This is the story of a [[commedia dell’arte]] group trying to make a buck just after the Napoleonic wars. Their grand finale — where a harlequin tricks an executioner into hanging himself — has caught the reclusive Count Drago’s attention. Drago offers three gold pieces for a private performance. The pay is handsome, but is it because nobility does not grasp how much money that is? Or is it bait designed to draw Bruno’s elegant actress Laura into the Count’s creepy clutches? On their travel to the castle, the troupe, notices the forest is silent and the birds in the trees don’t move. Then, a bent old woman attacks the party with rhyming couplets of Shakespearean prophecy.
Watched with only one eye and half a brain, Castle of the Living Dead is a mostly forgettable historical melodrama along the same lines as House of Wax. Shot on a budget, and under shady circumstances, it hits the same beats as most other films of the sixties. At points, it resembles nothing so much as a Scooby-Do episode. It’s not camp, but it sidles up darn close.
The movie rewards a smidge more attention, however. The commedia dell’arte routine is realistic, and there’s even a real slap stick, the device which gave its name to physical comedy. A wrinkle I found most interesting was that Neep the dwarf (Antonio De Martino) is the movie’s action hero and moral center. He looks out for his friends, he leads Laura to safety, and he even has an impressive fight seen with Drago’s henchman. Short actors are usually played for comic relief, but that’s not so here. And of the two more typical leading men, one meets an awful end, and the other spends the entire final act unconscious.
Italian cuts of Castle list the director as “Herbert Wise,” the alias for Luciano Ricci. Italians often assumed English names for the American market, assuming their real names did them no favors. But here Ricci was a figurehead. Warren Kiefer of New Jersey performed the actual duties. Kiefer’s involvement was under-the-table so they could collect film subsidies. Sometimes, to help the charade along, he used the pseudonym “Lorenzo Sabbatini.” The result is a lot of confusion about who is responsible for what, with even some film historians getting confused about which is the real name and which the nom de guerre.
For this project, Kiefer partnered with [[Paul Maslansky]], another young American expat from New York. Maslansky hit superstar producer status with his seven successful Police Academy comedies. Maslansky then recruited french actor Philippe Leroy to play Eric, the romantic lead opposite Gaia Germani’s Laura. The Italian Peter Lorre, Luciano Pigozzi, is around early in the film to serve as a punching bag for Eric. He was fresh off of two Mario Bava films, The Whip and the Body and Blood and Black Lace.
Representing the Western hemisphere in his first credited film role is Donald Sutherland. Castle of the Living Dead was also his second; he pulls double-duty as both the mysterious old witch and the pompous police sergeant. He performs both roles as if he were in a Carry On movie instead of an Italian gothic horror film. Since these characters are both commedia dell’arte types, it reinforces the sense that the players have fallen into one of their own plays. Paul Maslansky paid Donald Sutherland around forty dollars a week and provided a couch to sleep on.
Headliner Christopher Lee earned $10,000 for ten days of work. Lee made dozens of obscure little movies. Even at the height of his Hammer popularity, he was happy to travel to Europe for any project. This netted him a cheap vacation but entangled him in atrocious films. Castle of the Living Dead is not the worst of them. No doubt Keifer named Lee’s role “Drago” to remind audiences of his several turns as Hammer’s Count Dracula. Drago’s passion is stuffing animals. He has discovered a new method that allows him to preserve every bit of tissue perfectly. Of course, this means he’s decided humans are the ideal subject.
That scientific (artistic?) breakthrough is splendid news for the budget — the actors only have to stand stock still, no props required — but it’s more of a brag than it sounds. Watching this film sent me on a sidetrack about the rare and disquieting practice of human taxidermy. The best known example is El Negro, a Tswana warrior. A French dealer sole his body from his grave, preserved it, and then exhibited the corpse in the early 19th century. It remained in museums until 1997, when the Spanish government relented and returned him home.
Still on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is the impressive and also cringe-worthy [Lion Attacking a Dromedary] by Édouard Verreaux. Museums scoffed at the idea that it contained any actual human remains. That is until 2017 when restoration artists discovered an actual skull in the Camel-driver’s head. I realize Verreaux’s diorama barely qualifies as taxidermy, but it came up so often in my cursory research I felt it was worth a mention.
Anyway, that shows how thin the real-life examples of stuffed cadavers are. Turns out there’s no any scientific value. For human specimens, both living and dead, are easy to source. From an aesthetic point of view, the attempts have never been successful enough to overcome the inherent creepiness of the practice.
One reason for setting the film in Italy was, of course, the subsidies. Another was the availability of extraordinary locations. The Castle in question is Orsini-Odescalchi, a fifteenth-century fortress once assaulted by the armies of Pope Alexander the VI. The Gardens of Bormazo, built roughly a hundred years later, sits in the valley below. Drago’s sinister servant Sandro and Neep have a very entertaining chase amongst its grotesque statuary.
Taken on its own terms as a low-budget, quickly shot lark managed by a couple of young filmmakers, Castle of the Living Dead is a solid achievement. Many producers and directors have done far worse with more resources. The story doesn’t bear close literal scrutiny, but is entertaining enough. Kiefer is clever, but too subtle, to have the main storyline reflect the acting troupe’s own routine. If you love atmospheric gothic movies from the sixties and seventies the way I do, this movie a great and beautifully restored surprise. It’s the best of Severin Films’s Eurocrypt of Christopher Lee set. Casual fans might feel it a real snoozer, though.