Castle of the Living Dead (1964)
Somehow, while growing up feasting on everything from Browning to Bava I missed this Italian-French horror gem featuring Christopher Lee as the mysterious Count Drago, and Donald Sutherland, in his first role, where he plays an old hag and a Napoleonic officer. Apparently Sutherland also plays a third role (see TCM article), but I can’t spot it. The film reviewed here is a crappy copy duped from a VHS tape derived from a usually dependable vender at the Cinema Wasteland show. I am certain there are far superior prints out there.
Lee plays the villain who welcomes a traveling troupe of gypsy circus performers to his castle. Lee’s henchman is the sadistic Sandro, played with gusto by Mirko Valentin. The performers include the beautiful Laura (Gaia Germani, Hercules in the Haunted World, 1961), the greedy Bruno (Jacques Stany), the giant mute Gianni (Ennio Antonelli), Eric the love interest (Phillippe Leroy), the harlequin Dart (Luciano Pigozzi), and a dwarf (I can’t find his name anywhere).
As far as 1960’s Euro-horror go, The Castle of the Living Dead (1964), holds its own due to an unusal story with Lee rendering “animals” in stasis with an elixir, interesting on-location photography (at a botanical garden?), fluid camera work, a decent cast, and tight direction by Warren Kiefer, Luciano Ricci and Brit Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General, 1968), who is usually credited with directing the final sequences of the film. Lee is especially in good form as Drago. However, at times his delivery reminded me of his Count Dooku presence in the crappy Star Wars prequels. The towering Lee has such a tremendous presence in this film, and with his top hat he’s perhaps 7-foot tall and looks like a sardonic Abe Lincoln!
The evil Drago describes the origin of his potion. For this scene Lee dipped a flower into liquid nitrogen and it crumbles as he flicks his finger at it.
Count Drago in top hat with Donald Sutherland as Sergeant Paul.
My one quibble about the film might be the direction of Donald Sutherland. He’s fine as the old hag, but comes across as forcing the comedic lines as Sgt. Paul. His dialogue with Lee also comes across as being awkward. “I urge you sir… Get those gypsies packing…”
The Castle of the Living Dead offers unusual set designs by production designer Carlo Gentili. These include a witch’s den, Drago’s hall with mounted birds and animals, a laboratory, and a few other surprises.
The menacing Sandro towers like the Frankenstein monster.
The Castle of the Living dead was photographed by Fellini and Visconti cinematographer Aldo Tonti (Nights of Cabiria, 1957). The film is a joy to watch, with weird camera angles and sculptures of dragons and other mythological creatures. Few horror films so eloquently used on site locations as The Castle of the Living Dead. Pull this one out for Halloween!