... aka: La sorcière sanglante (The Bloody Witch)
"Anthony M. Dawson" (Antonio Margheriti)
Here's one of at least three dozen black-and-white Italian Gothic horrors from the decade when these films were reaching their peak in popularity. Skimming over the non-Anglicized credits, those familiar with this subgenre will notice many familiar names. The director was "Anthony M. Dawson" (Antonio Margheriti), who'd previously made the the enjoyable HORROR CASTLE (1963) with Christopher Lee. It was written by "Julian Berry' / Ernesto Gastaldi, who'd previously co-written Mario Bava's fantastic THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963; also with Lee), and went on to write dozens of other genre films, and "Robert Bohr" / Tonino Valerii, who'd previously co-written Terror in the Crypt (1963) starring, you guessed it, Mr. Lee once again. The cinematography was by "Richard Thierry" / Riccardo Pallottini, who also shot the aforementioned Horror Castle as well as Margheriti's Castle of Blood (1964) and numerous others. Composer Carlo Rustichelli had scored many of the better films of this type, including Bava's Whip and Kill Baby... Kill! (1966). And perhaps its biggest coup of all, and why the film is still frequently viewed these days, is having Gothic temptress and BLACK SUNDAY (1960) lead Barbara Steele in the lead role. All the stars were aligned perfectly here and, thankfully, this ends up mostly living up to its high pedigree.
Falsely convicted of witchcraft and murder, Adele Karnstein is dragged off to a village square where she's scheduled to be burned alive. Her eldest daughter, Helen Rochefort (Steele), is also suspected of being a witch and has been in hiding, but manages to sneak into a heavily-guarded castle to see Count Humboldt Whalen ("Jean Rafferty" / Giuliano Raffaeli). Helen is convinced her mother is innocent of both witchcraft and of murdering the Count's brother, Franz, and the Count uses his position of power to get Helen into bed with him. Adele is executed anyway, but first places a curse upon the Humboldt family and the entire village before she's killed. The following day, Helen attempts to flee but is intercepted by the Count, who pushes her over the side of a waterfall. Now left all alone, little Elizabeth, the final Karnstein descendant, is shown the secret tomb housing the remains of both Adele and Helen by nursemaid Grumalda ("Laureen Nuyen" / Laura Nucci) and asked to come there every day and and pray.
"At the end of the 15th Century, superstition, cruelty and appalling evils loomed over mankind."
Years pass and a now-grown Elizabeth (Halina Zalewska) is living with in the Humboldt's castle. The aged Count, who's now a miserly drunk, is made uneasy by the girl's presence and thinks she's looking more "witch-like" with her long, black hair and resemblance to Adele as she matures. The Count's son, Kurt Sebastian Whalen (George Ardisson), who's even more lecherous and wicked than his father, reveals that it was he who actually murdered Franz when he found out he was going to be disinherited. Kurt also is determined to marry Elizabeth whether she wants to or not (hint: she doesn't). Elizabeth ends up having no choice in the matter and their romantic honeymoon night consists of him forcing himself upon her and slapping her around while she scowls things like "I hate you!" and "You're repulsive!" While all that's going on, there's a horrible plague striking the village; something that Adele predicted.
During a raging thunderstorm, lightning strikes Helen's grave and, through a time lapse effect, eyeballs and skin start to form on her skeleton as she begins to take shape. While everyone is sitting through a church service, the doors swing open and the beautiful Mary (Steele), a dead ringer for Helen, walks in and collapses. That, combined with the sudden realization that Kurt has been doing a little grave robbing on the side, is too much for the poor, sickly Count to handle and he keels over from a heart attack. Claiming to have been in a carriage accident, Mary is taken back to the Whalen castle to recover, where Kurt promptly falls head over heels in love with her. He's so in love, he's willing to do anything to keep here there, including poisoning a messenger who's simply trying to deliver a message on Mary's behalf.
Kurt and Mary soon begin having an affair (punishable by death in those days) and eventually plot to do away with Elizabeth. They drug her, take her downstairs into the family crypt, put her inside a tomb and seal it shut. Once they feel she's been down there long enough to suffocate, they bring her body back upstairs, tuck her into bed and then go to their rooms. The next day, the adulterous duo are shocked to see that Grumalda and Von Klager ("Robert Rains" / Umberto Raho), a priest who also lives in the castle, are interacting with Elizabeth and claiming to see and talk to her, though Kurt can find her nowhere. He grows increasingly more paranoid and starts going mad, something the surprise ending remedies quite nicely.
This certainly treads of very familiar ground, which could be either good or a bad thing depending on your tastes. It's bad if you're not a fan to slower-paced films that rely heavily on atmosphere, but it's good if you're a fan of moody, measured b/w Gothic tales as this one has pretty much everything you could possibly hope for. There's dense, high contrast and atmospheric black-and-white photography, genuine suspense in spots, a late 15th Century period setting brought to life through appropriate costumes, props, fine art direction and sets and a thundering and commanding score, plus the usual awesome castle complete with crumbling crypts, a cool little hedge maze and cobweb-covered secret passageways behind fireplaces. We get candlelit strolls through dark corridors and dungeons, plenty of duplicitous / scheming characters to keep things interesting, ghosts, ghouls and more. As per her usual, Steele is mesmerizing in her role and the rest of the cast (lousy English dub aside) also do fine. While the film does slow to a crawl a few times, there's a satisfying ending that eventually brings the story full circle that's worth waiting for.
To my knowledge this was never released theatrically in the U.S., though it was English dubbed and released in the UK. The full uncut version runs around 95 minutes and even features a brief topless scene for "continental" release, which is sometimes attributed to Steele but is clearly a body double. Lots of shoddy prints for this one have been released on DVD over the years thanks to its public domain status but there's also a restored 2014 Blu ray release from Raro Video. It includes the option of watching the film either with the English dubbing track or in Italian with English subtitles, plus includes lots of good extras.