Saturday, November 2, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964)

(Italy - 1964)

Written and directed by Warren Kiefer.  Cast: Christopher Lee, Gaia Germani, Philippe Leroy, Mirko Valentin, Donald Sutherland, Anthony Martin (Antonio De Martino), Jack Stany (Jacques Stany), Luke Pigozzi (Luciano Pigozzi), David Pappas (Renato Terra), Lewis Bonos (Luigi Bonos), Ike Pallacn (Ennio Antonelli). (Unrated, 90 mins)

Trailblazing directors like Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava ushered in a series of Italian-made, Gothic-styled horror films throughout the early '60s.  These are thought to have been inspired by the success of Hammer Films' THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), as well as Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe cycle, but though it wasn't released in the UK until 1960 and the US in 1963, Freda's 1957 film I VAMPIRI (partially directed by Bava) was made at roughly the same time the British horror cycle kicked off, and preceded Corman's Poe films by three years.  Freda also directed the 1962 classic THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK and its 1963 sequel THE GHOST, while Bava made his name with the legendary BLACK SUNDAY (1960) and THE WHIP AND THE BODY, aka WHAT! (1963).  As is the norm with trends in Italian genre cinema, other journeyman directors took stabs at the Gothic scene filled with haunted castles and dark family secrets:  Antonio Margheriti's HORROR CASTLE aka THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG (1963), CASTLE OF BLOOD (1964), and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (also 1964); Mario Caiano's NIGHTMARE CASTLE (1965); Camilo Mastrocinque's TERROR IN THE CRYPT (1964); and Massimo Pupillo's BLOODY PIT OF HORROR (1965) just to name a few. 

After a decade in bit parts and small supporting roles, Christopher Lee finally became a star with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA, and hasn't stopped working since.  Shortly after finding stardom, he tested the waters of the Italian film industry with the 1959 vampire spoof UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE and Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961).  Over 1963 and 1964, Lee starred in five Italian-made Gothic horror films:  Giuseppe Veggezzi's little-seen and presumed-lost KATARSIS, Margheriti's HORROR CASTLE, Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY, Mastrocinque's TERROR IN THE CRYPT, and finally, THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.  LIVING DEAD isn't the best of Lee's contributions to the Italian Gothic cycle (that would be THE WHIP AND THE BODY), but its fascinating backstory, confusion over exactly who directed it, and that it features the film debut of an unknown Donald Sutherland in two roles (more on that in a bit), have combined to keep its cult status going for nearly 50 years.

It's hard to pin down exactly what happened behind the scenes on THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, since even reputable sources--from IMDb to TCM.com--are riddled with incorrect information.  For years, Herbert Wise was considered the director of the film.  But "Herbert Wise" was a pseudonym for Luciano Ricci.  Using pseudonyms was a very common practice for Italian directors during this period, in order to make the films seem more British or American (Freda was frequently credited as "Robert Hampton"; Margheriti started going by "Anthony M. Dawson" and stayed that way for the rest of his career; Bava is credited as "John M. Old" on THE WHIP AND THE BODY).  Ricci/"Wise" was credited on European prints while Warren Kiefer was credited on the US release.  Years of confusion and the use of pseudonyms perpetuated the myth that "Warren Kiefer" was a pseudonym for a Lorenzo Sabatini, when in fact, it was the other way around.  Kiefer (1929-sometime in the early 2000s) was an American writer and documentary filmmaker who ended up in Europe by the early 1960s and met expat American producer Paul Maslansky, who would return to the US in the 1970s and go on to have his biggest success overseeing the POLICE ACADEMY franchise.  Maslansky and Kiefer conceived the LIVING DEAD story and Kiefer ended up directing the film.  Ricci/"Wise" was actually the assistant director but was given full directing credit on the Italian prints for quota purposes, to satisfy a government subsidies requirement that the director be Italian.  Further complicating the issue is that Maslansky hired 21-year-old Michael Reeves to handle the second unit and make some uncredited script contributions.  Maslansky met Reeves during the filming of the 1964 Richard Widmark/Sidney Poitier epic THE LONG SHIPS, where Maslansky was an assistant to the producer and Reeves was hired on as a low-level directorial assistant.  Reeves would go on to direct 1968's WITCHFINDER GENERAL before his tragic death from a barbiturate overdose in 1969 at just 25 years of age.  Reeves' untimely death and small body of work have made him the sort-of Kurt Cobain of British horror and there's been no shortage of "What might've been?" hypotheticals about how his career--taking off after the stunning WITCHFINDER--would've panned out had he lived.  The Reeves legend further fanned the flames of bewilderment over who did what on THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.  Reeves fans, of course, claim that all of the good stuff in LIVING DEAD was directed by him.  Even if his duties were limited to running the second unit and punching up the script a bit, Reeves made enough of a good impression on Maslansky for the producer to give him his first shot at directing his own film with 1966's THE SHE-BEAST.

