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At a remote castle, the secretive Count Drago (Christopher Lee) welcomes a troupe of circus performers who have been summoned to demonstrate their various unique talents. However, as the arrivals soon discover, their host has developed a powerful elixir which preserves its victims alive and immobile, frozen in their current state for all eternity. Now, after experimenting with lower life forms, the Count is eager to test out his serum on human subjects...
An uneven patchwork of oddball elements, the Italian-French co-production Castle of the Living Dead (1964) is far more often discussed than seen; at least on paper, it sounds like a compelling curio thanks to actors like Lee, busy Eurocult figure Philippe Leroy, and Donald Sutherland in his feature debut with a bizarre triple role (including an appearance in drag as an old woman!), with cult filmmaker Michael Reeves performing uncredited directorial duties alongside "Warren Kiefer" (Lorenzo Sabatini) and "Herbert Wise" (Luciano Ricci). Best known for directing the bleak masterpiece Witchfinder General (1968) and his mysterious death soon after at the age of 25, Reeves was, according to most reports from the set, responsible for most of the footage used during the film's climax; however, the details of this production have become largely enshrouded in mystery, due in no small part to at least three different languages being spoken on the set. In any case, Reeves' abilities proved strong enough to land a solo directing assignment with the ragged but interesting The She-Beast (1966), soon followed by the downbeat sci-fi thriller The Sorcerers (1967) with Boris Karloff. A devoted fan of Don Siegel, Reeves worked at a breakneck pace and was tagged to become one of AIP's next great directors on projects like The Oblong Box (1969); however, a combination of alcoholism, emotional difficulties, and a possibly intentional overdose of barbiturates ended his career far too soon.
By the time this film was shot in 1964 (the same year as Roger Corman's similar but far superior The Masque of the Red Death), Christopher Lee had become internationally recognized for his work in many Hammer films including his classic turn in 1958's Horror of Dracula. Though most of his career remained focused in England, he made a three-year sojourn throughout the rest of Europe for roles ranging from a handful of German Edgar Wallace mysteries to numerous Italian genre films (beginning with Mario Bava's 1961 horror-peplum Hercules in the Haunted World and including such diverse "spaghetti gothic" titles as The Virgin of Nuremberg, Terror in the Crypt and The Whip and the Body [all 1963]). After Castle of the Living Dead, Lee returned to the United Kingdom and began a second wave of Hammer and AIP appearances which kept him busy through the end of the decade. He and Sutherland would also reunite the following year, though not onscreen at the same time, in the first Amicus horror omnibus film, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965).
Released during the height of the European horror craze, Castle of the Living Dead was partially dubbed to obscure the origins of its non-English participants and appeared sporadically at drive-ins, usually as the second feature on horror-oriented double bills. In England it was given an adequate release by horror specialists Tigon, who would soon make a bid to compete with Hammer and Amicus in the British terror sweepstakes, but the American marketing from the notoriously down-market Woolner Brothers (who botched the releases of many notable films like Blood and Black Lace, 1964) ensured its swift obscurity. Sloppy copyright maintenance eventually landed the film in the public domain, but even that status - coupled with the disappearance of adequate film elements - has kept it largely unseen for decades. Seen today, the film's neglect can largely be attributed to its spotty black and white cinematography (at a time when most European shockers were splashing candy-colored hues across the screen), obviously constrained budget, and overabundance of hands behind the camera. However, horror fans willing to overlook its shortcomings can be rewarded with the chance to see a major cult actor and director collaborating for the only time in an eccentric, often fascinating slice of gothic mayhem.
Producer: Paul Maslansky
Director: Luciano Ricci, Lorenzo Sabatini
Screenplay: Michael Reeves, Lorenzo Sabatini
Cinematography: Aldo Tonti
Film Editing: Mario Serandrei
Art Direction: Carlo Gentili
Music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
Cast: Christopher Lee (Count Drago), Gaia Germani (Laura), Philippe Leroy (Eric), Jacques Stany (Bruno), Donald Sutherland (Sgt. Paul), Luciano Pigozzi (Dart).
by Nathaniel Thompson