*Contains spoilers*

“Of all the melancholy themes, the one universally recognised by mankind as the saddest of all is the most obvious one: Death. And that most melancholy theme becomes the most poetic of all, when coupled with the theme of beauty. Thus, the death of a beautiful woman is undeniably and unavoidably the most poetic theme in the world.”

Silvano Tranquilli as Edgar Allan Poe, in Danza Macabra (1964)

A somewhat male-centric Poe-etic proclamation, perhaps, and one that would seem to evidence the obsessions of Italian genre cinema slightly more than those of the literary giant in question, despite being part-paraphrased from a well-known passage in his Philosophy of Composition (1846). The above works as a kind of desiderata for the entire career of Dario Argento, for one. But what the hell is old Poe doing here in the first place, waxing forth on such matters? And why does Danza Macabra purport to be based on a Poe tale that doesn’t even exist?

While Hammer’s inaugural late-’50s genre efforts had paved the way for the Italian Gothic boom, the subsequent success of the AIP Corman/Poe cycle would inspire its outpourings in equal measure as it got into full swing. Hence, when future Django (1966) director Sergio Corbucci was commissioned in 1962 by producer Giovanni Addessi to devise a film that could re-use the sets of their current collaboration, period Totò comedy The Monk of Monza (Il monaco di Monza, 1963), Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) would form his chief inspiration, as well as carry over its female lead: Barbara Steele, then based in Rome with three Italian Gothics already under her belt. Although both better-versed in comedy, Sergio’s brother Bruno Corbucci (The Cop in Blue Jeans [1976]) and Giovanni Grimaldi toiled on the screenplay, with Sergio all set to direct. Around the same time, the same pair also co-wrote Alberto De Martino’s The Blancheville Monster (aka Horror, 1963), another film that cheekily claimed to be based on the work of Poe.

However, as production on the resultant opus got into full swing, Corbucci found another project he’d had on the boil being given the green light; Steve Reeves’ final peplum, The Slave (Il figlio di Spartacus, 1962). Not wanting to blow this slightly more prestige gig, Corbucci turned to his friend Antonio Margheriti, at this time better-known in the biz as an SF and peplum specialist (although a subsequent Gothic opus, The Virgin of Nuremberg [La vergine di Norimberga, 1963], would reach cinemas before this one), to deliver the film. Prolific journeyman that he was, Margheriti had principal photography completed in a couple of weeks employing the four-camera coverage method, then (as now) primarily used by TV soap operas; much to the consternation of Steele and the other thesps, never knowing which camera to play to. Despite this, the completed Italo-French co-production would go on to be considered one of the finest entries in the genre filmographies of both its main star and its replacement director, and as one of the most sublime of Italian Gothics.

Don’t expect many of your English-speaking mainstream critics to acknowledge (or even bother to watch) Danza Macabra, though. Generically retitled Castle of Blood by the Woolner Brothers for its US release, to most it represents just another crusty old low-budget horror picture, if indeed they’ve even heard of it, too easily confused with the similarly retitled likes of  Castle of Terror (used for The Virgin of Nuremberg in the UK), Horror Castle (Virgin in the US), Nightmare Castle (1965, with Steele), Terror in the Crypt (1964), Castle of the Living Dead (1964) and Castle of the Walking Dead (West Germany, 1967). To be fair, with all these interchangeable titles, and all but one of the above films featuring Virgin of Nuremberg star Sir Christopher Lee, you can’t really blame folks for getting a mite confused.

Post-opening credits, we find ourselves on a fogbound London street, where journalist Alan Foster (French actor Georges Rivière of Virgin of Nuremberg) alights from a hansom cab and enters a tavern ominously dubbed “The Four Devils”. The fact this is London is made more explicit by the Woolner Brothers cut, wherein the new “Castle of Blood” title sequence features grainy shots of Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. True to its name, The Four Devils must surely be the spookiest, most sparsely attended pub in town; where better to find the great Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli, who’d played alongside Steele in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock [1962]) holding court, regaling one Lord Thomas Blackwood (wonderful filone mainstay Umberto Raho) with one of his tales of terror? (Margheriti sits in the background, reading and smoking a pipe.)

