Nightmare Castle / Amanti d’oltretomba (1965)

This is a movie too good to be overlooked. Well, by good I mean terrible, and I love it. The following is an actual conversation that happened while watching this movie:

          Chris: What’s happening?

          Me: They’re acting… in slow motion.

          Chris: What? Do they not know that slow motion is done with cameras?

          Me: Of course they know that. They wanted the style, it’s just too expensive.

Okay, so the effects, sets, and costumes are less than convincing at best…

NightmareCastle2To be fair, this painting will haunt your nightmares.

But really, this film has so much potential.

nightmarecastle1No, seriously.

It hits on all those juicy Gothic elements that make Horror movies glamorous and intriguing.

The lovely Barbara Steele plays a dual role as Muriel and her sister, Jenny. Muriel is wed to a classic Victorian mad scientist, Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith as played by Paul Muller. Rich and bored, she has an affair with the gardener, and her husband tortures her and her lover to death in his experiments to make himself and his lover, the housekeeper, Solange, immortal. He keeps the lovers’ hearts in a flowerpot as a gruesome souvenir, and those hearts continue to beat at night (Telltale Heart, anyone?). Unfortunately, Muriel had already willed her castle and all her property to her “hysterical” sister, Jenny. This means that our horror doctor needs to marry Jenny to keep his classic Gothic castle, but he is conflicted as to whether to hang on to his “mentally fragile” wife, or just use her up in his experiments too. Meanwhile, dead or no, Muriel and her lover will not leave the Doctor, or Jenny, alone.

All in all, this is a Giallo delight, but not for casual viewers. Unless you really like bad horror movies, you may not be able to suspend disbelief enough to wallow in the low-budget effects and the classic blonde wig/black wig trick (what, they’re sisters, come on). Nevertheless, this movie speaks to me, somehow. By playing off the classic creepiness of Doppelgangers, haunted castles and hearts that beat out a warning to the living, this film has just enough style and substance to hang together… tenuously. It’s that tension, between decent film and total turkey, that makes it so charming – like a really good velvet Elvis painting.

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie demonstrates all the style and narrative power of black and white films. The camera plays with contrasts and framing brilliantly. Overlays allow ghostly images to arise out of the darkness and interact. I know that it is terribly cliché, but this film is hauntingly beautiful. In the photo above, we see the quatrefoil pattern on the dress repeated as an architectural motif, through which the camera enters the scene – and this is just one example of many.

Starring the lovely Madge Bellamy, John Harron, and the King of horror, Bela Lugosi, it tells the story of a young couple waylaid in Haiti. Madeline and Neil stop by to visit a wealthy friend, Monsieur Beaumont, but he has designs on Madeline. Beaumont hires a Voodoo master, Murder Legendre, to steal Madeline away. Legendre creates zombies to work in the sugar mills; hulking black men that terrify Beaumont.This film uses zombies for their symbolic weight long before Romero’s seminal films.

Just after the wedding, poor Madeline dies mysteriously, devastating Neil, only to arise from the grave. Beaumont is dissatisfied with her passive, doll-like aspect. A particularly poignant scene shows Madeline, blank-faced playing the piano while Beaumont finally realizes the real horror of his zombie plaything. Nevertheless, Legendre will not revive her and Neil must fight through many challenges to return to his bride to life.

This movie is still supremely watchable for a modern audience. The visual styling is very sophisticated and really draws you in. The sets are involved, rich with textures and symbolism, creating real depth and grandeur. The soundtrack, with lots of drumming drives the film forward. This is not a simple, light horror film. While the protagonists live up to the usual damsel and knight in shining armor, the film does not shy away from social commentary. Without going into detail, Legendre’s end is completely apt. It is not a scary film, but a lovely one.