately be, it's nevertheless pronounced enough that it should be included in werewolf movie references. The story may be a bit hackneyed -- and we never do find out what the Baron was really keeping submerged in those black, bubbling chemicals of his laboratory vat! -- but the characters and their relationships are reasonably convincing, and it's refreshing to find a heroine with such pluck and unconventionality in this otherwise old-fashioned scenario. (Surprisingly, when Ivanna suspects the Baron of drugging her to stage those S&M "nightmares," she seems willing to indulge his kink, if that's what it will take to win him.) The dialogue between Schürer and Quiney is frequently jousting and well-played in the English dub, which features Richard Johnson in a few roles (including the brothers Dalmar) and a couple of other British voices that sounded very familiar, but which I couldn't finally identify.

A Wizard Video promo at the end of the tape dates the release as March 1986 (when the company also released Franco's THE SCREAMING DEAD, THE POSSESSOR, and the made-for-video BREEDERS). Wizard's presentation is cropped, evidently from a 1.85:1 original framing; nevertheless, I was able to zoombox the picture on my widescreen set without hurting the compositions much, or at all. Only one brief "split-diopter"-type shot of Christiana eavesdropping on the Baron and Ivanna evidenced any extreme use of the frame. There is some speckling here and there, but the color is pretty good and so is the audio quality.

As these things usually transpire, I came online today and found out that Retromedia had issued BLOOD CASTLE on DVD in a letterboxed presentation, back in 2003. This release somehow completely got past my radar and is now officially out-of-print, but I was able to order a sealed copy from an Amazon Marketplace dealer. So, if you have any interest in this title, you'd better move on it now. The reviews at aren't particularly kind to the look of the disc, but I'm curious to see how the letterboxing enhances the experience -- and who knows if this film will ever see a better DVD treatment? (Of course, with Paul Naschy's VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES and NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF coming on HD DVD from Brentwood next month, anything's possible!)

The SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER variant, released around the same time as the Wizard release on the Charter Entertainment label, seems to be available on disc too, for those of you with a mind to locate and itemize the cuts New World inflicted. At least one such release double-bills the film with the aforementioned HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON.

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