Foster has been hunting Poe down for an interview since he heard about the author’s visit to the country, and once he has him on the spot it’s straight down to brass tacks. A friendly debate about death and the afterlife leads Poe to declare that he is not a writer of fiction at all but in fact a journalist like Foster, and all his tall tales are based completely on fact. When Foster protests that “I’ve been led to believe that death is certain,” and that he’s “not afraid of the dead,” we suddenly find our Lord Blackwood keen to join the conversation. He’s willing to bet “£100 sterling” that Foster can’t spend the night in his abandoned family mansion, somewhere “in the Providence vicinity.” Since Providence lies over three thousand miles away from London, in New England, we can only presume that somebody got a little mixed up there, especially when we hear it only takes two hours to get there by coach.

Foster of course accepts Blackwood’s wager (although lowering the stakes to a tenner, being a poor-but-honest journo) only to be told he must leave immediately if he wants to prove just how unafraid of the dead he really is. For tonight is no less than, as Blackwood puts it: “The Night of the Dead. It is only from midnight tonight, the first midnight in November, until the sunrise, that you may see the dead come back to perform again those tragedies which cost them their lives.” Obviously, Foster is undeterred by such superstitious poppycock, and Poe goes along for the ride, using this two hour schedule-window to give Foster his interview; yielding the profound rumination at the top of this column, along with my personal favourite soundbite of the film, “Reality is always just beyond one’s reach.” Poe clearly takes Blackwood’s ghost-talk more seriously than Foster does, as he and the shady Lord are history the moment Foster has been dropped off at the crumbling manor house’s gates.

Margheriti (presuming it is Margheriti here and not Corbucci) cranks up the atmosphere-building as soon as Foster enters the grounds. As he passes through the overgrown family graveyard, we’re assailed by cat’s eyes in close-up, the smoke machine going into overdrive, branches catching at Foster’s clothes, and maestro Riz Ortolani’s brash and omnipresent score starting to get all excited. As Foster enters the house itself, lighting representing the arcs of his torchlight makes bas-relief shadows play against cobweb-covered suits of armour, musty candelabras, and eerie portraits. At one point Foster is startled by his own reflection in a dusty full-length mirror. Margheriti’s mise en scene is faultless here in its attention to detail and sense of purpose, but much of the credit for the effectiveness of these scenes must also be given to his frequent collaborator Riccardo Pallottini, the film’s cinematographer, and his sonic partner-in-crime, Ortolani. Modern attention spans may be challenged by this slow-burn preamble to the main meat of the matter. Which is a pity, because it’s an important part of the journey. Margheriti and his team built this atmosphere for you – so just breathe it in.

The wheels of the story only really get moving when Foster encounters Elisabeth Blackwood (Steele, carrying over her Christian name from The Pit and the Pendulum), who is clear from the outset that she is in fact dead and hence one of the ghosts her brother Thomas was talking about; “Ever since I left this world, I came here to search for happiness with the man I love,” she proclaims, although the romance of this is then slightly cheapened by the loaded sentence, “A lord will never accept his own gardener as a brother-in-law.” Foster is too enamoured of Elisabeth to really pay attention to what she’s saying, as one imagines also were the thousands of adolescent males watching the more child-friendly Woolner Brothers cut at their local drive-in. Gorgeous but creepy, sexy but scary, vital but dead, Steele acts for them here as a proxy for that unknowable world of females; at once desirable, mystifying, and horrifying. They’re put right there with Elisabeth, alone, and invited up to her bedchamber, no less. And a visit to this lady’s boudoir, ghost or no ghost, could very likely transform you into one of those most terrifying and nonsensical of all monsters; an adult. Talk about your sites of unease.

Before long we’re introduced to our second glamorous phantom of the evening, Julia (Norwegian actress Margarete Robsahm), whose face Foster has already seen in a cobweb-strewn old portrait. Seeing Foster and Elisabeth are getting close already, Julia immediately spies an opportunity to have some bitchy fun, dropping hints all over the place that she and Elisabeth are in fact no longer of this mortal coil. Foster’s ears are still closed to this madness, however, and he and Elisabeth are soon in the sack together; even then, Elisabeth is pretty unequivocal, stating outright that “My heart isn’t beating, Alan, it hasn’t beaten for ten years. I’m dead, Alan, dead.” Foster is still either too downright dense to take this on board, or at the very least assumes that’s she’s talking metaphorically. This becomes a moot point when the music suddenly flares up again and our shirtless, muscle-bound gardener, Herbert (peplum supporting player Giovanni Cianfriglia, who would later become “Ken Wood” to essay the role of costumed hero “Superargo” in two films), bursts into the room brandishing a knife. Elizabeth is stabbed defending Foster, the attacker’s intended target. Foster succeeds in subduing the man and gunning him down, but on his return to the bedchamber both Elisabeth and all evidence of the incident have vanished.   

