Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: 'Danse Macabre' (aka: 'Castle of Blood')

Beloved it may be, but Italian horror cinema of the ‘60s is something of an acquired taste. More deliberately paced than Val Lewton’s decidedly deliberate films of the ‘40s, sometimes impenetrably dark, and tossed off-kilter by that weird method of dubbing all films regardless of language, Italian horror films often require multiple viewings to truly seep into the consciousness. Does that mean I should wait until a second viewing to offer an opinion of Antonio Margheriti’s 1964 film Danse Macabre (aka: Castle of Blood)? Perhaps, but that’s not going to stop me.

The film begins with a moustachioed chap regaling a couple of guys in a bar with a terror tale that turns out to be “Bernice” by Edgar Allan Poe. The chap turns out to be Edgar Allan Poe, although actor Silvano Tranquilli looks a lot more like Jon Finch in Frenzy than the squashed avocado that was Mr. Poe.

Poe's the Finchiest

The writer explains that each of his spooky stories was based on fact, which of course, is as far-fetched as claiming that Danse Macabre is based on a Poe story as the opening credits do. But never mind all that. This is a terrific set-up, and one that was pretty fresh at the time. While this was not the first time a Poe character appeared in a film—two silent adaptations of “The Raven” and a UK version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” from 1953 featured faux Poes—but it is the first time an actor portrayed the writer in a film that was merely inspired by his work. Danse Macabre does, however, raise a mist redolent of the scribe. There’s a skulking black cat and a moldering Gothic castle and a wan woman who may have died long ago and secreted crypts, all of which Margheriti handles with deft creepiness.

The wraparound portion of the film featuring Poe is promising and original and witty. The problem is what the wraparound wraps around. Journalist Alan Foster (Georges Rivière) takes the age-old bet about surviving a night in a haunted castle that provided the backbones for everything from House on Haunted Hill to episodes of “The Flintstones” and “The Monkees”. Once he arrives at the castle, Alan skulks around in the dark by candlelight for what feels like an eternity. Now, I like watching people skulk around in the dark by candlelight plenty, but the sequence takes the long leap from suspense to tedium. By the time we get to Barbara Steele as Elisabeth, a woman living in the supposedly abandoned castle who claims to be a ghost and falls deeply in love with Alan in the span of three minutes, my patience was pretty well worn.

Throughout the night more specters appear, including a pretty blonde, a shirtless bodybuilder, and a guy with a beard. We learn more about the nature of the castle’s inhabitants during some overly talky sequences. There are hints of vampirism and a smidgeon of desperate ninth-inning nudity that doesn’t revive the film as well as the surprisingly touching denouement.

 Margarete Robsahm and Barbara Steele
So, on the plus side we have the clever use of the Poe character, nice sets and atmosphere, a few effectively gruesome corpse effects, and the ever-watchable Barbara Steele. Simply seeing her name in the opening credits of a film is enough to set a tone of decadent Gothic decay. Films such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle have most of these things plus livelier pacing, less hackneyed plots, and more indelible characters and images. Of course I needed to see both of those films more than once to fully appreciate their subtle charms, which may very well be the case for Danse Macabre, which has a pretty vocal cult following. For now I’ll give the cultists the benefit of the doubt and call a draw between the film’s pluses and minuses. You have your stay of execution, Danse Macabre. But… for how long?

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