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Mary, the wife of German aristocrat Max Hunter, is visiting her husband's ancestral castle for the first time and is completely unsettled by the mansion's violent past; 300 years earlier it was the home of "The Punisher", a sadistic fiend who tortured and killed women deemed guilty of adultery. One room of the mansion even serves as a shrine to the past with its museum-like displays of the family implements of torture. The castle's domestic staff is no less intimidating with Erich, a disfigured servant, and Marta, a grim-faced housekeeper with a flair for morbid stories, in constant attendance. Left alone by her husband while he conducts business away from home, Mary tries to suppress her mounting terror as reports of a missing servant girl lead to rumors of "The Punisher" and his return from the grave.
The opening sequence of Horror Castle (aka The Virgin of Nuremberg, 1963) could be a primer for Gothic horror films with every cliche of the genre on display. A dark, stormy night. A creepy castle. A frightened woman in a nightgown exploring the darkened corridors by candlelight. Where it departs from the predictable formula is in the dramatic payoff - the gruesome discovery of a mutilated woman locked inside an iron maiden, "The Virgin of Nuremberg" (the original Italian title of the film, La Vergine di Norimberga).
On the surface, Horror Castle is an old-fashioned throwback to the days of Rebecca (1940) and The Woman in White (1948) but what sets it apart from those films is a penchant for occasional bursts of violence and sadist horror. One sequence still retains its power to shock today; a woman captured by "The Punisher" has a cage placed over her head containing a starved rat - and it ravenously attacks her face. Equally repulsive and hard to forget is the unmasking of "The Punisher" which in its own way is just as disturbing as the moment when Lon Chaney's skeletal features are revealed in the original 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera. Is this a case of great special effects makeup or inspired central casting with an unfortunately disfigured actor fitting the part?
[SPOILER ALERT] The subplot of Horror Castle is much more unconventional than the main damsel-in-distress scenario and focuses on the relationship between the disfigured Erich (Christopher Lee) and "The Punisher," who haunts the mansion's corridors and turns out to be Max's father. During World War II, Erich had served under Herr Hunter but when his commander was accused of plotting to assassinate Hitler, his superior officers subjected him to a cruel surgical procedure that transformed him into "a living skull." Since that time, Herr Hunter has been living in seclusion in the depths of the castle but the arrival of his son and daughter-in-law serves as a trigger for his unstable mind. The acts of violence perpetuated against women by "The Punisher" is contrasted against a more sympathetic treatment of him as a victim of the Nazis. As a result the film straddles a fine line between misogyny and a metaphorical representation of the horrors of war.
There is no ambiguity, however, about the heroine of the film. In the role of Mary, the gorgeous Rossana Podesta is no shrinking violet and, while she is stalked and terrorized repeatedly throughout Horror Castle, she's not afraid to fight back. In one of the more surprising scenes, she impales the hand of her tormentor as he tries to break into her bedroom.
In an interview with Peter Blumenstock for Video Watchdog, director Antonio Margheriti (often credited as Anthony Dawson in English language releases of his films) recalled the making of Horror Castle: "The difficult thing was to start like a classic horror story, and then to move on to the present with a more contemporary approach. The art director did a very good job...because he prepared the castle in a very authentic way. It looks very beautiful and believable. But that was also a very rushed film - three weeks, including special effects photography. We did them at night. When the rest of the crew went home, I picked some poor guys who were not exactly looking forward to a sleepless night, and we filmed those miniatures of the corridor catching fire." As for the cast members, Margheriti stated that "Rossano Podesta was also a very good actress, but she was also the wife of the producer - Marco Vicario - so maybe he didn't pay her! It was a nice experience to work with Christopher Lee...He was a very nice gentleman, very professional, and I was surprised to learn that he is of Italian descent. That made our work much easier, because my English is really dreadful and I'm happiest when I understand what people are saying to me."
Horror Castle has been released in various edited forms over the years under different titles such as Terror Castle, Back to the Killer, The Virgin of Nuremberg, and The Castle of Terror. Because of this it is difficult to locate a definitive version of the film and TCM's presentation of Horror Castle is less than stellar. The English-dubbed dialogue is often inane and in the case of "The Punisher" completely ludicrous. When he ambushes an unsuspecting woman who promptly faints, he says in a high-pitched, cartoon-like voice "Never fear. You thought I wanted to abuse you. On the contrary, death is the fate I have in store for you" and then laughs maniacally. If you can get past this laughable aspect, you'll be treated to one of the more stylish entries from the Golden Age of the Italian horror film. The Riz Ortolani music score is also irresistible even if it often sounds like the score to a James Bond-like espionage thriller with its jazzy, cocktail lounge vibe.
Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog, offers some additional trivia on the film which "was shot in the same Italian villa as Castle of Blood  and Mario Bava's What [La frusta e il corpo, 1963]. The film's native language appears to be Italian, though Jim Dolen spoke English in his supporting role as the FBI agent Selby; Christopher Lee, cast a scar-faced red herring who does a lot of "Mein Herr"-ing, did not dub his own dialogue. The hero's name, Max Hunter, was later adopted as a pseudonym by director Massimo Pupillo for Bloody Pit of Horror aka A Tale of Torture [Il boia scarlatto, 1965], which also told the story of castle visitors encountering a legendary sadist!"
Producer: Marco Vicario
Director: Antonio Margheriti
Screenplay: Frank Bogart (novel), Ernesto Gastaldi, Edmond T. Greville, Antonio Margheriti
Cinematography: Riccardo Pallottini
Film Editing: Otello Colangeli
Art Direction: Henry Daring, Riccardo Domenici
Music: Riz Ortolani
Cast: Rossana Podesta (Mary Hunter), Georges Riviere (Max Hunter), Christopher Lee (Erich), Jim Dolen (Selby), Anny Degli Uberti (Marta), Luigi Severini (Doctor).
by Jeff Stafford