Just as Blackwood promised, Foster is seeing “the dead come back to perform again those tragedies which cost them their lives,” and this is just the beginning. Moments later, he runs into one Dr. Carmus (none other than that Hercules [1958] and Black Sunday [1960] miscreant, Arturo Dominici), the ghost of the “famous doctor and scientist” and author of “Introduction to Metaphysical Medicine”. It’s a pity that he and Poe never get to sit in the same room together because those two would get along like a house on fire. Despite Elisabeth trying to tell Foster over and over again, it’s only when Carmus mansplains the situation that Foster begins to accept it. “The senses remain strongest when a human being is torn from life with an act of violence,” is Carmus’ highly scientific explanation, which he “proves” by lopping a real live snake’s head off, on camera. It’s hard to view this scene without noting that the film’s assistant director was a certain Ruggero Deodato (at that time a frequent Margheriti and Corbucci collaborator), who would later achieve infamy for such things with his still-controversial 1980 offering; which also enjoyed the luxury of a great score by Riz Ortolani.

“Only a man as sick as Lord Thomas would send you here on the second of November,” our metaphysical malpracticioner informs Foster. “He’s as sadistic as his grandfather, the first Count of Blackblood.” When Foster queries the sudden name change, Carmus explains, “He had the name changed to Blackwood, […] He was made a lord when he became a hangman and hung criminals from the trees. He was infamous as ‘The Hangman of London’. In many ways Lord Thomas is even worse than his ancestor.” Certainly a novel way to achieve a lordship, it must be said, and it would seem the reason why the Blackwood estate is “cursed” in this way.

Like a sort of Ghost of Christmas Past, Carmus proceeds to show Foster the whole episode leading to Elisabeth’s death. A party is in full swing, and a younger-looking Lord Thomas remarks that, “The castle seems so gay tonight.” Said party is celebrating the return of Elisabeth’s previously unseen husband from a European trip, a state of affairs that neither Julia nor Herbert are thrilled about. The latter makes his feelings known by urging Elisabeth to meet him in the stables, where he proceeds to force himself on upon her one last time, in a steamy up-close-and-personal scene excised from English-language prints. When next we and Foster see Elisabeth, now in bed with her husband, Herbert is flailing in once more, stabbing the man, but this time is himself slain when Julia appears and applies a still-lit candelabra to the side of his head, killing him instantly.

Here we have our suspicions confirmed that the two women have themselves intertwined in the past, but the horrified Elisabeth now recoils from Julia’s advances.

The camera closes in tight on Steele’s face as they struggle on the bed, in an incredibly risqué, audaciously presented scene for the time in which the film was made. Along with the likes of Renato Polselli’s The Playgirls and the Vampire (L’ultima preda del vampiro, 1960) and Jess Franco’s The Sadistic Baron von Klaus (La mano de un hombre muerto, 1962), this can be seen to represent the first stirrings of the more explicit and sometimes transgressive sexuality that would come to permeate and characterise much of European genre cinema before too long. English-speaking audiences wouldn’t see this scene in full until a hybrid version of the film was assembled for DVD by Synapse Films in 2002. It ends with them killing each other. Perhaps fitting, as the the two actresses reportedly loathed each other on set. Robsahm would in fact duck out of the film industry altogether for many years, mostly out of embarrassment around this scene.

Foster next witnesses a replay of Carmus’ own death at the hands of the Herbert the Gardener, who we see reconfigured from a rotten, skeletal corpse in a very similar way to Steele’s Princess Asa in Black Sunday, thick mist pouring from his tomb. Yes, we also very much doubt that the randy gardener would have been interred into the Blackwood family crypt, but hey-ho. In the spot where Carmus’ murder occurred, Foster finds the doctor’s parting missive to the world, which reads; “Blood is the source of life. On it blood can resurrect the dead, and we will drink at your fountain!” Despite those lines not scanning particularly well, their sinister meaning is clear; the assorted wraiths of Blackwood Manor require human blood to bring about their annual reawakening and get-together, and our friend Alan is the next dish on the menu. To bring this home in grand style, we hear evil laughter boom on the soundtrack and Margheriti’s (or possibly Corbucci’s) camera pulls in on a skull.