But the last word should probably go to Donald Sutherland, who has said in interviews over the years that he named his son Kiefer (born in 1966) after the director of his first film.  Warren Kiefer made a few more films in Italy, sometimes utilizing the "Lorenzo Sabatini" name to, oddly enough, make them appear more Italian, and eventually became a novelist.  He was tracked down for an interview not long before his death--an interview that featured a photo of him directing some actors on the set--and explained that he directed THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, that Ricci was his assistant, and that Reeves worked on the second unit.  Sutherland naming his son after Kiefer would seem to corroborate at least the "Warren Kiefer was the real director" claim.  Turner Classic Movies recently aired an unfortunately subpar print (widescreen, but blurry and improperly-framed--probably from fake letterboxing--with the tops of everyone's heads cut off) that credited Kiefer as the director in one of three different spellings:  he has a story credit as "Warren Kiefer," a screenplay credit as "Warren Keifer," and a director credit as "Warren Kieffer."

The film has a traveling circus troupe led by siblings Laura (Gaia Germani) and Bruno (Jacques Stany) being invited to the castle of area nobleman Count Drago (a gaunt Lee, sporting dark circles under his eyes and a hipster goatee).  En route, they're joined by Eric (Philippe Leroy), an officer whose horse was stolen by troupe member Dart (Luciano Pigozzi), and they're accosted by a hideous, hunchbacked old witch who warns them to avoid "The Castle of the Living Dead."  That the witch is played a dubbed Sutherland in drag is probably the biggest attraction to this for cult horror fans.  Sutherland also turns up later, dubbing himself and mugging shamelessly as Sgt. Paul, a doofus police official who functions as Drago's flunky and the film's comic relief.  Once at Drago's castle, the circus folks find themselves the unwitting victims in their host's diabolical scheme.   With the help of his evil henchman Sandro (Mirko Valentin, who co-starred with Lee in HORROR CASTLE), Drago has created a serum derived from tropical plant secretions that causes the victim to freeze in place, dying immediately.  Drago has what is assumed to be a taxidermy hobby but it's actually animals he's killed with the serum, and he's ready to try it on humans.

The plot is silly, to put it mildly, and Leroy's Eric is a pretty dense hero who takes forever to figure out what Drago's up to.  Even when Drago tells him all about the serum and the animals he's used it on, the most Eric can muster is an indifferent "Oh?"  Utilizing black & white, Kiefer and cinematographer Aldo Tonti have a nice Gothic look to the whole thing, filled with ominous shadows and howling winds, and it would probably look terrific in a properly remastered version instead of the shit sandwich of a print TCM aired.  There's one incredibly striking shot late in the film that ranks with the macabre best of Bava:  the discovery of the corpse of Drago's late wife, propped up in bed, perfectly still, head positioned toward a handheld mirror in her right hand as if frozen in time, admiring her own beauty for all eternity...as spiders crawl over her and rats gnaw on her fingers.

