Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Il castello dalle porte di fuoco (1970)

... aka: Altar of Blood
... aka: Blood Castle
... aka: Castle of Blood
... aka: Castle of Frankenstein, The
... aka: Ivanna
... aka: Killers in the Castle of Blood
... aka: Scream of the Demon Lover

Directed by:
José Luis Merino

A drunk discovers the bloodied body of a young maiden... the sixth such victim in less than a year. While the funeral procession is going on through the village the next day, Dr. Ivanna Rakovsky (Erna Schürer), a biochemist fresh from her university studies, arrives by coach. When she mentions she's there to take up a position at Castle Xenia, the villagers snub her and walk away. She does finally manage to find someone to take her there; the sleazy Fedor (Ezio Sancrotti). On the way, he tells her about how the murders began shortly after the death of the castle's previous owner, a scientist named Igor Dalmar, who was killed in a lab explosion. He also claims the new owner she's there to work for, Igor's brother Janos ("Charles Quinney" / Carlos Quiney), is a madman just like the rest of his family and warns she'll be the next victim if she stays. After narrowly avoiding getting raped by her transport, Ivanna makes her way to the castle, only to get a chilly reception from the housemaid, Olga (Cristiana Galloni). The baron finally shows up and demands that Ivanna leave. Since the weather's bad out, he allows her to stay one night.

Another young lady working there - a beautiful young maid named Cristiana (Agostina Belli) - draws a bath for our heroine, after which someone peeps on her as she's changing clothes. At dinner, Ivanna notices lashes on the baron's prized dogs and that her employer and the nubile Cristina don't even try to conceal their attraction for one another. Olga - the Baron's former mistress - is catty, bitter, nosy and jealous of any woman making eyes at Janos. Eventually the baron has a change of heart about Ivanna, and decides to convince her to stay. He shows her around the lab (including a bubbling bathtub full of muck which contains his dead brother's remains), claims he's experimenting on the origin of life and on the regeneration of carbonized matter and hands her a book with research from four generations of his family for study. His wish is to revive his brother, and he can only do so with Ivanna's knowledge of chemistry.

After drinking some milk, Ivanna passes out, wakes tied up topless to a rack and is threatened by someone brandishing a red hot fire poker. The same thing happens yet again the following night, but this time someone pumps fumes into her room. When she awakens the voice tells her to "stay pure" or else she will die. Yes, Ivanna is unsullied, and as it turns out all the young women who've been recently murdered (with a spiked glove) were killed immediately after losing their virginity. In fact, each had fallen in love with the tall, dark and handsome Janos right before getting it. The rest plays out as a mystery as to who the killer is. Could it be Olga, whose first inclination after seeing the Baron flirt with his new assistant is to whip out a knife? Or Cristina, who's in love with Janos herself, and says "I'll laugh at your funeral" under her breath at Ivanna. Or Janos, who is rumored to be mad anyway... And what gives with the books about lycanthropy in the library? How about the presumably dead Igor? Is he really dead, or has his vengeful ghost returned to prevent his brother from having a normal, healthy relationship? Whoever it is, they want to make sure the Baron never falls in love.

You could go down a checklist of the expected Euro Gothic horror trappings (castle, secret room, torture chamber, scientist, lovely damsel in distress, etc.) and this would check almost all of the boxes. Set sometime during the 19th Century, it's technically well-made, with a decent score, above average English-dubbing and effective art direction, lighting and photography. It's about average on nudity (with all three lead actresses going topless) and low on violence (with just a smattering of blood). This one benefits somewhat from having a spunkier, smarter, stronger-willed central female than what you'll usually find in these films, though the actress playing her still has to compromise. Sure she's educated and bookish... but who's to say she can't lie in bed studying chemical formulas... with her breasts hanging out of her nightgown! The first hour is fairly strong, but the final half hour becomes ridiculously convoluted. The revelation of the killer also isn't much of a surprise.

Director Merino also made the difficult-to-find The Five Warnings of Satan (1970) and the Paul Naschy vehicle THE HANGING WOMAN (1972; which also featured Quiney). The cast includes Antonio Jiménez Escribano as Fritz the butler (he's also Cristina's father and doesn't want her daughter getting involved with Janos) and Mariano Vidal Molina as the obligatory police inspector.

An Italian / Spanish co-production, this was released as Il castello dalle Porte di Fuoco ("The Castle with Doors of Fire") in Italy and as Ivanna in Spain. Alternate "clothed" scenes were shot for more restrictive markets (Spain, the U.S., etc.). It was first released in America - sometimes double billed with Stephanie Rothman's The Velvet Vampire - by New World Pictures under the somewhat misleading moniker Scream of the Demon Lover. Fake Anglacized credits (starring "Jeffrey Chase" and "Jennifer Harvey") were added. Elsewhere it was given the even more misleading title The Castle of Frankenstein.

To my knowledge, all of the legit American releases (the VHS from Charter, the DVD from Retromedia...) are of substandard quality, and some of them are censored. I was lucky enough to see the remastered, uncut version released by the German company E-M-S, which is an decent (though full screen) print and uncut.


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