A married couple arrives at the house, that Foster fails at first to realise are the ghosts of the last suckers to accept Blackwood’s infernal wager, mentioned at the start. They of course don’t hear his shouts as he tries to warn them, and he sees them meet the same fate as the good doctor. This is enough to somewhat belatedly send our journalist friend into panic mode, trying all the doors and windows only to find that he is trapped in the house, with the bloodthirsty wraiths of all its occupants closing in on him. It is Elisabeth that comes to his rescue, but despite her protests he insists that she escape with him. As they break free of the house and reach her grave, Elisabeth drops to the ground and just has time to say “Goodbye, Alan,” before her face time-lapses into a skull before his horrified eyes.

A truly terrifying crescendo is achieved in this last reel, with Foster stumbling through the graveyard, mist blowing around everywhere, Ortolani’s score crashing around our ears, and the voices of our hungry ghouls taunting him all the way. He looks up to see corpses swinging from the trees – unfortunate clients of our “Hangman of London”. But, all of a sudden, it appears that Foster’s salvation is at hand; the coming of daybreak. He gratefully breathes in the morning air as he breaches the huge iron gates.

However, tragedy strikes when the gate behind him swings shut, and a protruding spike jams straight into his neck. Shortly after, Poe and Blackwood’s coach pulls up, and the latter cheerfully collects his £10 wager winnings from Foster’s wallet. All a mortified Poe can glibly say is, “When I finally write this story, I’m afraid they’ll say it’s… unbelievable.”

From our 21st century vantage point, the above denouement seems to make this tale more of a conte cruel than an E.C Comics-style morality lesson, but that would be to misunderstand the context and discourse within which the film made. As with many a horror film of the period, its willingness to conform to conservative Christian mores saves it from getting into too much hot water for what were, at the time, “excesses”. The script ensures all parties are punished for any ungodly transgressions we may witness. Even Alan, who today appears rather blameless (if a little dense), would from the traditional standpoint “deserve” his fate for his out-of-wedlock assignation with a dead woman, his taking of wagers and forward-looking cynicism. Elisabeth is a double adulteress, Julia is a covetous lesbian, and Carmus is a dabbler in the occult. It’s only Poe and Thomas Blackwood, ironically the film’s true villain, that emerge unscathed.

We do have some consolation offered for our poor journo’s fate when we hear the departing Poe and Blackwood arrange to have Foster buried on the grounds. Elisabeth hears this too, sighing from the grave that, “You have stayed with me, Alan.” Romantic? Perhaps, but based on Elisabeth’s past form this might just be until the next half-decent-looking living bachelor comes along, “eligible” or not. The character can ultimately be summed up, as Glenn Erickson has succinctly put it, as “adulterous in life and a phantom mantrap in death.”

Despite a lack of real connection with the characters, Danza Macabra emerges as much more than the sum of its parts, with a chilling, authentic feeling all of its own. As with any of these entries, one could argue that an inordinate amount of time is spent wandering around corridors with candelabras, but the cumulative effect, by the last reel, is complete Gothic horror delirium. Fan-critics are united in declaring the film, as Michael Weldon had it, “One of Barbara Steele’s best,” with Cinema Italiano author Howard Hughes more recently going so far as to include it in his book’s list of “Top 20 essential Italian films no collection should be without.” It’s also regarded by many to be Margheriti’s finest film, although his detractors can often seem keen to Corbucci with it. Whatever the case, Tim Lucas is on the money when he declares Danza Macabra to be, pure and simple, “a marvellous film” in his liner notes for the Synapse DVD.

Margheriti would never assume the mantle of full-tilt “horror director” in the later fashion of Fulci or Argento, having just one more Gothic horror movie to come in that decade – The Long Hair of Death (I lunghi capelli della morte, 1964) – between his work in myriad other genres. But the fact remains that he made three truly great ones in that early ‘sixties period. That’s still more than most people make in a lifetime.