Lee, on set for ten of the film's 24-day shooting schedule, is good as Count Drago (a name in no way meant to invoke his fame as Count Dracula), and unlike some of his Italian and German films from this period, he actually dubs himself, which is important when you have a voice as distinctive as Christopher Lee's.  The voices used to dub him in HORROR CASTLE, THE WHIP AND THE BODY, and especially the 1962 German film SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE were distractingly inappropriate at best and complete deal-breakers at worst.  Lee and Maslansky became friends during the making of LIVING DEAD, with Lee acting in several future Maslansky productions, including RAW MEAT (1973), CIRCLE OF IRON (1978), THE SALAMANDER (1981), HONEYMOON ACADEMY (1990), and the unfortunate POLICE ACADEMY: MISSION TO MOSCOW (1994), a sequel so dire that even Bubba Smith opted out of it.  This would be Lee's last Italian film of this period, as he would soon return to the UK for such iconic classics as DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965) and DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), which also co-starred Sutherland.  The Canadian Sutherland would work in British TV for a few years before getting his big break as one of THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and becoming a full-fledged Hollywood A-lister with 1970's MASH.

The surplus of erroneous information that's out there regarding THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD even extends to the cast:  one of the circus troupe members is a dwarf named Nick, played by Italian actor Antonio De Martino, who's credited as "Anthony Martin." De Martino only acted in a couple of other films, but going as "Anthony Martin" in this one has led some to confuse him with Skip Martin, another actor of short stature from that period, best known as Hop-Toad in Roger Corman's THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) as well as from other prominent roles in CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966) and VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972).  The surname and the recurring circus motif are certainly noteworthy coincidences, and to their credit, IMDb hasn't confused the actors, but there's a lot of sources out there--including the otherwise reliable Warren Kiefer piece linked a few paragraphs up--that think Antonio De Martino/"Anthony Martin" and Skip Martin are the same person, when a look at photos of each pretty definitively show that they aren't.

Antonio De Martino/"Anthony Martin"

Skip Martin

Also causing confusion:  Lee's 1967 film TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM has numerous alternate titles, one of which is CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD.  Lee's 1973 film NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT, the sole, misfired effort by his short-lived production company Charlemagne, went by a ton of different titles in any effort whatsoever to make the dull thriller appealing to audiences, including THE DEVIL'S UNDEAD, THE RESURRECTION SYNDICATE, and...wait for it...THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is especially odd considering there's neither a castle nor living dead in the film.

THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD--the real CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD--was released in the US in 1965 by Woolner Brothers before making a quick turnaround to the small screen as part of an AIP-TV syndication package, and it was a late-night/Saturday afternoon Creature Feature fixture well into the '80s.  It isn't a great film by any means--though a better transfer prepared with some care would go far in pleading its case--but there's enough history to it that it's worth a look on that alone.  It's definitely required viewing for fans/completists of Lee, Sutherland, Reeves, and Italian horror of that period, and is almost worth seeing just for the scene with Drago's wife or any scene with Sutherland as the witch.  His first time on the big screen and he was lucky enough to get a director who would indulge his sometimes hammy tendencies right out of the gate.  Obviously, this meant a lot to the young actor, who held his first film director in high enough regard to name his son after him.  And as far as who directed the film, it's worth noting that Kiefer Sutherland isn't named "Reeves Sutherland," "Ricci Sutherland," or "Sabatini Sutherland."


  1. Whew! What exhaustive coverage of this movie. Kudos! The story behind it and who made it is certainly far more interesting than the actual movie, which I found quite disappointing overall.

  2. Just a note: before he became Anthony M. Dawson, Antonio Margheriti was Anthony Daisies for SPACEMEN, aka ASSIGNMENT OUTER SPACE.

  3. Artus released the film on DVD in France (it was trailered on their disc of Polselli's VAMPIRE OF THE OPERA) though I'm unsure of its quality.